Invitation to Dance

The pow wow's fascinating rhythm.

Growing up across the street from each other, my friend Marianne and I shared a suburban attachment to English pop singers and Fresca, but on weekends her family would escape their split-level life and take me with them to the pow wow. We'd eat salmon and fry bread, make bead necklaces, and check out the boys, but mostly we'd dance. With a group of men sitting around the drum, their songs vibrating in the air, I'd follow along, copying the gliding moves of the shawl dance or the percussive steps of fancy dancing.

This was in the '70s, when a national American Indian Movement was making demands of the federal government and a local group had taken over Fort Lawton, claiming it as former Indian land and insisting that old treaty rights be respected. The army installation became Discovery Park, and this weekend the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, with Fort Lawton protest leader Bernie Whitebear's sister Laura Wong Whitebear, will host a jingle dress dance honoring Whitebear's memory at the annual pow wow there. Tiny bells sewn all over the dress give the jingle dance its name, and the tinkling sound is a part of the healing power that this medicine dance possesses.

All those years ago, trying to master the dances—and surely the whitest girl in sight—I wasn't thinking about the struggles that surrounded these weekends or the politics of multiculturalism. I just knew that if you listened for awhile, the drumming would tell your feet where to go, and that there was something special about watching Marianne's dad transform from a Boeing engineer, complete with short-sleeved shirt and pocket protector, into a Pawnee storyteller.

In the past, Native Americans would often dance to teach certain skills to the next generation—the best way to stalk a deer or talk to the gods. Now, it isn't a special skill they want to teach, but a respect for themselves and their heritage, the ability to identify proudly as an Indian despite all the other messages our world sends them. Pow wows are actually Plains Indian gatherings, and it's thanks to the displacement caused by government relocation programs in the past that we have a large population of their descendants to spearhead these events. When Whitebear and his colleagues founded the United Indians of All Tribes, they knew their strength was in numbers, despite any intertribal rivalries, and so we see Plains and Plateau-style dancing next to Northwest Coast work, with performers borrowing steps and costume designs. And when Wong Whitebear, a Colville from Eastern Washington, leads the jingle dress dance, she's performing in the Ojibway tradition, on land where the Duwamish used to live.

And as far as Judy Guthrie of the United Indians is concerned, it's OK if non-natives dance there, too.

"It's a traditional event, [though] because it's in Seattle and affiliated with Seafair, it's an educational tool as well," she says. "[But] pow wow is primarily a social event in the Indian community—we have people from across the U.S. and Canada, and we're a big urban center for tribes all around this area."

Henry Delle Chiaie of United Indians found a home there. "I'm a dago from Boston, and I've been with the tribes for 17 years," he says bluntly. "It's been a cultural lesson. The native community here are wonderful, honest people—it takes awhile for them to take you in, but once I was adopted, I was adopted. [Working here] has helped me center myself in a way I couldn't with my Italian heritage. As non-natives, you can only connect once in awhile, briefly; [but] when you do it's a great experience."

As a girl, I would struggle to get the fringe on my shawl to sway just right and I'd get a tiny hit of that sensation, a moment of being in the culture that produced those dances. Inside the rhythm, inside the connection of the feet to the ground and the lift of the spine, was a sense of completeness. These days, I think about pow wow with that particular hesitation we have when we step into someone else's culture, not wanting to offend. But it's still the dancing that draws me.

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