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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


September 7, 2002 - Issue 69


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Tradition, Culture, Healing

by Sean Robinson; The Tacoma News Tribune
credits: Russ Carmack | The News Tribune
GrassdancingBunski Leonard danced on the air, his steps so light and secret that gravity could not find him.

Lifted by a cadence of drums and chants, he laughed at the ground of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians headquarters until the old song floated away. Earthbound again, he walked from the grassy dance floor, and the bells on his legs clattered.

His grandparents taught him to dance 54 years ago at his home in Warm Springs, Ore., when he was 6. Ever since, he has shared his gift with anyone willing to watch. Sunday was his third visit to the Puyallup tribal powwow. It won't be the last.

"It makes me feel really good when I have my eagle feathers on and I can dance for the older people," said Leonard, 60. "That's always been my goal, to make Indian people feel good."

The weekend powwow was the 23rd and the last such festival at the tribe's headquarters at East 28th Street in Tacoma. Tribal leaders plan to build a $200 million entertainment complex on the site. A new casino, hotel and commercial center is scheduled to open in fall 2004.

Leaders haven't settled on a new site for the annual powwow. The tribe intends to build a new headquarters in Fife, on a 20-acre site purchased last spring, but the new facilities won't be ready by next year, and maybe not the year after that.

"We'll probably have it at Chief Leschi," said Sharon Nelson, a member of the tribe's powwow committee. "But nothing's decided."

Powwow parking and space for dancing and booths will be a challenge if the tribe relocates to the Leschi school site in Puyallup. It isn't big enough, Nelson said, though she didn't sound too concerned.

Visitors to the powwow didn't mourn the loss of the current site. They ambled past the craft booths, watched the dancers, and ate fresh fry bread.

Donna Douglass, 63, and Gloria Stancich, 67, have no ancestral connection to the tribe. The Gig Harbor residents came Sunday for the spectacle. Stancich, a powwow veteran, finally persuaded her friend Douglass to come and see it.

"It's marvelous," Douglass said. "I love all the gorgeous colors and wonderful drums."

Both women mentioned an unexpected bonus: respect for senior citizens - people actually helping, or clearing the way.

"It kind of takes your breath away, because you're not used to seeing that sort of treatment," Douglass said.

But Ger-Bear Elkins, 29, had a sad tale. She came to the powwow to heal a little, and remember her troubled boyfriend, who shot himself a year ago, only a few days after attending last year's event.

"I just come out here and watch the Indian people dance," she said. "It helps."

The notion of cultural ties, of a common cultural bond, isn't just talk, according to Tacoma resident Robert Brien, 55, who sings in a traditional drum group called the Windy Point Singers. A member of the Crow Tribe, he's been coming to the Puyallup powwow for five years and has attended many more in his native Montana.

Keeping the traditions alive is especially important for younger members of all tribes, Brien said.

"It teaches a lot of the younger children that there is something to being an Indian," he said. "Our kids are being influenced by other cultures instead of their own."

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