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Bringing a Heritage Full Circle : The popularity of powwows grows as part of a renewed appreciation for American Indian traditions.


Stand close to the drums and feel their thunder. Voices rise in the air, singing of brave warriors, creatures of nature or beautiful women--stories first told when the land was young.

The dancers move nearby in the sacred circle. They are young and old, clad in buckskin and feather, porcupine quill and deerskin moccasin. Steps can be slow and stately or spirited and athletic. As darkness falls the voices soar, the dancers whirl in a splendor of color, the thunder of drums echoing off the trees.

This is an intertribal powwow, Southern California style. Derived from ancient religious ceremonies, powwows are increasingly popular for Southlanders who gather to socialize and revel in their Native American heritage.

San Fernando Valley area residents will soon have an opportunity to become acquainted with this uniquely American tradition in Lancaster at powwows April 7-9 at Antelope Valley College, and April 14-16 at the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds.

Held at different places throughout Southern California almost every weekend from spring through fall, powwows have a decidedly wholesome atmosphere: They attract a lot of families and they never allow alcohol or drugs. Visitors can shop for turquoise jewelry, dine on Navaho tacos and meet dancers wearing breathtaking feathered and beaded regalia.

Here is where American Indians pass on their heritage of singing and dancing and their reverence for nature, and where they stay in touch with their roots.

"It's a time for me to get away from things. I can have a lot of my culture all around me. It's like a little reality check," said 17-year-old Monica Big Left Hand of San Fernando, who grew up on the Cheyenne reservation at Lame Deer, Mont.

But, mirroring the sentiments of many young people, she acknowledges: "I like to go and see all my friends and dance and enjoy myself."

The growing popularity of powwows is something that Southlanders of Native American origin said they are pleased--but not surprised--about.

Some give credit to "Dances With Wolves," the 1990 movie about a white man adopted by Sioux that unabashedly romanticizes American Indian culture. Matthew Whitebear McMasters, head of the Native American Student Council sponsoring the All Nations Pow-Wow at Antelope Valley College, said that after that movie "people began to realize that it's kind of cool right now (to be Native American)."

Others cite the increase of American Indian descendants counted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1990. For instance, the census reported 120% more Chumash, originally the tribes living along the Southern California coast. Anthropologists credit that more to self-identification than a baby boom, evidence that people are more proud of their heritage even if it is diluted by intermarriage.

"Being an Indian is something you find in yourself," said McMasters, who said his father is Irish, his mother half Apache and half Cherokee.

Still others see powwows as a reaction to perceived isolation and fear in modern urban society.

"People in the dominant society are looking for something that they haven't found in their lives," said Saginaw Grant of Reseda, who is Sauk-Fox. "We all have within us spirituality, and being around Native people brings us closer to nature, and this is the way to make our spirituality grow within."

Whatever the reason, it's obvious that "Indian culture is back on the rise," in the words of Edna Rutledge, 17, Big Left Hand's cousin and a resident of the Pala Reservation in San Diego County.

"I want to hold on to my traditional ways and pass them on to my children," said the Fallbrook High School senior, who plans to attend UC Berkeley next year and often wins cash prizes dancing at powwows.

Rutledge cuts a stunning figure in the arena, wearing a dress decorated with intricate Cheyenne beadwork, fringe and 365 metal cones that jingle when she moves.

Her jingle dress, the cones formed from snuff can lids in a custom traced to Northeast U.S. Ojibwa tribes, represents one of several distinct powwow dance styles. Others include the beaded buckskin or wool dresses of the slower moving women's traditional dancers, and the elaborately colorful fringed shawls of the faster, high-kicking fancy shawl dancers.

Men compete in the so-called straight dance, originally a war dance; the fancy dance, featuring colorful regalia with hundreds of feathers, and the grass dance, distinguished by outfits with long fringe. Those outfits were worn by dancers who stomped down tall grasses to make a clearing for ceremonial gatherings in the Northern Plains.

The chance to learn more about Native American customs is among the great attractions of a powwow. To join in, simply bring a lawn chair and picnic lunch, if you want, and pick out a spot on the edge of the dance circle. Twenty-five to 50 yards or more in diameter, the circle surrounds the host drum in the middle. Other drums present are arrayed at intervals around the edge.

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