10/6/04

FROM THE POWWOW FRONT, OR SHOULD I SAY BACK?

The powwow was this weekend in Honolulu. Honolulu powwows are different than Oklahoma or other smack-in-Indian-country powwows. This isn’t Indian country; it’s Hawaiian country. Most of the Indian population is from the military. And it’s strange to see a powwow arena stretched out between two banyan trees. But it was a powwow nonetheless, including an adroit Apache mc from southern California, invited head dancers and drums, a fry bread stand and several vendors arranged in the circle, including my friends Bill and Mary Tiger. I camped most of the morning until late that after noon with Bill. Mary left to teach hula after we set up the booth with their crafts and a few of my CD’s.

We had a perfect observing position, could see everyone else, including the spare arena of dancers. It was the smallest powwow in number of dancers I’d ever seen, except one I went to in Des Moines when I was a student in graduate school in Iowa in the late seventies. My friend Darlene Wind and I showed up late after visiting some friends at the Meskwaki Settlement outside Tama. We headed out to the dance floor and realized we were the only dancers, inside of a circle of non-Indian spectators who clicked away on their cameras. We were rare birds about to disappear, and we did, immediately after that dance. Here many of the dancers here appeared to be non-Indian. It doesn’t mean they weren’t Indian but these outposts far from Indian country often attract the hobbyists because they won’t be so readily identified or hassled. Mostly, we watched the Honolulu crowd as they watched the dancers, ate fry bread, visited and walked the arena to mostly gawk at the arts and crafts as they weren’t, for the most part, buying.

Bill Tiger, or Tiger’s from within a few miles of where I’m from in Oklahoma, of the same tribe and clan. He moved out to Hawaii over thirty years ago when he married a Hawaiian woman. I was impressed at how many people walked up to our booth to say hello to Tiger. He’s helped everyone in this community, and then some. Many hadn’t seen him since he’d become legally blind from the diabetes and were surprised when he didn’t immediately recognize them. The disease had also eaten on his legs and he showed me how he could now do dialysis even while sitting at the powwow, rather than forced to spend two days a week sitting in the VA hospital for treatments. So we got a chance to catch up. And stories presented themselves as we watched the crowd.

One man walked the powwow grounds dressed in his Confederate hat. We couldn’t figure out whether he was lost, or making a statement, or lonely for some part of imagined history that he had to dress up for a place in the world. Reminds me that Wilma Mankiller, I believe, told us that at the end of the procession for the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, walking with thousands of us, native people and organizations from north to south America was a contingent of Confederate re-enactment junkies, all dressed in uniforms and hoop skirts. Their audacity at including themselves in our special moment is stunning, but occurs all the time in Indian country. That’s how this country was founded, over the nations of many who weren’t asked asked permission, or addressed respectfully. We were deemed as non-human, or less cultured (dare I say not “civilized” ?) by the interloper church or state. The appearance of the Confederates prove that perhaps nothing has changed. They still barge into our events, and we are still too polite to ask them to leave. Reminds me of why I I have such a disdain for mission-izing by the church. It's the same lack of respect.

Not far behind him was a man dressed, deliberately it seemed, as a pilgrim.

And later in the afternoon a young woman, probably a student, about 20 or 21, her dyed black hair dreaded and stylish over her beautiful pale complexion, jeans and a few silver piercings came over and asked us where she could find AIM, the American Indian Movement, in Hawaii. The question contained many absurdities, namely that you don’t go to Hawaii to look for AIM. It’s like going to Wall Street to look for Indians. And AIM is past its heyday and isn't historically about the empowerment of women. She appeared smart, fresh, and very female, and looking for AIM was the last thing she needed. They would eat up and spit out this pretty young woman who was looking for a cause to give meaning to her life. Part of my spirit told me to take her aside and ask her what it was she was really looking for, then urge her to research the organization, the history and the present reality, then to weigh it all and see what fits. I didn’t, because the other part of my spirit argued, that she wouldn’t hear me. Maybe that’s based on my last such experience, when I advised a young Vassar student during my residency there-- talked with her intensely for a few hours, trying to dissuade her from heading up to South Dakota to the Pine Ridge Reservation to help the people, until she had a better-defined reason, a plan, an invite and some contacts. She had no experience traveling, didn’t know anyone from there, and hadn’t been asked. And she appeared much less sure, and more innocently na├»ve than the girl at the Honolulu powwow. When she left my apartment (or should I say haunted house, but that’s another story) that night at Vassar, I realized she hadn’t heard anything I’d said. She was going anyway. She was embarking on an American dream of beautiful, elegantly rough and wise Indian warriors headed toward the sunset of history, to save them. It’s a sexy dream. That’s why I didn’t say anything to the young woman wandering at the Honolulu powwow. And would I have listened either at their age? No. But I wouldn't have wandered brazenly into another group to save them, without being asked, either.

The strange thing is though, that just as this woman asked, a biker walked up to the table, right next to her, in a jean jacked slathered with AIM logos. Now what do you make of that? "Ask and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened."

Tiger then told me of the year at the powwow when a rich white woman showed up at the powwow looking for a husband. She wanted to have a baby. She had a plan alright, and was upfront about her intentions, much to the amusement of everyone. Bill and I laughed at the terrible scenario, of this woman even hitting on one of his relatives in his late teens. It’s so sad you have to laugh to survive. But what happens in the aftermath of such a haphazard scheme? In the wreckage of family and child left to all of us? Maybe I should go back and talk to that girl. This blog is my way of doing so.

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The hands are held open for either giving or receiving.


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Sitting outside the National Museum of the American Indian after a reception and viewing of the museum, the day before the opening, I run into Carlos Nakai, one of Indian country’s finest musicians. We admire the lily-filled pond, the grounds rich with native plants. It’s idyllic. We both agree that what’s missing are the junked cars, chickens, skinny rez dogs, kids running around, dried meat racks….and so on.

October 1-6, 2004 Honolulu


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