Pride in Indian Culture, Heritage Resurging, Says Old Elk
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
EDGEWATER, Md., Nov. 20, 2003 "Powwows are important to native culture, because at one time we were not allowed to be Indians," said Clayton Old Elk, a member of the Crow Indian Tribe of Montana.
"We weren't even allowed to practice our religion, our language, to sing our songs or dance our dances. They said it was sacrilegious," said Old Elk, master of ceremonies at the American Indian Intertribal Cultural Organization Second Annual Veterans Powwow celebration, held at Central Middle School here Nov. 8.
Doug Hall, a member of the Odawa tribe of Minnesota, carries the eagle staff, the traditional American Indian flag, as he leads the procession into the ceremonial areas during American Indian Intertribal Cultural Organization Second Annual Veterans Powwow celebration, held at Central Middle School in Edgewater, Md., Nov. 8. Photo by Rudi Williams.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
AIITCO, a non-profit association established in 1983, offers its members the experience of cross-cultural sharing of tribal histories, customs and traditions, which helps preserve American Indian heritage.
As the sounds of thundering drumbeats and "vocables" echoed through the school's gym, the grand entry ceremony was led by Doug Hall, who was carrying the eagle staff, the traditional American Indian flag. Hall, a member of the Odawa tribe of Minnesota, was decked out in a multicolored ribbon outfit and was followed by the three-man color guard of the Washington metro chapter of the Vietnam Era Veterans Intertribal Association.
Next came headman Walter Reed of the Lenni-Lenape tribe of New Jersey, part of the Algonquin nation. The headlady was his wife, Justine Reed, a mixture of the Seneca, Ojibwe and Lakota tribes. In leading the group of dancers into the ceremonial area, both performed their respective roles as headman and headlady.
Old Elk told the audience that the Europeans tried to take away their "Indianess," but they couldn't take away their spirit. "We're here. We have been here," said Old Elk, a health systems specialist with the Indian Health Service in Rockville, Md. "Our songs, dances and our languages went underground, but recently, they've made a comeback.
"It's at times like this (powwows) that we remember our ancestors and our warriors," said Old Elk, adding that active duty military personnel were invited to the powwow free of charge. "We come from warrior societies that remind us of who we are. You have to know who you are and where you come from before you know where you going."
He said powwows are a good time to express that to young people. "Most of our languages are lost, but fortunately, I can speak my own language – the Crow," Old Elk noted.
Powwows are also a good time to point out the good and bad things affecting American Indians. People should be aware of the fact that "there was a time when we were made ashamed to be who we are," Old Elk said. "I remember growing up in Montana when there were signs saying, 'No dogs or Indians allowed,' in restaurants. The racism still prevails there in rural areas."
"It's at times like this that we can educate the mainstream society about such things and the contributions we've made to this country," said Old Elk, who attended the Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., before transferring to Montana State University on a football scholarship. He later moved to Eastern Montana University where he earned his bachelor's degree.
"We've given much more to this country than most people realize," he continued. "When you call yourself an American, you're in fact calling yourself a Native American, because you speak our language. The food that we have, whether it's pumpkin, corn or turkey, or if you drink coffee, go to a movie and eat popcorn – that's Indian food.
"We've shared everything with this country, because sharing is part of our way of life," Old Elk said.
The North Carolina Commission on Indian Affairs points out that many of the "gifts" Native Americans introduced to the white settlers are still being enjoyed today. Among the foods Indians showed the settlers were chili, pumpkin, succotash, cornbread, popcorn, potatoes, corn, beans, peas and sunflower seeds. Indians also gave Americans the sapodilla tree that produces chicle, which is used to make chewing gum. Indians also taught the settlers the drying process used to preserve foods and make raisins, prunes and jerky.
Indians also introduced the settlers to clothing, such as moccasins and ponchos. Chaps that rodeo riders wear today are a form of Indian leggings. Indians also introduced settlers to cotton, which is used to make clothing today.
The commission also notes that Indians taught Americans about their way of life, which is to live in harmony with nature. Many of today's organizations, such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and YMCA Indian Guides, get their influence from the arts, crafts and culture of Native Americans.
"At the beginning of this powwow I said the U.S. Constitution is patterned after the Iroquois Indian Confederacy," Old Elk said. "The Iroquois form of government is used by the U.S. government today. So we share our style of government, but most people don't know that."
He said the contributions of Native Americans to the defense of the nation and society as a whole should be recognized throughout the year rather than just during American Indian Heritage Month.
"We have many things we've shared with this country, including our language," he said. "Even right here in this area, the Chesapeake and Potomac are Indian words. Even cities and states across the country use Indian names -- Manhattan, Chicago, Miami, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Maine. The geographical words, too – Appalachia, Ozark."
Old Elk noted that Indian sciences are still being investigated in Central America. For example, no one has yet figured out how the Inca built huge pyramids without mortar or wheels that have withstood centuries of adverse weather conditions and earthquakes. They're also trying to determine how "The Sun Pyramid in Teotihuacán ("City of the Gods"), Mexico, was built around A.D. 100-200, and the Pyramids of Cochasqui in the Northern Andes of Ecuador were built between A.D. 950 and 1550.
Noting that researchers still can't figure out how the dimensions of the Inca pyramids were derived, Old Elk said even the Inca calendar is the most accurate in the world.
"People should be made aware of these things," he said. "We should let our people know that there is another culture. We're rich, not in material value, but our languages, sciences and our way of living with nature. We have a wealth of information that we can share with everybody."