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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


December 1, 2001 - Issue 50


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Indian Performers Find Cultural Roots

Photo of a Haudenosaunee Gustoweh

Sherry Phillips' children grew up on Shonnard Street only 10 miles from the Onondaga Nation's land.

But her urban children had more contact with white, Latino and black urban cultural experiences than with their own Native American heritage.

They knew the words to the rap and rock songs, but not the songs their forefathers had been singing for centuries. That situation is changing - for her children and other Native American children in Syracuse.

This summer, Phillips and Victoria Truax formed the Iroquois Family Singers and Dancers, a nonprofit performance group, to nurture the bond between Syracuse's urban Indian children and their culture. Four of Phillips' offspring - and about a dozen other children in the group - have proven to be quick studies.

They can now not only sing and dance to many Native American songs, but are competing at powwows against children who have lived on Indian reservations their whole lives.

"It's fun," said Chucky Phillips, 11, a sixth-grader at Delaware Elementary School. "We get to travel."

"These are urban children. They've never been on the reservation. But in their hearts, they know who they are," said Elwood Webster, 62, an Oneida who is a mentor to many of the young performers.

Tonight, the Iroquois Family Singers and Dancers will hold their first fund-raiser. After the meal, the performers will put on a show.

The group hopes to use profits from the dinner - which will also include Native American foods such as corn soup and fry bread - to pay for a trip to the Canadian Aboriginal Festival.

The Canadian festival is expected to draw a thousand Native American dancers and drum/singing groups on Nov. 24 and 25 to Toronto's SkyDome, where they will compete in various categories.

The 17 children in the Iroquois Family range in age from 1 to 17, Phillips said. They are Oneidas and Mohawks. Most of them live in the Near West Side neighborhood near Blodgett School, Phillips said.

"I know way more (about Native American culture) than I did before," said Jeffrey Lashomb, 13, an eighth-grader at Frazer School who began learning traditional dances three years ago. "It makes me feel better that I know about my culture and background."

There are about 550 Native American children in Syracuse public schools.

The Iroquois Family learned many of their songs and dances from Russell Smith, an instructor in the city school district's Native American program, Phillips said.

"They learned quickly," said Webster, a Shonnard Street resident who taught Chucky Phillips and other children how to make their own traditional Iroquois headdresses, called gustoweh, out of leather, wood and eagle feathers.

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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