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Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2005 02:59 pm

Native ways

American Indians celebrate and protect their heritage at Cahokia Mounds gathering

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Three young women from Missouri perform a fancy shawl dance.
PHOTO BY KYOJI ARAI
When Tom Bedonie attended reservation boarding school, celebrating his Navajo heritage was something to be avoided. If he used his native language, Bedonie says, “I had to eat soap.” Instead of causing him to forget his Navajo ways, the punishment made Bedonie cling tightly to them. That is the reason this fiftysomething Navajo journeys from his home in Black Mesa, in northeastern Arizona, to American Indian gatherings all over the United States. Last month, his travels brought him to the annual “Spirit of the Thunderbird” powwow at Cahokia Mounds, near Collinsville, where he proudly gave the invocation in his Navajo Athabascan dialect. His prayer, he explains later, welcomes all “the singers, dancers, and those relatives that used to live” in the Mississippi Valley region, and he thanks and blesses “our ancestors, our forefathers.”
It’s a way, he says, of showing respect and seeking permission to gather here, in this place. Bedonie wears simple black clothing and a hat to shield him from the blazing sun, but he’s the exception amid a rainbow of colors. In the grand march of Indian tribes into the arena, many young tribal representatives wear contemporary clothing, but middle-aged participants favor traditional Indian regalia. Feathers, pelts, beading, and bells lend visual and aural texture to the dancers’ garments. As the dancers circle the enclosure, subtle drumming and chanting become more and more urgent. The march concludes with a veterans’ dance, song and prayer for Indians currently serving in the military. David Keyman, 62 and part Lakota Sioux, learned of his Indian heritage only a few years ago, when he discovered one of his grandfathers was Sioux. His native roots were kept a family secret for decades to guard against discrimination; in Missouri, where his family resides, full-blooded Indians were barred from owning property up until a generation ago, he says. For the past five years, since Keyman became aware of his Indian background, he and his wife have attended Sun Dances of thanksgiving in South Dakota; this is their second visit to the Cahokia powwow. Dan Isaac, a 37-year-old Choctaw and substance-abuse counselor from Philadelphia, Miss., has traveled to Cahokia with family and friends. Powwows, he says, are important spiritual gatherings, and this year alone he’s attended at least a dozen. At Cahokia, Isaac takes part in the hunting dance. The other dancers depict hunters silently tracking prey; Isaac, focused and intense, chants the hunting song as he dances. “A powwow is how people worship,” Isaac says. “The dance and singing is spiritual. . . . We have to be close to nature, to our mother” — Mother Earth. Though separated by great distances and coming from different tribes, dancers and their families share kinship and build bonds that transcend the here-and-now. “We learn our duties through our elders, and we learn through these ceremonies,” Bedonie says. “I know where I came from, and I know where I’m going.”
Heritage is something boarding school and a bar of soap couldn’t erase.
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