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The Cheerleader and the Cowboy: Lessons from a Powwow


Today, for the first time, I saw a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American Indian. Stephanie and I had been meeting Indian groups throughout the Southwest, and everyone from the Shoshone of Death Valley to the Puebloans of Taos had the same dark skin, black hair and ebony eyes. They looked Indian. She did not.

Upon closer inspection, however, I noticed that many people at the Fourth Annual Four Winds Powwow in Killeen, Texas didn't either. This being our first powwow, we weren't sure quite what to expect. I saw many light-skinned people wearing amazingly elaborate traditional dresses and dancing up a storm. Some spoke in what my untrained ear guessed to be a native language, while others formed a drum circle around the performance arena. Who was who here?

After watching a few of the dances and eating some delicious fry-bread (which Stephanie describes vividly in her article), we decided to interview one of the dancers who'd caught our eye. His outfit was striking, as were the feathers that adorned it. His face was painted yellow and black and he jingled when he danced. And boy, could he dance! We found out later that he was competing in the "Contemporary Tribal Dancer" category, which would be judged in the evening. He, like the other performers, was just warming up.

His name was David, and he's a Shoshone from Idaho. Well, half Indian and half white, to be precise. He explained that people sometimes ask him to prove his "Indian-ness," which he does by showing them his tribal I.D. Apparently, that happens often to those who, like him, look more white than not. He told us that anyone with some Native American blood could compete in the powwow dances. However, in his opinion, the rules should be changed to allow only those who are at least one-fourth American Indian to compete.

If that were the case, Anita would be relegated to the sidelines, which would be a shame, because she is also a great dancer. Anita is the blonde - and very white-looking - Indian I mentioned earlier. Well, she's one-eighth Comanche, to be precise. (Her great-grandfather was a full-blooded Indian.) She was born in a teepee and spent the first four years of her life without running water or electricity. Even now, after making the transition to the "modern" world, she and her parents own eight teepees, which they use regularly. Although she is generations away from being a full-blood, she is very proud of her heritage and feels strongly about upholding its traditions. She rightly points out that what matters is what she feels inside. Her outward appearance should not keep her inner Comanche self from shining!

Despite their differences, Anita and David have much in common. Both straddle two very different worlds - white America and Native America - and their appearances disguise their real roots. Both are committed to their traditions, especially the ones related to preserving and respecting the earth. In addition, both have spent several years touring the Powwow Trail and participating in the dance competitions. When David was young, for instance, he and his family spent the summers going from powwow to powwow, trying to win as many competitions as possible - the money they won paid for gas and lodging, and the more they won, the longer they could keep on traveling. Anita, for her part, has traveled all over the country attending powwows and has made many friends along the way, most of whom she competes against in the "Fancy Shawl Dance."

Wow! If I had met them on the street, I would have labeled Anita a "cheerleader" and David a "cowboy." I couldn't have been more off the mark!

At this most unlikely of venues, I met the most unlikely pair of Native Americans - two people who share a common history, but who also embody the diversity of their tribes and backgrounds. Often, American Indians are lumped together into one racial category - one hair color, eye color and skin color. I admit that I was guilty of this stereotyping myself. But Anita and David set me straight, showing me that what holds them together as Native Americans is as important as the differences that set them apart. Through that complexity, they defy stereotypes, enriching not only their own cultures, but each other's as well.


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Discovering what makes Sherman Alexie tick
Daphne - Living with those pesky, loud tourists at the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico
Stephanie - The time honored traditions of the Taos Pueblo Indians
Stephanie - So what exactly goes on at a powwow anyway?
Team - A little Native American-style Q & A to get your brain juices going