In Layman's Terms: Pondering culture after a Native American immersion experience
Powwows are an exercise for the senses.
The bright colors of the dancing regalia hit nearly every color of the spectrum. The traditional songs and rhythmic tapping of the drum perks the ears.
I attended what was only my second powwow Aug. 25 as part of a contingent from the Great Plains Conference at the 147th Ponca Powwow near White Eagle, Oklahoma. Bishop David Wilson, the first Native American elected to serve as bishop in The United Methodist Church and part of both the Choctaw and Cherokee nations, invited the appointive cabinet, some representatives from the Mercy and Justice Team and staff members to a week immersed in Indigenous cultures across Oklahoma.
After a week of what I can only describe as heavy truth and broadened learning, we closed our time together celebrating with the Ponca people. Yes, it was hot. And that made what we saw that night that much more incredible: young people showcasing their talents in traditional dances that have been handed down from generation to generation.
What we saw was not a recital, a performance event that is something many white families — and others — take part in regularly. This was much, much more. It was a way of connecting to those who came before, those who endured, those who found a way to preserve their culture even as white Americans went to great lengths to strip them of it.
And as I watched these talented young people, a thought hit me. This group of people — and many others like them in the 570-plus tribes recognized by the U.S. government, along with many others not yet recognized — preserved this means of celebration, this way of honoring ancestors and a way of life that was nearly eradicated. They found a way to save one small piece of their lives amid so much loss.
And I asked myself “What do I, as a white person, have of that significance?”
I admit to being a little jealous.
I considered what had been passed down to me by parents and grandparents.
I thought of lessons learned — work ethic, how to make small repairs to lawn mower engines, and having the right tool for the job.
I thought about household kinds of things — recipes, decorative elements and hospitality.
I thought about our shared history — holiday practices, genealogy and how my mom and aunt would make sure graves were decorated on certain holidays.
And then I tried to think about deeply rooted customs like these songs and dances — the kind that gets passed down not just from one generation to the next but over centuries.
I couldn’t think of a single thing.
Maybe your answer is different than mine.
Isn’t it interesting that the people whose culture white settlers tried so hard to eliminate is the one that actually survived?
I think that’s what our weeklong journey was all about.
White settlers took land — all of it. And with it they took resources, food sources, medicinal plants, sacred objects. And, of course, lives.
Denise Estes, St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Lenexa, Kansas, and a member of the conference's Committee on Native American Ministries, ties a ribbon to a tree in honor of the people killed and kidnapped in the 1868 Washita Massacre. Photo by Todd Seifert
Our group walked the path from the road to the location along the Washita River in western Oklahoma, where Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry laid siege to women, children and people too old to fight in November 1868. Custer killed Chief Black Kettle — a man who willingly signed multiple peace treaties in an effort to save his people — along with the chief’s wife and many others. Custer also captured 53 survivors and then ordered his men to kill more than 600 horses.
While the loss of human life is most significant, the death of those horses can’t be understated. That loss seriously crippled the Cheyenne’s ability to hunt bison, to travel, and to defend themselves. It could be argued that except for a few flurries of success, including exacting revenge on Custer at Little Big Horn in 1876, the deaths of Black Kettle and all of those horses spelled the end of the Cheyenne’s dominance on the plains.
And that devastating event took place just four years — almost to the day — that American troops killed more than 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho women, children and elderly people in what became known as the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado.
That kind of history is preserved in the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City. It’s an amazing place that walks you through the history of origins of the Americas’ Native peoples, explains how treaties were falsified, or at the least dishonestly translated, and tells of how a people so beaten down managed to survive.
Our tour guide, Ace, said something profound during our visit (and I’m paraphrasing), “White settlers came to this land to avoid oppression and for freedom, and then they turned around and did the things they were fleeing to our people.”
And yet, what our group witnessed was not people full of hostility. Oh sure, some Native Americans are angry over what has happened to their people. That’s understandable. But that wasn’t what we witnessed among the people we met.
Frustration? Definitely, but not with a grudge toward any of us. Instead, we saw people overflowing with hospitality and kindness.
