Dear Fellow Native youth,
What does it mean to be a proud Native American or to have ‘Native Pride’? To actually have the confidence to say “Yeah I’m a Native American” or “Indian”, whichever way you choose to identify yourself. What creates this identity? Is it our own tribe’s customs, homeland, and language? All this can sound overwhelming, considering most of us learn English as our first language and learn our tribal language through school programs or in the home second. Or do we form our indigenous identity through the participation of powwow?
Powwows are social intertribal gatherings/celebrations of Native American tribes in which the participants partake in traditional dances, songs, and dress in regalia. The contest powwow however is the most popular and most practiced across North America.
Many onlookers associate powwows as a representation of all Native tribes across North America. Today it seems that the powwow community has grown in size and attention. Now this sounds like a, “Native Americans, finally they are recognized” sort of achievement. But, is this really a good thing? Many onlookers view Native Americans as a race that has assimilated into the mainstream western culture and as all one race, but are we also doing the same by accepting the bare minimum that we only see ourselves as just the label ‘Native Americans’? Not as a: Jicarilla Apache, Oglala Sioux, Hopi, etc. but as just ‘Native American’. Powwows, despite serving as a generic representation of all Native American tribes, has since become a double edge sword that threatens the very characteristics: customs, sense of place, and language, needed for us as our people/tribes next generation to form a sense of identity.
The powwow ‘culture’ of today seems to threaten the characteristics needed for Native Americans to form an identity that represents their tribe. Such traits include; customs, sense of place, and language. Customs such as the Kiowa Gourd Dance, once reserved long ago as a dance for warriors, has in some aspects, lost a bit of its sacredness since its induction into the powwows schedule of events.
The land has always been held in high regards for Native Americans. It is the link to the past, both the good and bad, and to our ancestors before us. For despite the hardships we as a people have faced and may face, the land will endure. Though this component has no direct link between powwow and to the loss of identity, it should still be noted as an important component to creating identity.
Language, the most important of the characteristics, is very much in danger of being lost. Many Native Americans learn English as their first language and often times its a choice if they want to learn their tribal language as well. Sadly, often times many do not learn their tribal language. This can be due to living in metro/urban cities where their Native language has “no potential”. However, the dark truth remains that if the language is lost, the culture and its people are lost as well. The flow chart can be explained as:
Language = Customs = Tribe ; If language is lost, all other areas will cease to exist.
Fun Fact 2: Did you know that the Navajo tribe, one of the largest Native American tribes in North America, in 1970, 90% of 4-5 year olds were fluent in the Navajo language. In the 1990’s only 17.7% were fluent and 54% spoke only English. What is the stat now!?
Interestingly though, there is a large attendance at powwows of those who speak primarily English. It has also been stated that one’s lack of fluency in their Native language actually increases their involvement in powwow.
Maybe this pinpoints that one uses the powwow culture as a substitution for identity, if one or more of the core components needed to form tribal identity is lacking or missing. That the relationship between the decreasing number of fluent Native speakers is proportional to the increasing involvement of powwows. That due to a number of reasons, that enable or discourage Native Americans from learning their own tribes culture and language, many have turned to powwow to serve as both their ethnic and tribal identity.
I know that for many I can come across as a ‘sellout’ or as just another lost cause, the daughter who turned against her own kind. I have to acknowledge that the information my argument is based upon were collected from a number of other scholarly text. That I am no elder with a large extent of tribal knowledge, in fact, I too am a part of the previously listed statistic. I am from the Navajo tribe, and though I know my clans, I will not share them here. I am a part of the statistic that is not fluent in my own people’s language. My message is not to underhand powwows, but to encourage us our tribes next generation, to not use it as a scapegoat. That in order for us, as a race, tribe, and individual to ensure our people’s survival, we should not trade in our own tribes’ customs and language, in favor for something more popular and easier. I respect the powwow culture, but I feel that in order to really say we are Native Americans or have “Native Pride” we must first learn each of our own people’s teachings and language. So that we all can truly say we are still here, and we shall remain, because we know who we are and where we come from.
-Nat S. (Dine)