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 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
WASHINGTON 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.
Mountain Chippewa Indian Boe Harris-Nakakakena was the
head women dancer at Bolling Air Force Bases Veterans
Powwow. Photo by Rudi Williams (Click
photo for screen-resolution image
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
"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
"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,"
"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,"
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
"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.
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 (Click
here for screen-resolution image)
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 (Click
here for screen-resolution image)