Now, it’s true that we were traveling with Bishop Wilson, who really is pretty close to a rock star in Oklahoma and seems to know everyone there, but we’ll get into that at another time. I suspect we would have been treated the same way if the bishop wasn’t associated with us or traveling with us.
We visited Skyline Urban Ministries, which was started by the Oklahoma Conference in 1968 but has seen its ministry grow by leaps and bounds in recent years. A key piece is a garden that largely uses indigenous practices to energize the soil and coax vegetables to grow. Travis Andrews is the garden program manager. A member of two tribes not settled in Oklahoma, Travis shared with our group some of the natural ways he fertilizes soil, keeps bugs away and continually cares for a garden that has become a huge part of Skyline’s food pantry program.
Travis was rightfully proud of the garden, and I think we’d still be there talking — and eating the amazing potato-and-meat dish he served our group — if we didn’t have to return to Kansas and Nebraska.
We also experienced a Native American dinner with fry bread tacos at Mary Lee Clark United Methodist Church just outside Oklahoma City. Three women sang Native hymns praising Jesus as part of our time with them.
A jarring thought I had continually during our trip is how the so-called “savages,” as white settlers often spoke of indigenous peoples, were actually quite the opposite.
I wish I could say the same for white people amid the history of our country. You see, on Aug. 24, we attended a museum dedicated to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. It was there that the so-called Black Wall Street was burned to the ground by white people in Tulsa.
The reason was the same as what was done to Native Americans: greed. But the odd thing in this tragic episode from history is that the white people surrounding the segregated area known as Greenwood didn’t want the property there. Oh, they looted and took anything of value from Black people who had been burned from their homes and thriving businesses. But white people didn’t want the land inside the segregated part of town.
They just didn’t want anyone else to have it, either.
Great Plains Conference cabinet members view an exhibit about hatred in the Greenwood Rising Black Wall Street History Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Photo by Todd Seifert
As many as 300 people were killed.
I know in history books we often see this episode from Tulsa, and it’s deemed a “race riot.” But that is just the victor dictating the name in history. What they don’t tell you is that a young Black man was about to be lynched for running into or bumping up against a white woman in an elevator. That’s how it all started. The history books often don’t tell you how white supremacists used airplanes to track people as they fled the flames and fired guns at them. And then I learned something I had never heard before. Many of those fires were started by dropping incendiary devices from the air.
That’s right, one of the first recorded instances of using planes as bombers comes not from war abroad, but Americans using them on other Americans in the middle of the country.
See what I mean? This trip was heavy in truth and broadened learning.
So, the bright colors and traditional songs of the powwow came at a good time, at least for me. The people I spoke with and the young people I saw celebrating their heritage helped lighten the load, if only for a few hours on a sultry August evening in northern Oklahoma.
I honestly don’t know if we can ever set things right. Too many people of all colors now “own” land that once belonged to indigenous peoples. And when it comes to the overt racism that African-Americans endure each day and the legacy of slavery, I don’t think there’s anything but more time and, perhaps, a few economic accommodations that can be made to allow Black people a chance grow and pass down wealth to their posterity.
But I do think I know where to start.
We can tell the real history — the true stories — of what happened. For fellow white people like me, that means confronting some difficult content. It means swallowing hard and recognizing that some of our ancestors — yours and mine — played a part in oppressing and, frankly, stealing land, property and culture.
Like I said, difficult content.
Two adults talk as they work around the dance circle at the Ponca Powwow near White Eagle, Oklahoma. Photo by Todd Seifert
But when it doesn’t seem like you can face those realties, I challenge you to remember the faces of an adult man and woman that I managed to take a photo of during the first dance at the Ponca Powwow. I watched them turn the corner of the large circle, and they never stopped smiling. I have no idea if they are related. But I think it’s clear they knew one another. And the powwow was clearly a sense of pride for them.
It was their loved ones taking part.
It was their opportunity to support the young people there that night.
And it was a chance to practice their heritage, to honor their culture, one more time.
History in the present day.
It was truly a time for celebration.
Todd Seifert is communications director for the Great Plains Conference. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.