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Joaqlin Estus

Indian Country Today

Normally on Memorial Day people would gather for services honoring those who died serving in the military. Thousands of people would be traveling to veterans’ powwows where veterans would lead the grand entry. They’d enter the powwow circle carrying U.S. and tribal flags, state flags, prisoner of war flag, missing in action flags, and eagle staffs.

Instead, services are being held online. Whitney Rencountre, Crow Creek Sioux, is co-founder of the Social Distance Powwow on Facebook.

The group’s 184,00 followers can be taken as a sign of the need it’s filling for people who would be gathering in person if it weren’t for the pandemic. It’s a place for some of the sharing and celebration that goes on at powwows. People tell stories, often with sobriety and healing as the theme. They post graduation photos, and show themselves dancing in their regalia in their homes.

Recountre said, “this COVID 19 isn't going to stop us from continuing on these traditions.” Veterans, singers and other groups are appearing on the site to honor warriors.

“The warriors, the protectors, we've always revered because of their selflessness and willingness to put their life on the line for the betterment and protection of the elders, the children, the women and anyone else, basically our culture,” Rencountre said. “Still today we carry on their memory. We carry on a lot of celebrations.”

The group hosted a group of Native women warriors on a live stream and honored them virtually.

“ ...You can see and tell that the people still carry the memories, carry the traditions and carry the ways through their fallen relatives. It's so important to our people to continue these legacies and tell these stories of the selflessness of our veterans,” Recountre said.

He said powwow songs and dances also have special meaning because ancestors took pains to pass them on.

Recountre lost his grandfather, Whitney Rencountre, who was a Korean War veteran.

“He was a singer. He was a dancer. And we hear stories about when he first came back from bootcamp. It was still around the time that our culture was banished. It was against the law,” Rencountre said. “And so my great grandparents had to hold a honoring for him in secrecy down on the Crow Creek reservation, Crow Creek Sioux tribe.”

“When he taught us how to sing, dance, we recognized the veterans. And he loved to sing the old Korean veteran songs, the old, all their old veteran songs. And when we lost him, we lost a big part of our family,” he said. “The stories, the songs. He was a song keeper, drum keeper. He made all our regalia. He was a traditional dancer. And so I know first hand how it [loss] affects our people.”

Recountre said, “I just want to ask our relatives and friends to remember our traditions and not to give up, and to carry themselves as our ancestors would want us to, and that's to support and help one another and, you know, to take courage during this time of pandemic.”

George Bennett, Sr., Tlingit, of Sitka, Alaska, said he will miss the traditional Memorial Day services. The Vietnam veteran is a Native liaison for the Veterans Administration.

“It used to be a big gathering. You used to see people down from Anchorage to [attend services at] the National Cemetery here, which is where they bury veterans, and then locals would get together, you know, and go to the private cemeteries of the city.” There are National Cemeteries in Sitka and Anchorage.

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This Monday he said there will be on-line services but no gatherings in person.

“I don't think that's going to stop anybody [from commemorating veterans]. In fact, my wife and I just had some flowers flown in from Anchorage since one of our shops that sells, you know, artificial ones closed up last year … but we ordered flowers so we can put some on our loved ones’ [grave] sites,” Bennett said.

Archeologists say rites for the dead have been practiced for tens of thousands of years, since the dawn of humanity. They’ve found human remains buried with precious objects, and bodies placed in special positions by Neanderthals.

Anthropology Professor Sergai Kan, PhD, of Dartmouth College, said traditional mortuary practices have persisted even when others waned. Kan is the author of the book “Symbolic Immortality: The Tlingit Potlatch of the Nineteenth Century.”

“There seems to be that need to say goodbye socially in the group and to use sacred symbols of the culture to do so,” Kan said. “ ...not being able to do that really threatens to undermine the values of a culture, values of a society on several levels of social and the personal, the psychological.”

He said among the Tlingit in Southeast Alaska and Canada, sacred objects are put on display or placed around the body during koo.éex', or potlatches. “These were the most prized possessions of a clan.” Kan said. “That's the way of honoring the deceased and also marking that deceased person's social and cultural identity and which family, which clan they belong to.”

Kan said the loss of in-person funerals and memorials, “I imagine … would have serious consequences, at least for some people, for their mental health. They need to say goodbye and when we say goodbye in the funeral to someone we know, someone we love, we're cutting our ties…we want to remember the deceased person. We want to share these memories with others present at the funeral, and we try to honor the deceased.”

Kan said virtual gatherings don’t replace the real thing but there are a few positives to them. In addition to avoiding the spread of COVID-19, more people can be part of the event.

“People from all over the country can gather on the screen to share, you know, memories of the deceased or share their feelings, which was not the case when you have the actual ‘normal,’ so to speak, funeral,” Kan said.

“So I think human beings are adaptable, and they're inventing new ways to deal with this,” he said. “I imagine that some of these new practices may continue, even when we go, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, go back to normal.”

Still, Kan said, “I just hope that we will come out of this horrible period with the virus and we'll be able to mourn the way we've always done it.”


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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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