American Indian life is vacation program's focus

July 05, 1992|By Shirley Linde | Shirley Linde,Contributing Writer

The Indian leader called out the song in Comanche, and the Indians, some costumed, some in jeans and Western shirts, started a circle. The drum beat the rhythm, the dancers chanted, and a sound like that of a thousand crickets was made by the turtle shells and homemade metal shakers on the women's ankles as they shuffle-stepped around the circle. We were watching a traditional stomp dance at an American Indian powwow.

There were eight of us there as part of a vacation program called Journeys into American Indian Territory.

Imagine spending a week traveling from tribal area to tribal area, camping in a tepee, learning Indian culture, joining powwows, seeing sacred sites and learning Indian music, while an anthropologist and tribe members explain the background and history of what you are experiencing.

The trips, run by anthropologist Robert Vetter, take place in Oklahoma, home of 66 tribes. The small groups, usually from 10 to 20, stay at three camping sites in different parts of the state and travel by van to visit members of a variety of tribes. The tribes are mostly Plains Indians -- those who hunted buffalo on horseback and traveled across the Great Plains as the buffalo moved -- and they are the same ones who were featured in "Dances with Wolves."

You don't just go sightseeing on this vacation. You meet with members of the Cheyenne, Comanche, Pawnee, Cherokee and Apache tribes. You set up tepees, visit in homes, talk to artists and musicians, listen to tribal chiefs and elders, and talk one-on-one with those who have lived through the changes over the decades. You participate in Indian life, sit shoulder to shoulder around a fire, talk about traditions and life stories, share meals, joke and fight mosquitoes together.

"Unlike tourists who stand outside and peer in, you go inside and share a small slice of tribal life," says Mr. Vetter.

The one-week trips are partly an experience of 100 or so years ago: Indians don't live in tepees anymore (in fact, many agricultural tribes lived in log cabins, not tepees, even in the 1800s and earlier) and it is partly an experience of modern Indian life: The food and tepees arrive by pickup, and you and your duffel bags do your traveling by van.

Our group was met at the Oklahoma City airport and, with a cassette playing stomp dance music in the van, driven to our first stop -- two hours northwest in Cheyenne territory to a tranquil campsite overlooking Canton Lake in Canton State Park.

There we met Dwight Fletcher, a Cheyenne who often cooks for more than 200 at Cheyenne powwows, and Michelle Hummingbird, an educational consultant and a Cherokee with a degree in political science. We had our first lesson in setting up a tepee from Homer Buffalo, who, with his 83-year-old mother and other family members, has made more than 500 tepees over the years. He talked of carrying the poles for the tepees one-quarter mile from a canyon and of his experiences as one of the famed Black Legging Warriors, who volunteered for single-man scouting expeditions in Vietnam.

The next day we started our rounds of visits to meet other American Indians and see Indian museums and were thrilled to be able to buy handmade jewelry, beadwork, leather goods, buckskin moccasins and boots, paintings and original sculpture directly from the makers.

Later, Mr. Fletcher arranged for his father, a sun-dance priest and respected Cheyenne elder, to take us to one of the sacred sites where sun-dance ceremonies are held. He and a sun-dance head ceremonial priest showed us medicine bags, ceremonial pipes, Indian tools and artifacts and told how the sun-dance ceremony was for renewal and healing. The chosen men dance for three days, with no food or water, and time out only to change their paints and prayer clothes.

"There were many misconceptions of the early white man," the xTC ceremonial priest said. "For example, the sun dance was to worship the maker of the sun, not the sun itself."

The next day we met another Cheyenne elder, Redhat, and his family at their home and learned about Indian medicines. He talked about using red cedar berries for diabetes and high blood pressure and to lower cholesterol.

We also met 94-year-old Willie Lena, who told stories of the old days, of friendly encounters with wolves, of sightings of Big Foot and of treating his people with medicinal plants. He recommended bitterwheat for allergies and sinus trouble. (Oklahoma is filled with ragweed.)

It was truly a learning vacation. For instance, we became familiar with proper tepee etiquette: You traditionally enter toward the left and leave toward the right to form a circle, an important

symbol of unity in Indian culture. Also, the 12 o'clock position opposite the tepee door is the position of highest honor, and you leave it empty, so it can used by a guest.

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