The dance of history

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Powwow: The Baltimore American Indian Center celebrates Native American culture with a gathering this weekend

August 12, 1999|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

For Native Americans, a dance can be so much more than a dance. "They can be traditional or contemporary," says Keith Colston, a cultural consultant for the Baltimore American Indian Center.

Colston also teaches and choreographs dances for the Soaring Eagle Dance Troupe, which is scheduled to perform this weekend at the Baltimore American Indian Association's 25th Anniversary Pow-Wow celebration at the Baltimore Convention Center. "Traditional dances tell stories of hunts and battles of long ago," he says. "Contemporary ones are more upbeat with the music and tempo."

The movements of the different dances translate into different stories. There are victory dances, healing dances and dances that give the history of the Native American people, says Colston, whose tribal affiliation is Tuscarora-Lumbee. "The group has been around for the past five years," he says of the Soaring Eagles. "There is a core group of seven members."

The Soaring Eagles troupe grew out of the drug and prevention program for youth, Colston says.

"When you think of the term `Soaring Eagle,' soaring means progression," he explains. And eagle symbolizes Native American youth, he says. "Learning dancing and the culture became a vehicle and a tool for [fighting] drug abuse. They became more involved in the tradition and going around seeing other things. The message I try to get across is if you are involved in your culture, you might not be involved in other situations that would be harmful to yourself and bring dishonor to your people," Colston says.

The troupe has been practicing every Monday at the Patterson Park Recreation Center to prepare for the powwow.

"They will be performing various dances representing different geological areas as well as tribal people," Colston says.

"I narrate what's going on, give the meaning of the dance. I will explain what the dances are for, what they represent and how they should be done."

The troupe performs throughout the year at schools, universities and government agencies, Colston says.

The Soaring Eagles are affiliated with the Baltimore American Indian Center, at 113 S. Broadway. In addition to the Baltimore group, dance troupes are coming from around the country to compete for awards at the powwow, says Milton Hunt, executive director of the BAIC.

"The competition dancing is the essence of the weekend. People come to watch the people dance," he says.

Of course, there's no need to be Native American to attend. The powwow is open to anyone who wants to take part in the Native American celebration, Colston says. Local Native American leaders are expecting about 5,000 people to attend the powwow.

The powwow will also feature exhibitions, storytelling, drumming, flutes and a "friendship bracelet"-making workshop.

"This is our largest fund-raising event. Native Americans have such a rich cultural heritage, people should come out and support it," he says. "It would be a shame to lose some of that heritage."

To try to prevent that, the BAIC sponsors weekly and annual activities.

"Every week we have culture classes where we teach Native American dances and drumming," Hunt says. "Various cultural consultants from all over the country come in and teach. We also educate our Native American children on the written history of our tribe. And, of course, things like this weekend.

"Keeping the doors open [to the BAIC] also preserves the culture. People can come in and see the artifacts," Colston says.

According to the 1990 U.S. census, the most recent, there are more than 16,000 Native Americans living in Maryland and 6,444 in Baltimore.

The true number could be grossly underreported, Hunt says. Statistics experts estimate that at least 10 percent of the population is missed by census takers. Typically, it is minorities, the poor and people living in the city who are missed.

"Basically, like all other groups, people migrated from the South to the North as part of the Industrial Revolution," Hunt says. "They came to the area to work at places like General Motors and Bethlehem Steel."

Native Americans migrated to Maryland mostly in the early '50s, Hunt says.

The predominant Native American tribe in Baltimore is the Lumbee tribe, Hunt says. And most of the Lumbees came to Maryland from North Carolina.

"It's the ninth-largest tribe in the U.S., and it's the largest tribe this side of the Mississippi," the executive director says. "There are over 50,000 tribal members."

The Baltimore American Indian Association was initially formed to be the cultural center for the tribe members in Baltimore. It has been around for 31 years, since 1968.

"It began as a place where people could socialize and gather . . . a place where the culture could be preserved," Hunt says.

There is no reservation in the Baltimore area for Native Americans, so the Baltimore American Indian Center serves an important purpose.

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