Feeling the spirit at pow wow

Gathering of the Tribes a breath of life for culture

Posted: Sunday, July 07, 2002

Jeffrey Barnett waved a hawk feather over a seashell that cupped burning sage, and wafted the smoke over his regalia of bones and beads and his painted face.

Barnett, a Cherokee from North Carolina who moved to Juneau in March, was preparing to dance Saturday, the second day of the three-day Gathering of the Tribes Pow Wow 2002 at Centennial Hall.

"The sage is used for cleansing," Barnett said. It wards off evil sprits and brings good spirits, he said.

He designed much of his regalia himself - the beaded elk-hide shirt and pants, the dance fan of hawk feathers and the dance staff with a hawk's talons at the end, the red and brown markings on his face, the headpiece of horsehair.

Barnett said he's the only member of his family to take an interest in its Indian heritage. And because he's not wholly Cherokee, it was hard to get information from full-blooded tribal members about traditional ways, he said.

"So a lot of what's been taught me has been taught by the spirits," he said.

Barnett said it's sad that he couldn't learn more from Cherokees "because sooner or later the full-bloods are going to die off and the culture and traditions are going to die with them."

Tlingit canoe races at Twin Lakes that morning, in 30-foot fiberglass vessels shaped like traditional canoes, with Natives and non-Natives paddling, showed a way to keep traditions alive.

The races were sponsored by the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium and intended as part of the pow wow. Ray Wilson of Juneau, a member of the SEARCH elders board, said it was good to see the canoes in the water.

"I've looked for this day for a long time. A lot of the elder people were looking for this," he said. "This is part of our culture that needs to be reawakened."

Sonny Grant, a paddler with a team called One People that is composed of artists and family members, said he always wanted to participate in canoe races.

"We're all artists. It was artists in the past who made the canoes and the paddles," Grant said. "It definitely has a cultural meaning. It's just who we are - tides people. For a long time we lived along these waters and that was the main mode of transportation."

For Willie Tagaban, a member of the SEARHC women's canoe team, canoeing is simply fun. "It's very energizing to be out there, just to be out in the fresh air."

In practice sessions the paddlers learn "to be together, so you're working as one," Tagaban said. "Because if you're not working as one, you're off, the boat wobbles, and you're battling against each other."

Paddling in the traditional canoes "has a deeper spiritual meaning to it," said William Brown, captain of the Tribal Renegades men's team. "I feel pretty strong when I'm out there paddling. Sometimes when I get really tired, I think of the people who can't do it, who are old, or who are our ancestors. It gives me strength."

Leilani Knight-McQueen said of the secrets of canoeing technique: "What we believe is it's really in the spirit, the spirit of our ancestors, and the spirit of our children. If we go in the thought of representing them, we'll do well."

At the pow wow later that day Henry Medicine Bear Reid, an Apsaalooka Crow from Anaheim, Calif., spread out his regalia over several chairs at Centennial Hall and slowly put it on. He arrived in Juneau on the Carnival Spirit cruise ship, which brought Natives from the Lower 48 to Juneau to coincide with the pow wow.

Wearing turquoise cloths around his shoulders and around his waist, over a black T-shirt and exercise pants, he put on beaded moccasins and tied sheepskin leggings just above them. He put on a belt from which hung two strips of bells, and he attached the ends to his ankles.

He wrapped a beaded belt around his waist, and put on a bone and abalone shell breastplate and a beaded headband, and beaded bands on his arms and just above the wrists. He wore eagle feathers in a headpiece and on his back, and carried a dance stick and a beaded bag with a mirror.

"Generally, when the Crows dance they walk like a crow - very proud, and the mirror is just to call attention to yourself," Reid said.

"Everything is usually very, very personal" in talking about dancing. But, he said, "We keep our culture and traditions alive. You personally feel an immense peace when you dance."

Xavier Friday, 14, a member of a youth group from Kake that has learned Sioux dancing, said that when he dances he feels "free, not really paying attention to everybody."

Following the grand entry dance Saturday, there was a victory song, such as when warriors return from battle.

"This pow wow," said the emcee, Ronn Moccasin of Oregon, "this is a victory of our Native people. We are still here. We still survive. We still have our Native ways."

The pow wow continues today at noon at Centennial Hall. Admission is $10.

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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