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Princess at the Powwow

A Sioux teenager from South Dakota will reign at the Indio festival of Native American culture.


"We have a big dinner too," says Ashley Phelps, describing how her family spends Thanksgiving. "We give thanks for our families, our freedom. It's a time of pride. It's a time for us to remember how we helped them."

By "them," 13-year-old Ashley means non-Native Americans. She is Oglala Sioux, from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

A bit shy when asked about herself, Ashley becomes quite articulate when discussing her family, the elders on the reservation, women's basketball at Stanford University (where she plans to someday study medicine) and her duties as this weekend's Indio Powwow Princess. It's easy to see why the powwow judges chose her.

The eighth-grader will dance in a place of honor at the three-day powwow, hosted by the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians in Indio, next to the Fantasy Springs Casino off Interstate 10. She'll wear traditional clothing that she and her mother made. Her grandmother, a full-blooded Oglala Sioux, does the beadwork, in designs unique to the tribe.

A powwow is "a celebration to welcome the new beginnings of life," says Judy Stapp, director of cultural affairs for the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.

Tribes from all over the country will gather from Friday through Sunday to compete for prize money in a variety of ceremonial drum, singing and dance competitions.

The spectacular regalia worn by the performers are among the main attractions for spectators.

For those who've gotten their fill of turkey, Indian fry bread and Indian tacos will be for sale. Booths offering handmade jewelry and other arts and crafts will be open throughout the powwow, which begins Friday at 5 p.m.

Ashley's yearlong reign as Powwow Princess began last March. Through next March, she will represent the Indio Powwow at all the powwows she attends.

Her parents, a younger sister and two younger brothers travel almost every weekend to powwows from Connecticut to California. Her father, Ted, leads a champion drum group.

Ashley is like many kids her age--she listens to Jennifer Lopez and Destiny's Child, and plays on the girls' basketball team at school. But she's also an A student and is president of the student council at her school on the reservation. More than anything, she is embracing the teachings of her culture.

"Learning my culture brings my family together," Ashley says. "When I set my mind to doing something, I try really hard and give it all I've got. But I do it in a humble way. I think a lot of that comes from my culture. It taught me to be humble, respect myself and my elders."

Two years ago, the elders gave Ashley the Indian name Wiyuca Omani, which means Walks as She Thinks. Ashley, says her mother, Alice, is a direct descendant of the Sioux chief Red Cloud, and Wiyuca Omani was his wife's name.

Ashley is glad when non-Native Americans come up to her at powwows to ask questions.

"I like to teach them how we really are," she says.

"We don't live in tepees, we don't make that sound with our hands on our mouths."

To those who might feel some guilt over the treatment of Native Americans since that first Thanksgiving, Ashley doesn't believe there is much ill will. "It's a time for peace, not to fight," she says.

This weekend, Ashley will perform what is known as the Jingle Dress dance. The Jingle Dress, her mom explains, is a medicine dress. Originally made out of deer hoofs, the modern version is made of metal lids.

As legend has it, says Alice, "a man's daughter was very sick. He had a dream that he should make a dress. If she put it on, it would heal her."

There are four parts to the dance: First, the girl has to be carried around in a circle. Second, she walks with help. Third, she walks alone. Finally, she dances.

"I like to dance," Ashley says. "I like to dance for the elders and for the people who are ill. I dance to make people feel better."

Indio Powwow, Fantasy Springs Casino lot, Interstate 10 and Golf Center Drive. Friday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. $4 adults, $3 seniors, $2 children ages 7-12, free for children 6 and younger. (760) 342-5000, www.

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