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Thousands gather in Washington for National Powwow

By Jerry Reynolds -- Today staff

WASHINGTON - They were days to sit back and let the big drumbeats roll through the bloodstream, as they have for thousands of years in American Indian communities.

The National Museum of the American Indian National Powwow came to Washington Aug. 10 - 12, drawing tens of thousands of spectators and participants to the air-conditioned Verizon Center during a weekend of relentless heat. It was still plenty warm for the dancers as they stepped through Grass dances, Traditional dances, Jingle Dress and Fancy Shawl dances, and the less familiar but captivating Haudenosaunee Smoke Dance, a modern variation on the War Dance of the Iroquois Confederacy.

But for spectators, the heat was off and the exhilaration was on. The theme of the pow wow - ''Honoring Warriors: Past and Present'' - put War dances in the spotlight. One after another, the Apache, Eastern Cherokee, Inca, Karuk Arara and Kiowa dance groups demonstrated the movements that stirred their ancestors and their modern audience.

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Traditionally, women didn't have a lead place in War dances. But today they have a lead place in combat, and the pow wow recognized their evolving role in several ways. The organizers included the Inca Sechin Dance, where women dance as the equals of men, brandishing golden blades instead of spears. And the Kiowa War Mothers had the large Verizon Center floor to themselves, moving with steady grace and dignity after the outpourings of their predecessors. Some of them wore the war bonnets of warrior relatives; all of them count sons, husbands or brothers who have served, or still serve, in the U.S. military. Still on opening day, Choctaw Sgt. Debra Mooney of the Army National Guard recounted ''the first pow wow held in a combat zone,'' a two-day proceeding in the Iraq desert, improvised around a drum known as ''Desert Thunder'' - a cut-in-half oil barrel with the canvas from a camp cot stretched across it. It sounded great during the pow wow recognition ceremony, and now enters the NMAI collections. The late Lori Piestewa, Hopi, first known woman slain in the war in Iraq, received honorable mention on the same occasion.

Amid a full schedule of exhibition dancing, grand entries, Round dances anyone in the arena could join, drum competitions and songs, invocations and the presentation of colors, the pow wow paused often to honor present-day warriors. Wounded veterans joined the opening grand entry by special invitation to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, numerous veterans marched in tribute to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and masters of ceremonies Vince Beyle and Dennis Bowen Sr. called applause down on soldiers and sailors in uniform who joined the Round dances. In a separate ceremony, Chickasaw astronaut John Herrington took a call to honor as the first American Indian in space. The eagle feather and flute he took with him to the International Space Station are on display at the museum.

Like Herrington on the frontiers of science, W. Richard West Jr. may carry the fight in different ways than combat warriors. But when it comes down to winning the big ones for Native culture, the difference seems to be one of degree. West has dedicated 17 years to the NMAI. He retires in November with countless coups to his credit as the museum's first executive director. His honoring ceremony in the middle of the pow wow was brief and to the point, and altogether eloquent. Suzan Shown Harjo, the Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee Indian-rights advocate, pretty much said it all, referring to NMAI as ''the house that Rick built, the museum on the mall.'' She described a 40-year process behind the museum, and West's emergence as the one, the only one according to her program notes, who could be entrusted with the vision. ''When we select a person to realize our dreams, we select a person who has honor for our ancestors, respect for our current time, and provident leadership and vision for the future. And such a man is Rick West.''

West himself stood resplendent in Southern Cheyenne regalia and spoke of his gratitude for all the help he has gotten on the road to establishing the museum, as well as for the ancestors and Indian communities of the past who made it possible to even conceive of it. ''I'm also very grateful to be able to have this [the honoring ceremony] take place at our [NMAI's] National Powwow, because a pow wow is such a powerful demonstration of the fact that Native peoples are not simply some ethnographic remnant, waiting to be pushed off the stage of history, but are very much about a present for Native people, and a future that they will insist upon. And that is the real message of the National Museum of the American Indian.''