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Pow wow brings past and future together for Native Americans

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 30, 2009 - Just off the neat pavement of Washington University, the thundering echo of a drumbeat lures unsuspecting bystanders into the heart of the gymnasium, where Native Americans from all over the United States gathered for an annual pow wow with their crafts, dancing skills and regalia.

They traveled far to meet with others who share their heritage. Young children wiggle impatiently as parents twist their long black locks into braids and adorn their small frames with bold and beaded frocks in preparation for the Grand Entry. Teens and 20-something men don brilliant plumes, bells and porcupine quills. These men are called "fancy dancers," as they gesticulate boldly in an athletic style of dance that delights and fascinates with its precise rhythm.

Adrian Primeaux, a 23-year-old student who grew up on a reservation in South Dakota, wears a brightly beaded breastplate and handkerchief. On his head he sports a head roach, a headdress made of colored porcupine quills. He says that, traditionally, only certain tribes wear the headdresses, but modern convention has changed things.

"Nowadays, it's like a contemporary form of pow-wow dress," he explains. "No matter what tribe they are from, everybody wears the head roach, everybody wears a headband, everybody wears the same kind of moccasins, and beaded stuff."

Leona Davenport

The beadwork is brilliant. Vendors from far and wide come to peddle their handcrafted wares. Bead artisan Leona Davenport didn't have to come far from her home in Wright City for this gathering, but she travels to out-of-state pow wows throughout the year.

"It's like a family reunion," Davenport says.

She says that the pow wows remind her of her childhood, going to pow wows with her parents. (Both were Native American.)."Every year [Indians who live out of state] would come for the pow wow. That was the only time you saw everybody."

Davenport's handcrafted wares range from necklaces and other jewelry to moccasins and purses. Her mother taught her the craft when she was 7 years old. Now she meets and talks with other artisans, sometimes purchasing silverwork or other jewelry to sell on her travels.

Small children wearing bright regalia stop and look at Davenport's wares. Many children begin dancing very young, and some are carried by their mothers during traditional dances.

"It's hard to describe how you feel, the connection," says Davenport. "Because when I was really young I used to dance like those kids do."

Liz Sanchez Setzer

Liz Sanchez Setzer's two, now grown, children used to dance at Cahokia Mounds, one of the Midwest's most visited Native American historic sites.

"They were filmed at Cahokia Mounds by National Geographic," Setzer says. "They both had to learn to do their own regalia."

Setzer's heritage is important to her. Her father's family was Comanche; and, although her father was a drummer, she says that he didn't talk much about his heritage because he came from a poor background. She and her family, however, became very involved in the Native American community and she served on the board of the American Indian Council in St. Louis in the '70s.

"We always try to keep up with our heritage by coming to a pow wow whenever we can -- eat the food and listen to the music," she explains.

Native American food is simple: Fry bread with honey, beef or chicken soups and corn bread.

"All of the Native American people have very good teeth," says Setzer. "That's because they never had sweets, potato chips or greasy foods."

Looking around and seeing all of the clear skin, shiny hair and white, strong teeth indicates that the Native American diet may not be a bad idea. Setzer, a widow, says that because her kids have moved away she has no one to cook for, so she stocks up on the cuisine when she comes to pow wows.

The cuisine, however, takes a back seat to the brilliant display of the Grand Entry as the moment finally arrives. Flashy feathers, brilliant fringe, beads and even sequins swish and jingle slowly around the floor in time to the thumping drum. The rainbow of dancers of all ages and from all tribes bounce, jump and stomp the rhythm. Tiny children mimic the adults as the dance circle spirals clockwise inward toward the drum circle. Singers chant as the beat intensifies.

"The drum is like a heartbeat," Setzer says, tearing up. "It never ends and it makes me feel good."

Solange Deschatres is a freelance writer.

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