My daughter is one eighth Native American on her dad’s side. Her great grandfather was a full-blood Oglala Sioux Indian who lived on the Pine Ridge reservation. I don’t know much about the (presumably brief) relationship he had with Free’s great grandmother; it wasn’t much talked about, but according to the limited lore passed down, he lived out his days on the reservation while she had their child and later married a man in a small town near the Cape in Massachusetts, settling with him and raising another daughter there as well.
Free’s grandmother grew up with little contact with her biological father, but she has always looked and identified as Native. By the time she was in her early twenties, she herself was mother to two young children, Free’s father and aunt. Later, she married a man she met at Harvard, and they had two more children. From these four children, she now has five grandchildren. All have been introduced to Native culture by their grandmother, who independently worked on finding her roots and connecting herself to Native cultures and people throughout her life.
Free’s father and I took her to her first pow wow with her extended family when she was just over a year old. A pow wow is a gathering to celebrate and honor Native American cultural traditions. Pow wows are sometimes private for particular tribes, sometimes inter-tribal, and sometimes open to the general public. When open to the public, most are organized to be educational as well as an event for the Native community in and of itself. The host will often share information about the tribe or tribes participating, and he will direct the day’s events with announcements that guide visitors on the cultural significance of the rituals, dances, and music that they are watching and hearing. Some initial tips for visitors that are usually stressed include the fact that the dancers, drummers and singers are not there to entertain onlookers; that the regalia worn by Natives are not “costumes,” and that one should not take video or photographs of some aspects of ceremonies.
For Free’s first pow wow, her grandmother made her a beautiful beaded and fringed buckskin dress, and she spent the day running around in tiny handmade moccasins, clutching her stuffed doggy and lighting up smiles on everyone’s faces to see such a tiny little girl moving so quickly, laughing, and chattering away to everyone she saw. She looked like she owned the place, and as I struggled to keep up with her, her proud grandmother beamed, waving at me as she said “don’t worry, she belongs to everyone here, and we will all take good care of her.”
That sense of community and belonging is something that I want Free to have as she grows up, and I have tried to take her to pow wows every year since then. Mostly, we go alone, although occasionally I have brought friends and family who’ve shown interest in tagging along. Free’s dad was never as connected to a Native community as his mother was, and whether it wasn’t something that felt natural or it just didn’t appeal to him, he didn’t show much interest in attending with me after that first year. Having grown up in Ireland with a strong connection to nature, family, and religious ritual through the Catholic Church, I was drawn to the pow wow experience as a way to give Free access to these same things.
I was also struck by how confident Free’s grandmother and aunts were in their Native identities, and I wanted my daughter to also grow up having rich and positive associations with the Native aspect of identity, especially if she ever found herself being subjected to other people’s negative stereotypes. I would like her to feel beautiful, powerful, and knowledgeable, and I know that the earlier and more frequently I create opportunities to help her develop positive cultural associations, the more meaningful they will be.
And so, years ago, I found myself invested in the pow wow experience as a way for an outsider like me to gain knowledge from a respectful distance. At first, it was a lonely experience, as I am painfully shy among strangers (despite my open blogging temperament and job as a public school teacher), and I often felt awkward showing up to events and defending my desire to attend them. I kept at it, though, convinced it was a good idea for Free, who over the years showed interest in various aspects–the food, the colorful regalia, the smells and sounds–but no more than she would at any other event I dragged her to as a young child.
Only this year has Free shown more interest in the cultural side of the pow wow, asking me months ago to mark the event as the first entry in the calendar on her new tablet and initiating many conversations to plan what she would wear, who she would bring, and what she would do while there. When she heard last week that her best friend would not come alone with us but would bring her parents and little sister, she became anxious and complained that the younger sibling would be more interested in “eating frybread” than “learning about my culture.” It was at that moment that I realized that a spark had been lit in my little girl.
Free’s anxiety was more than matched by my own, as I realized she felt a connection and ownership that I did not have access to, and her participation in this year’s pow wow extended beyond what I was comfortable with: watching and applauding from the outskirts. Now she wanted to be part of it, and when her dad ignored my pleas to take her himself, I knew I had to figure out how to navigate this for her, and that meant facing my own shyness and fear of stepping outside my comfort zone.
I needn’t have worried. Just like that new toddler at her first pow wow, Free stepped in and made things happen at this one. Her grandmother had clothes made and sent to her for her ninth birthday, and we packed up extra moccasins and accessories for her friends. I had previously learned how to do her hair, so we were all set in terms of Free’s regalia. Once we arrived at the pow wow, Free and I went to register her for the dance competition, and when she was unsatisfied with the skant information I could offer her on the dancing, she marched back to a young Native woman behind the registration table and, using her sweetest smile and manners, asked her to give her some tips on how to do the dance beyond what she had learned herself from watching in previous years. She came back beaming from having made a friend, and later, when it was time for her to line up for Grand Entry by herself, she found some young girls her age and introduced herself so she could walk into the dancing arena with them.
As I watched my little girl that day, I felt full of wonder at this little being who naturally assumes the confidence and grace I myself almost never feel. She is the most beautiful thing in the world to me, so true to herself and so open to sharing her beauty and joy with others. She taught her friends everything she knew as she took them through the pow wow grounds, and when older Native women complimented her on her manners and her dancing, she asked them questions and listened carefully to their answers.
As I watched her dance with the other children, all my secret fears about her limited knowledge of the dance fell away as I realized something I’ve always known about Native cultures but never quite applied in a personal way: despite all the efforts to contain and stamp out Native American people and cultural traditions, they have survived because they adapt and embrace what is good and powerful in their own spirit. Free has never questioned her ability or right to play a full part in all that the culture has to offer her, and she (and most of the children out there with her), in being as yet unaware of the historical struggles and legacies of Native peoples in our country, are pure symbols of the power of contemporary Native Americans to define themselves in any way they wish. They have survived because they have adapted and, in Free’s case, because sometimes they have taken on other identities in addition to being Native Americans. The desire of young people like her to connect themselves to the community, and the openness of the community to accept young people like her, are what will enable further richness and growth and diversity.
For Free, the pow wow is a starting point to help ground her in the values of Native traditions, and I am thrilled about that. Even in a limited way from the day’s activities, she is learning to respect and appreciate tribal elders, veterans, and those–like a tiny young feather dancer who competed alone for his category–who take risks and trust that they will find support when they need it. (That little boy was showered with dollar bills thrown at his feet while he danced, one way the community honors its special dancers. What a reward for him–and a lesson to all the youth who watched him.) She is being shown how to embrace diversity and beauty in all its forms. She is learning patience, gratitude, and the grace of her own spirit as well as how to respect those of others.
As it turns out, Free’s dad will join her when her grandmother visits to take her to another pow wow this fall, where Free will try to learn the jingle dance. Next Spring, if all goes according to plan, I will take her on her first trip to Ireland and introduce her to another layer in her own personal cultural history. She couldn’t be more excited. And I couldn’t wish for a better travel-mate than my little Free, my girl who is now also a full-fledged North-South traditional pow wow dancer.