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Powwows & their significance to Native Americans

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Powwows & their significance to Native Americans

A participant in a previous Three Rivers Powwow just north of Manteca.


POSTED June 30, 2012 1:04 a.m.

There are hundreds of Native American tribes in the United States.

“In California alone, there are 114 tribes,” said Three Rivers Indian Lodge Director Ramona Valadez.

And every year, they gather year-round at different places to celebrate a long-standing spiritual and cultural tradition. This gathering is called powwow.

One of the most widely attended powwows in the San Joaquin Valley has been going on every year for the last 35 years. It is the one hosted by the Three Rivers Indian Lodge on North Union Road in Manteca around the Fourth of July holiday.

Valadez, though, is quick to point out that powwows like the one held at the treatment facility located about a mile north of Lathrop Road are not only open to those of Native American descent but to the general public as well.

“It’s not only for our people. Every time we have a powwow, or some event, we open it to the public. Anyone is invited to come. It’s our way of sharing our culture,” she explained. “We invite the public to come and see Native American arts and crafts, dancing, and drumming and share our culture.”

These are all the elements offered at powwows such as the three-day weekend event in Manteca following the Fourth of July celebration next week. The offering of a free Native American meal completes the traditional flavor of the experience.

“In a way, some people are not familiar with the Native American culture. For those who are not familiar with it, (a powwow) is a great event to go to, to experience someone else’s culture,” added Valadez.

 Native American powwow dresses, regalia have special significance

Understanding and getting to know the meaning and significance of the participants’ costumes – or regalia, which is the proper term – is one way for visitors to do just that, she said.

For one thing, all of the powwow dancers – from the young ones to the not-so-young and the young once – “make their own (costumes) because every tribe dresses a different way. It depends on what style of dress that (the tribe members) wear or on the kind of dancing that they’re going to do,” explained Valadez.

“For instance, the men who wear the feathers with the big bustle – they are all native feathers – that’s called fancy dancing. Then there are the women who wear buckskin dress. That’s called traditional dancing. The style of dancing they are going to do will determine the type of dress, or regalia, they are going to wear.”

In making the dresses or regalia, “some of them might get help, especially the children. The children will get assisted by their families to make it. It’s just a tradition, a custom, that they make their own because they are the ones who are going to wear it. But the main reason (why they make their own costumes) is tribal; it states what tribe they come from,” it’s a confirmation of their tribal identity, Valadez noted.

There’s also the case of the gourd dancing, which is a “sacred dance.” Each day of the three-day powwow on July 6-8 will open with a gourd dance, as is the practice at every annual powwow. The rule for this part of the celebration is that no pictures of the dancers or dancing are allowed.

“It’s a spiritual thing. Those dances are sacred. You don’t record sacred things. No one wants their picture inside that box, or whatever the case may be, because it’s spiritual – I’m not saying religious because depending on what you’re talking about, say a certain song or a certain regalia – say, this man has eagle feathers – those items to him are very, very sacred so he doesn’t want you to take a picture of them. I don’t want to say relics either. In a sense, it would be a misinterpretation of why he’s wearing them because there are a lot of people that don’t understand,” and that could be one reason why no pictures are allowed, Valadez said.

“Native people have a lot of items that are sacred. Say, for instance, our sweat lodge. You don’t go there and take a bunch of pictures,” she added.

 Powwow is a time for Native Americans to share their culture

Others who continue to attend the annual powwows do so because they enjoy participating. They enjoy the dancing, the drumming, and just seeing the culture,” said Valadez.

Also, a powwow provides an avenue for tribal members to mingle with other Native American groups, she said.

That’s one reason this tribal gathering is “very important because it’s time for native people in this community to come out and participate, and because our tradition is to share, we open it to the public to share our culture,” she said.

“With the way the economy is, people are all so busy making a living, so we give them this chance to come out and enjoy the dancing and to see the people in their regalia, maybe even talk to some of them and to just learn what another culture is all about,” she pointed out.

“Years ago, maybe even 20 years ago, there wasn’t enough awareness and sensitivity to the (Native American) culture,” she said.

“In the past 20 to 25 years, ever since they’ve gotten (Indian) casinos, (people) think that everybody who’s Native American comes from a casino tribe and they don’t need help because of all that money. And that’s not true. Not every Native American comes from a casino tribe. So there’s a huge misunderstanding,” Valadez clarifed.

Proof of that misunderstanding, she said, is what is happening with the Three Rivers Indian Lodge. “We’re not a tribe; we give services to all the tribes but we’re not a tribe.”

But because of that misunderstanding, any potential donation to their programs from would-be supporters is curtailed by that misconception, she said.

The Three Rivers Lodge, which is under the umbrella of Native Directions Inc., is a drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment facility for Native Americans. Participation is up to 90 days, followed by a stay at a half-way house. Funding comes from a variety of sources including government grants, plus private donations. It is for that reason the powwow is an alcohol- and drug-free event, Valadez pointed out.


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