Living Native in da U.P. 1

This coming weekend is Powwow weekend. I’m excited because this will be my first powwow as a rez resident. I live here now and don’t have to worry about traveling home after my vacation. It’s also my first powwow as a Tribal Veteran and beginning Elder at 59 years old.

I was thinking about my mom’s black velvet regalia dress that will be given to my niece this year as she is now 17. It’s a 3-generation dress, mom and I have worn it and now Rosa will wear it. It brought good memories but also some regret that I have no pictures of me in the dress.

November 23-30, 1986 was declared Native American week by President Reagan. I was in the Air Force at the time, and they got money to have some sort of celebration for Native military folks. No one knew what to do and so they got into people’s records and found out which military and civilian folks had Native blood. They brought us together, told us we had to come up with some kind of celebration thing and we had 1 month to plan this. We even had permission to get away from our regular duties to plan this thing. At Scott AFB, we had 5-6 folks, including myself and a coworker from the Navajo Nation.

I was in my 20’s at the time and hadn’t grown up as an “indian”. I had no idea what it meant; I had no working knowledge. My coworker had so much more as he was rez born and raised. His people were still traditional. As our little group struggled to make something out of nothing, we quickly realized that this whole thing was for show. It was their way of saying “hey, we treat our Natives well!” We decided to do our best and have as much fun as we could.

We thought about having a powwow or something like that but no Native organizations around us were willing to help. So, we planned a luncheon with ourselves as speakers. We each got about 15 minutes to talk about our tribe and we wore traditional regalia if we had some. This is when I wore my mother’s dress.

I had to do a lot of research and kind of felt like a phony talking about ways that I knew nothing about. It was a light bulb moment for me as I learned that I was lacking in some basics of who I was and where my roots came from.

The Air Force never had us do another celebration like that. In fact, they didn’t even say anything about that month at all being important for us Natives. I wasn’t alone in learning about my lack of knowledge. A couple of the other folks felt that way too. We stayed in touch for a while, until I got out in 1990. It was a bright moment in time but also a half-hearted attempt to keep people happy. Our little group did good though and we all got commendations for it.

I now live on my home rez. And I’m learning more what it means to me to be Native. Stay tuned.

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