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BEYOND POCAHONTAS : Powwow Is Place to Meet Today's Native Americans

August 03, 1995|CORINNE FLOCKEN

Paula Starr is a Native American. She doesn't live in a tepee. She doesn't travel by horseback, go barefoot in the shopping mall or cook her family's meals over an open flame. If she says "ugg," it's probably because she's lifting something heavy.

Yet Starr, a Cheyenne whose family came here from Oklahoma 40 years ago in a government relocation program, says that, even in the supposedly enlightened '90s, there are still a lot of folks whose image of Native Americans is colored by those romantic but often grossly inaccurate black-and-white Westerns of old.

Fortunately, Starr is in a position to do something about that on a large scale. As assistant executive director of the Southern California Indian Center, she and members of more than 200 tribes from across North America will return to the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa this weekend for SCIC's 27th annual Pow Wow, a three-day public celebration of Native American culture past and present.

This year, powwow organizers will introduce an element targeted to young people. Led by SCIC education coordinator Ruth Ann Abrams, the Intertribal Children's Circle will offer interactive learning booths designed to help people from all ethnic groups understand the roots of Native American culture.

Programs, offered from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, include storytelling by volunteers--among them Alma Rail, SCIC board president and a member of the Seneca tribe, and Georgiana Sanchez, a Cal State Long Beach professor who is a descendant of the Chumash and Papago tribes. There will also be a display area with books and videos by and about Native Americans, as well as college and career training displays.

The children's area will feature arts and crafts tables where artisans will teach viewers to make such items as pine needle baskets, dream catchers, bead necklaces, pottery and clap sticks. There will be a small materials fee for the workshops; visitors can sign up at the event.

"We wanted to do something dynamic beside handing out flyers [about SCIC services]," explained Abrams in a phone interview from her office in Commerce. "Children learn by doing more than they do by seeing."

Dancers will stop by the circle throughout the days to teach informal workshops and explain the significance of the dances and their regalia, much of which is handed down from generation to generation, according to Abrams, who is part Seneca.

Although some children's circle volunteers will wear traditional dress, others will wear street clothes, a move that Abrams feels will help youngsters comprehend the link between ancient traditions and contemporary life.

"All of the people visitors will see here are from the community," Abrams said. "They're not necessarily professional dancers or artisans; they're regular people who have a whole other life with jobs, mortgages, families. Working beside them will go a long way toward correcting those old stereotypes."

Communication between Native American people and other ethnic groups is one of the primary goals of SCIC, agreed Starr, who frequently speaks to community, school and civic groups about Native American issues. In fact, the children's circle at the powwow is inspired in part by a recent outreach program SCIC has established with Santa Ana's Discovery Museum.

"The museum brings in students from different schools, and we do a workshop with the kids," explained Starr, speaking by phone from her Garden Grove office. "We share our culture, but [the activities] are based on where we are today. We show them that not every Indian wears feathers and leathers and lives in a tepee."

The powwow is a major fund-raiser for the nonprofit SCIC, which provides assistance, education, vocational training and other services to more than 20,000 Native Americans and others through its offices in Garden Grove, Los Angeles, Van Nuys, Carson and Commerce.

There are an estimated 190,000 people living in Orange and Los Angeles counties who can claim Native American heritage, making it the largest concentration in the United States, Starr said. There are more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the country, although the requirements for membership in those tribes differs by group. Some tribes, such as the Cheyenne, require a person to have one-quarter Indian blood. The Hopis require half Indian blood, while others demand as little as 1/64th.

Last year's SCIC powwow attracted about 25,000 participants and visitors from across the country. As in the past, highlights will include competitive and social dancing, demonstration and sale of Native American art and handcrafts, informative displays and traditional foods. On Saturday evening, members of the Chumash tribe will present the first public performances of three specialty dances--the swordfish, the bear and the vulture--in honor of a tribe elder who died several years ago. More than 500 dancers are expected to participate in the powwow.

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