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Army Brat Spreads Word About Her Indian Culture in Powwow Dances, Speeches

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

"I come to a powwow to be an Indian, to get a sense of myself. This is part of Indi, Nov. 26, 2001 – Visit the American Forces Information Service "American Indian Heritage Month" web site at http://www.defenselink.mil/specials/nativeamerican01/.
"I come to a powwow to be an Indian, to get a sense of myself. This is part of Indian spirituality, to help each other and to celebrate with each other. When I come to powwows, I gain strength to carry on with my life." -- Rachel Snow, Assiniboin

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Turtle Mountain Chippewa Indian Boe Harris-Nakakakena was the head women dancer at Bolling Air Force Base’s Veterans Powwow. Photo by Rudi Williams

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Every time Boe Harris- Nakakakena speaks and dances at a school, university, civic meeting, veteran's organization or Powwow, someone always ask, "Do you still live in a teepee? Do you still hunt for your food?"

Then there's the comment that makes her laugh: "You don't look like an Indian."

Harris genteelly explains that some American Indians have lodges and teepees that they spend time in during the summer months. Otherwise, they live in houses and apartments just like the rest of Americans.

With a chuckle, Harris said she tells them, "This is the year 2001 and we hunt for our food in grocery stores. But some American Indians still hunt - just like a lot of other Americans."

The head woman dancer at Bolling Air Force Base's recent two-day Veteran's Powwow, Boe Harris-Nakakakena (which means 'rattles with feet'), 55, travels up and down the East Coast telling people about her American Indian heritage and culture. An Army brat, she also takes time during Powwows to tell the audience about her family's military background.

A member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa of Turtle Mountain, N.D., Harris lives in Seaford, Del., with her husband, Jeff Harris. She said she has been living her 1970s dream of educating people about American Indian heritage and culture since 1985. She has the time and freedom to do it "because I have a very supportive family."

Money isn't a prerequisite for her to speak or dance, or both, at Powwows or other events. "I usually don't charge for programs because I don't want money to be an issue or to ever keep a school or organization from having me as a speaker to share my culture," said Harris, whose expertise is in the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota Indian heritage and culture. "Especially the plains Indians. I always emphasize that if you want an Indian program in your area, you should contact a local Indian tribe first. But if you want something on the plains Indians, then I'm more than willing to do a presentation."

Plains Indians are better known to most Americans because they're featured more on the silver screen, on television, in books and other media than other Indians. And, because of that, they're more stereotyped, she noted.

Depending on an audience's demographics, Harris will show up in her street clothes and then change into her Indian regalia to show that Indians dress the same as other Americans.

"My regalia are part of my tradition, but we only wear it today on special occasions, such as to a Powwow to share our dancing," she noted.

"It's really hard, especially for 'little people,' to understand that we don't live in teepees today," Harris said. "It goes back to the stereotyping. That's why I think it's very important for someone from a particular culture to present a presentation about that culture. Or, at least, it should be written by someone from that culture, which has not always been the case."

But, she said, misconceptions about Indians aren't limited to children. Harris teaches American Indian heritage and culture at the Elderhostel at the Delaware Technical and Community College in Georgetown, Del. Elderhostel is a nationally based program that's geared toward those 55 and older.

"People in that age bracket still have the stereotyping image of Indian people," she said. "A lot of times they'll say, 'you don't look like an Indian,' or things like that.

"As long as I see stereotyping of Indian people, then I know that as long as I'm on this Earth that's part of what I need to do," she said.

In hopes of dispelling misconceptions, Harris tells audiences her tribe used to live in teepees, however all tribes are different with different languages and different ways of living. She then shows a map that depicts the different dwellings of the tribes throughout the United States and Canada.

"I also emphasize that some tribes are extinct and that there are at least 550 federally recognized tribes and a lot of state recognized tribes across the country," Harris said. "I want people to understand that Indian people are still living as well as participating in their heritage.

"That's another misconception that I'm seeing - some people don't realize that there are still Indian tribes in this country," she noted. "So the stereotyping is a never-ending process."

Harris fears that because schools are cutting back on having American Indians speak to students in classrooms, the stereotyping will continue. "Even though some of the textbooks have been rewritten, the children are still getting the stereotyping image of, not just Indian people, but all people," she said.

As thundering drumbeats and vocables echoed throughout the Bolling Community Center, Harris explained that being the lead woman dancer is a position of honor bestowed on someone who is well respected in the community. The lead dancer participates in all the dances, must know protocol, carry themselves in a 'good way' and keep harmony.

"We must ensure that women's image is kept positive, respected and honored," Harris noted.

"There's a whole realm of spiritualzation in dance," she said. "Everything is done in the beginning with prayers, from the making of your regalia to the dance, including praying while you're dancing. You thank the creator for living another day, for having the resources to put together your regalia.

"Sometimes I visualize my ancestors dancing along side of me, and that's a very warm feeling," she noted. "You carry all that you are and the generations that walked before you into the dance circle.

After performing in dances, Harris gave a brief speech to the Powwow audience about her family's contribution to the defense of the nation. She said her father, Edwin Smith, graduated from Haskell Indian High School in Lawrence, Kan., in 1935, and joined the Army in 1937. He retired from the Army as a master sergeant in 1964 after fighting in World War II and the Korean War.

Her father and mother met at an USO gathering in Washington in 1944 and were married in 1945. She was born in 1946. Both of her parents, who died about eight years ago, are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDecked out in her full regalia, Boe Harris-Nakakakena was the head woman dancer at Bolling Air Force Bases Veterans Powwow. Harris, a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa of Turtle Mountain, N.D., travels up and down the East Coast telling people about her American Indian heritage and culture. Photo by Rudi Williams  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageBoe Harris-Nakakakena, the head woman dancer at Bolling Air Force Bases Veterans Powwow, performs a dance with the Powwows head male dancer, Seneca Indian Michael Nephew. Harris is a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa of Turtle Mountain, N.D. Photo by Rudi Williams  
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