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I Went to a Native American Pow Wow—This Is What I Learned

My expectations came from a second-grade textbook, but what I found was strength and purpose shining through the sage smoke.

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Native-Americancoutersy Taylor Markarian

My pow wow invitation

Growing up a student of literature, I’ve been reading Sherman Alexie for a long time. He’s the Native American poet all teachers of the genre teach, giving outsiders a glimpse of what his sliver of the reservation was like as well as the deterioration of his culture. But while I know such deterioration exists, and that I can’t fully understand what it feels like, deterioration is not what I felt when I attended a pow wow nestled under the great humps of New Jersey’s Ramapo Mountain State Forest. Instead, a bond as strong as I’ve ever felt reverberated throughout the fields. Check out the top 20 places to go hiking in America.

I had been invited to the pow wow by a coworker, known as Little Wolf. He and his family are part of the Ramapough nation, who were the majority at the gathering in Ringwood, New Jersey. I decided to accept his invitation because I wanted to get a glimpse of this disappearing culture. When given the opportunity, I love to be able to look outside myself and see from another’s perspective, to learn about lives other than my own. Not only did I get to gather with the Ramapough, but also other esteemed nations that were in attendance as well, including the Munsee-Delaware, the Shinnecock, the Aztecs, and several more.

Before getting out of my car and heading to the pow wow, I already had a hundred questions whizzing about my brain. Would it be solemn or would it be festive? Would we be passing pipes? And if we were, what would we be smoking? Of course, all of this was based on a cursory knowledge of the culture, the majority of which was taught to me in the second grade. And to be sure, as I walked in I was entirely aware of my ignorance. But I was eager to learn.

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Native-Americancoutersy Taylor Markarian

Pow wow ground rules

Native American pow wows aren’t exclusive, by the way. I didn’t know that until I’d been invited to one, but absolutely anyone is welcome to attend. However, if you aren’t a member of one of the nations, you do have to beware of crossing boundaries. For example, if you sit in a vacant lawn chair as an outsider, you will get slapped on the wrist by an elderly clanswoman. (Little Wolf had offered me the seat but apparently, it was not his to offer—it was his grandmother’s.) You also must not enter the circle of the pow wow—where they perform their ceremonial dances—without first being smudged and thus purified by sage. You will also get yelled at by a shaman if you attempt to take a picture of someone receiving the smudging, as they believe it will steal the person’s soul. The shaman himself walked my way later that day (after chastising me for attempting to raise my camera) to give me a proper sage cleansing, during which he turned to my friend and coworker, Little Wolf, and said, “She does not understand our ways.” I tried to be respectful and mindful, but I was still clueless.

Don’t get the wrong idea. They were not mean or bad in any way. They were strong and stoic. Not just their words, but just their presence demanded respect. They gave me food and kindness, but I was an outsider, and I had to accept my place. Being a vegetarian, I stayed away from the overwhelming amounts of venison (a staple for their people) and stuck to pasta salad. Read up on 11 more healthy picnic dishes.

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Native-Americancoutersy Taylor Markarian

Pow wow rituals

The pow wow lasted for several hours, beginning with a sacred ceremonial dance dedicated to their creator. During this ceremony, flags of various indigenous nations were walked around the circle. Curiously, the United States flag and the Marine Corps flag were amongst them. In fact, the U.S. flag was one of the very first to come out. This puzzled me. I might not have known much, but I knew, at least, that relations between white Americans and the indigenous peoples haven’t been amicable; you can learn more about this history from reading about these important Native American traditions and beliefs.  I asked the chief of the Ramapough about this complicated relationship.

“I think on many, many levels,” Chief Perry (he gives me his American name) tells me, “the relationship is contentious. But the other part is that we’re honoring all the people of this nation. We’re not necessarily honoring the idea of capitalism, we’re honoring the idea of people who have been here so long.”

Check out these 10 stunning examples of Native American artistry.

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Native-Americancoutersy Taylor Markarian

Pow wow takeaways

And as the loud beating of the drums surrounded me and the bright colors and eagle feathers of traditional dress swirled about me, I indeed felt the strongest sense of community that I’d ever known. Their culture may be in peril, but they live with incredible conviction and pride. Upon asking Little Wolf to point out his family for me at one point, he simply says, “We’re all family.”

To many, the life of Native Americans may be something of a secret or a shadow, but it carries on with great force. Pow wows take place frequently throughout the year. They sound off with conch shells. They smoke sage and trace again the same dancing steps their ancestors did centuries ago. Their souls are sturdy and unshakable and sure. They laugh and they smile. So to Sherman Alexie, I must say that what I saw was much brighter than I’d been made to imagine.