‘Powwow people’: Clark County teenagers among head dancers at traditional celebration
Mia Bennett, a 13-year-old student at Shahala Middle School, said growing up in Yakama in Vancouver sometimes means educating her friends and teachers about her “other” identity.
“Sometimes I hang out with friends at school who don’t know anything about it,” said Mia, who will be one of three head dancers at a Saturday powwow at Clark College. “When I invite them to the powwow, they say, ‘Powwow, what is it?’ And I have to explain what it is.
The answer: A powwow is a gathering of tribes to dance, socialize and honor traditions. It’s a practice that began on the Great Plains around 1900, when white America was on the march and Native Americans sought solidarity in retreat.
Today’s powwows continue as boisterous, friendly community celebrations centered around dancing and drumming, with plenty of room around the edges to mingle, browse craft stalls and sample fried bread.
During Saturday’s free event, visitors can perch in the bleachers at Clark College’s O’Connell Sports Center and come and go as they please between noon and 10 p.m. Powwows are open to all and pleasantly informal, except for the two Grand Entrance parades led by elders and veterans carrying flags. Everyone stands to show respect during these solemn processions, set for 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.
The rally marks the return of what had been an annual event hosted by the Native American Parent Association of Southwest Washington before the pandemic. Alongside Mia, Union High School junior Destany Reeves-Robinson and Walla Walla High School freshman Elijah Bauer will serve as head dancers.
“The main goal of a powwow is to bring in as many dancers as possible and bring good cheer to everyone who attends,” said Mia’s aunt, dancer Aiyanna Bennett, who is also a culture and Yakama dance instructor.
“Normally we see our families and communities at powwows, especially in the summer,” Mia said. “For two years we were all separated.”
Mia, an eighth grader who hopes to become a veterinarian, has been dancing at powwows since she could walk. Even so, she said she was a little stunned to be selected as a principal dancer after two years of the pandemic.
“It means a lot of responsibility to set a good example,” Bennett said.
Mia said she can’t wait to show off her moves in the style called female fantasy dance.
“It’s competitive and it’s fast,” she said.
“Women created this dance to compete and put themselves in the spotlight with men,” said Aiyanna Bennett. “Women were more on the sidelines at powwows while men were more in the middle.
Tribal culture is largely transmitted face to face. It was therefore difficult to transmit and stay alive even before the pandemic led to forced isolation.
“It’s been very difficult over the years because our traditions aren’t written in a book,” Aiyanna Bennett said. “They are strictly taught from family member to family member. You get hands-on instruction.
Keeping families strong and connected is a crucial value for tribal societies whose fabric has been torn in living memory.
Family matriarch Bessie Bennett, Aiyanna’s grandmother and Mia’s great-grandmother, was torn from her Yakama family and placed in one of those notorious residential schools that ‘re-educated’ children tribal.
“When she came back, after being away for so long, she had to relearn her own heritage,” Aiyanna Bennett said.
“She didn’t talk about it much, but she ran away from that school,” said Orpha Bennett, Bessie’s daughter and Aiyanna’s mother. Convinced that she was not “smart when it came to reading”, Bessie nevertheless taught herself to read and write on her own, but never taught her descendants her original Yakama language, says Orpha Bennett .
“She didn’t want to teach us our language because she beat her up,” Orpha Bennett said.
Everything Bessie lost was rebuilt a bit more by each succeeding generation, Aiyanna Bennett said.
“My grandmother was a good source for some things, but she didn’t dance,” she said. “My mother danced a little when she was younger; then as she got older, she lost track for a while. I had to start from scratch. »
The whole family is now back to dancing and sees powwows as powerful social occasions, Aiyanna Bennett said. Until the pandemic shut her down, Aiyanna taught dance and culture classes at local schools and worked with Painted Sky North Star, a Portland dance company that mixes traditional and modern styles. She looks forward to reviving these educational and cultural activities, she said.
Destany Reeves-Robinson, 17, was just a few months old when the Cathlapotle Plank House opened in 2005 at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. The building is not a historical reproduction but a real Chinook building, as well as an emblem of continued tribal presence, said Sam Robinson, Destany’s grandfather. He lives in Vancouver and is vice-president of the Chinook Indian Nation.
All his life, Destany has accompanied his well-known grandfather as he attends public events with a cone-shaped hat, a drum, and distinctive tribal songs.
“It’s always been like that,” she says. “I’ve been attached to his hip since I’ve been walking.”
But Sam Robinson grew up not knowing much about his tribal roots, which he embraced later in life, he said. His own daughter, Cassandra, did not receive the deep Chinook upbringing that her granddaughter received.
“We missed a generation there and now we’re trying to bring it all back,” he said.
Now Destany aspires to become a teacher, and she is not shy about teaching her own teachers about the history, culture, and continued existence of the Chinooks and other Native American peoples.
“There’s a lot of stereotyping and a lot of misinformation out there,” Destany said.
For example, it should be noted that while powwows have become national, they were not historically practiced by the tribes of that region.
“Columbia River people… we were doing our own thing with potlatches and big gatherings like that. Historically, we’re not powwow people,” Sam Robinson said. “But Destany and I are proud of our Chinookan ways, and we are always happy to welcome people from other tribes into Chinook country.”
Grant and Donation
Talk of the powwow returning brings organizer Dave Jollie to tears.
Jollie’s father was a registered member of the Chippewa Turtle Mountain Indian Band of North Dakota, but he grew up as a typical white man in Clark County, he said. He remains better at dancing to rock ‘n’ roll than to Indian drums, he joked.
“I wasn’t brought up with all of this,” Jollie said.
He came closest when his father took him to pow wows at Delta Park in Portland.
“I love the sound of this drum,” he said. “Natives call it the heartbeat of America. Animals and trees gave their lives to produce this sound.
About a dozen years ago, Jollie befriended Native relatives who frequented her family’s restaurant (now closed) near the Clark County Events Center at the Fairgrounds. They told him about the Native American Parents Association of Southwest Washington and its efforts to keep tribal education alive for the next generation. Jollie felt called to dive in.
“The culture is so down to earth, so humbling,” he said. “I learned a lot during the last 12 years of involvement.”
A harsh reality he has learned, he says, is that cultural and educational programs for Indigenous youth depend on dollars that dried up years ago.
Evergreen Public Schools, which had managed federal funds for after-school programs and support for Native American students in three local districts — Evergreen, Vancouver and Battle Ground — stopped seeking that money after the 2016-17 school year.
The final grant was $58,000 under Title VI of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which serves the educational needs of Native American, Hawaiian, and Alaska Native students. Some of that money covered annual powwows in Clark County.
“It left us with no support and no access to all these indigenous children because we didn’t know who they were and couldn’t contact them,” said Sam Robinson. “Since then, we haven’t been able to integrate this younger generation and create the bonds and friendships that are so important.”
After more than two years of applying, reapplying, and battling red tape, the Native American Parents Association has received a $25,000 grant from ilani to keep the spring powwow alive.
It normally takes five or six months to plan a powwow, but this one came together in about a month, Jollie said. And while it normally costs thousands of dollars to rent a facility, Clark College’s Community Diversity Committee footed the full $3,500 bill for the use of the O’Connell Sports Center.
Hearing this good news, “I cried like a baby,” Jollie said. His group passed on the giveaway by paying for vendor permits, he said.
While Jollie is excited to bring the powwow back, he said, the Native American Parents Association that runs it has never been closer to disappearing altogether.
“Our numbers have become very small,” he said. “We used to have pretty big programs with a lot of kids. But now we only have eight or ten relatives. It’s still the same core of a few people and I wonder, when the kids get older, can we continue like this? »