Here's the pow wow story.
This was a tough story to write in a hard-news style. It really needs a feature story treatment or a photo essay. I'm really happy that Dylan's photos are better than mine. Most of mine didn't turn out very well, although I did get a halfway decent video. The only bummer is that Dylan's captions are a bit lackluster, and missing names of the individuals.
In the center of the pow wow there was a ring of tents, with a circle of tents in its center and a space of about twenty yards between the two all the way around. Under the tents in the center are the drum circles. They had a few different groups that would take turns drumming under the microphones, and recordings to play through the speakers when everyone was taking a break.
They were on break when I got there. The dancers had gone to the veteran's home across the street to do a dance, I later found out, so things were pretty quiet. I walked through some of the booths before texting my contact, Banashee Joe Cadreau.
Most people called him Joe. He's just reaching middle-age, wearing a Cleveland Indians hat, sunglasses hanging down the back of his neck, and a tattoo just showing above the collar of his ribboned dress shirt. He shows me around, brings me to the veteran's home just a minute too late to see anything, and walks back to the park again with me, smoking a cigarette. Once we catch up to the people he knows, Joe introduces me around a little. The organizer, Lori Shustha, is very kind, but busy, so I let her go without asking many questions. Joe gets caught up talking to friends and family a couple times. I smile and brush off his apologies. I somewhat expected this and came almost two hours before the dancing to give myself plenty of time. Then Joe introduces me to Earnest Loonsfoot and slips off.
Earnest, or 'Earnie' as his friends kept calling him, was even more popular than Joe. While we talked people of all ages came up to say hi or goof around a bit. I interviewed him while we had a cigarette. He seemed perhaps a hair younger than Joe, but it was hard to tell behind his sunglasses. He seemed a little uncomfortable talking to me, but I can't blame him since I was there wearing a big camera and a press badge. The press makes people nervous, sometimes because they're worried what we might print, sometimes just because we make them more aware of themselves.
Earnest, as the arena director, was in charge of the ring of tents, or more precisely, the space inside that ring. Earlier in the morning, before I had arrived, the ring had been blessed, or 'smudged', Earnest said. There were still bunches of herbs from the ceremony hanging from the corners of the tents in the center circle. That ceremony ensured there were no evil spirits in the ring. The only break was to the east, where the sun rose, and life started. That is the only place dancers could enter the ring. Earnest made sure that entrance was clear, and that nobody who was drunk or otherwise combative or ill-mannered could enter, bringing an evil spirit into the sacred area.
I didn't see Earnest in action until later, though. After talking for a while, Earnest got me connected with Paul Raphael. It wasn't easy, Paul is spry and kept moving around on us.
Paul is the kind of guy you think of when you think of a Native American elder. He speaks in a measured voice that is very calming. His sentences are short and to the point. He's in a kind of half-clothes, half-regalia, ribboned garb that's hard to describe and is wearing tinted bifocal glasses and his hair is kept in a braid behind his head.
He tells me about being a peacemaker, which means he helps settle disputes, and I can imagine how his calm demeanor could be valuable in such a situation. He tells me about how if a younger person wanted advice on something they would bring him tobacco, a sacred medicine. He would retreat and burn the tobacco and consider the question, seeking advice from the spirits before answering. He told me sometimes young people thought they could buy the response they wanted with the right tobacco. Which made me smile internally. Even in the native American community, young people sought shortcuts. Of everyone I talked to, he was the quickest to denounce Christopher Columbus as a "wicked man" when I asked. I think the other guys might have been as afraid to offend me as I was to offend them. Paul didn't care.
Sometimes I wonder about that. I think awareness of our true American history is important. Even if what happened is ugly, it shouldn't be swept under the rug. It should be acknowledged for what it was because it's how we got here, and if we want to get anywhere else, we need the roadmap of the past. But I think part of what makes some white/European-descended people want to hide that kind of thing is the very white guilt that the awareness brings. How guilty can you make someone feel before they start trying to find a way out of that guilt? And maybe Earnest and Joe both felt that reflection a little. They don't want to pile white guilt on a guy who showed up honestly trying to learn. At least, that's kind of what I hoped.
After that about ten minutes of talking to Paul, I thanked him and let him go, and spent some time wandering the booths again where I ran into Cody Routley, a young man from Fremont who was carving a deer hoof into the end of a walking stick. He also makes arrowheads and brings them to pow wows to sell, when they aren't in his grandmother's shop. He demonstrates for me very confidently. His work looked like it was coming together well.
I wandered around a bit, and saw a teepee. Just one. It was a collection of uniformly-cut, small trees wrapped in a massive tarp. There were a couple young men in front of it I introduced myself to. Their names were Jarus and Marcus, they were 20 and 18. Nice guys. Pretty much just hanging out and being young guys. And also being the only people at the pow wow sleeping in a teepee, which they made themselves.
Once the dancing started, I had to be aware of when I could take pictures and when I couldn't. I hooked back up with Joe and Earnest to make sure I didn't mess up and offend somebody. Some of the dances are considered sacred, and so taking pictures or any other kind of recording isn't really appreciated. I likened it to a reporter wandering around and snapping pictures during a church service. You might not get thrown out for it, but nobody is going to like you for it, either.
It was a great experience, even if my story didn't turn out great.
Although the stated purpose of the pow wow is to reach out and educate the broader community, it still kind of felt like I was intruding on a family reunion, maybe more so because I was a journalist doing interviews. The communities represented there are so insular and familiar with each other that by getting a little closer than the average person who just wanders through the booths and spectates, by making acquaintances and asking questions, I actually felt more alien there.
The next time I attend a pow wow, I hope to be able to focus on writing a feature or profile, rather than a hard news story.