A growing show of pride

Powwow: Native Americans profit from sharing cultural wealth, but changes worry some.

August 14, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

When thousands of Maryland residents come to Baltimore this weekend in search of authentic Native-American fry bread, tribal drumming and spiritual Indian dances, they'll get that and more. But chances are what they see will only scratch the surface of Indian culture.

They'll get Native-American culture, the Cliff's Notes version.

As powwows -- such as the three-day one at the Baltimore Convention Center -- mushroom from small tribal affairs into sophisticated events, they encompass dozens of tribal traditions and customs aimed at attracting ticket buyers, up to 90 percent of whom are not Indian.

Such widespread appeal is crucial because, for many tribes and Indian cultural centers, powwows can be the biggest fund-raisers of the year. The Baltimore American Indian Center, playing host to its 25th annual powwow, expects to raise as much as 25 percent of its operating budget from this weekend's affair, according to executive director Milton Hunt.

As powwows become big business and tribes rely on outsiders for economic survival, many among the nation's 2.2 million Native American population worry that the purity of tribal traditions may be diluted -- or lost.

"Historically it has not been a good thing for us to partner with other people," Hunt says. "But if you rely solely on your community, nine times out of 10, we don't have the money. The question has always been, `Do we trade our identities to partner with other communities?' "

The question, though difficult, is not a new one.

Since Europeans arrived in America, Native Americans have given up many cultural traditions for sheer survival. Often regarded as uncivilized and godless, they were forced to stop using tribal languages, dances and other spiritual traditions to assimilate. Such discrimination continued until well into this century.

Now, the script has flipped.

Non-Indians are curious about Indian culture, visiting reservations and borrowing spiritual tenets from native cultures. And many are eager to attend the thousands of powwows held each year across the country to get a firsthand look at Native American traditions.

Interest in powwows, which are festival-like cultural and social events with spiritual undertones, has become a boon to Indians in need of money.

Most of Baltimore's 2,400 or so Native Americans belong to the Lumbee tribe, which struggles financially because it is not recognized by the U.S. government. Federal recognition leads to increased funding for schools, health care and other social services.

The BAIC is trying to raise $1 million to buy a new, larger building to house its cultural programs and other services. (This year, a $300,000 state bond was approved to contribute to the effort.)

"It is absolutely necessary to partner with other groups," said James A. Hardin, director of the Lumbee Regional Development Association in Pembroke, N.C. "We're at the end of the totem pole in the political power system."

Such relationships can be uncomfortable.

Some non-Indians are no longer satisfied with merely observing at some powwows and other public events. Many want to participate in dance and spiritual rituals that once were reserved for those enrolled and actively engaged in tribal life. Some claim distant Native-American ancestors.

For Indians who grew up on reservations or in close contact with their tribes, these participants often are derisively called "wannabes," said Millie Nicodemus, a Spokane Indian from Washington state who coordinated a recent Indian conference there focused on bridging the gap between Indian and Western religions.

"I call them generic Indians," she said. "They may be of Indian descent, but they perform these wild, Hollywood-type things. They are very destructive to true Indian spirituality." Stories have circulated of costumes that meld several Indian styles of dress -- or even resort to Davey Crockett-type costumes.

While Indians might welcome outsiders, many are careful with how they share their culture. Many reserve rituals and ceremonies for invitation-only groups, and -- especially at powwows -- request that certain costumes or dances not be photographed.

"Some tribes don't want that authentic regalia filmed because that may be a sacred dance for the tribe," Hardin said. "These are dances from before colonization, and there's more spiritual significance. Photographing would be seen as disrespectful, or to steal some of the spiritual value."

Said Hardin, "They do not divulge the innermost secrets, but they divulge enough to give a basic knowledge into what is really happening."

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