Dear Nadine, how can I educate my kids about other’s spiritual beliefs? Thanks, Diverse Dad, Dakota, MN
A couple of years back we took our kids along to attend the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Wacipi (Wa-chee-pee in Dakota means “they dance”), which is held annually every August. It was our first visit — and it took our breath away.
At the powwow, hundreds of Native Americans and their friends and family from across the USA and Canada congregated to celebrate Dakota culture, spirituality and tradition all wrapped up in a feast of drumming, song and dance.
As we watched from the bleachers, sitting alongside other non-Indian families, the Master of Ceremonies invited us to stand for prayer as the eagle staff and the national, state, tribal and veteran’s flags were carried regally into the sanctified space of the arena. At that point, the drumming that marked the Grand Entry began, and it was loud, exhaustive and jaw-dropping.
Drumming, of course, is a sacred and central component of the powwow as it is in most Native American tribal ceremonies, celebrations and spiritual events. At the Mdewakanton Sioux Wacipi, a large number of drums — two to three feet wide — were played communally by groups of Native men, supported by watching onlookers. It is traditional in a powwow that there is a Host Drum (sometimes two — a Northern and Southern Host Drum), which is determined based upon expertise and reputation and which fills in, should other drums be unready to sing.
Native American culture requires that drums are handled with respect and regard. They are seen as a spiritual tool — the heartbeat of Mother Earth — that helps to align the mind and body with the spirit, either through listening to the drum or by participating in the song and dance that the drum initiates. As Native Net writes, “Native American drums are recognized as their own living entity and symbolize a strong tie with the creator. To many Native American tribes, the Native drum contains thunder and lightning, and when it is beaten it helps to get the creator’s attention and it also helps contact the spirits of the Native American forefathers.”
The Grand Entry is a powerful baptism into Native American culture. Between the sheer numbers of dancers of all ages who enter the Arbor — each moving in foot-skipping, unending concentric circles — to the thunderous volume of song, the Grand Entry is a spectacle; and that spectacle is made marvelous by the regalia.
Every dancer wears regalia created especially for the type of dance they’ll perform. Regalia are splendid, colorful and, depending on the dance, may be historically accurate, speak to tribal affiliations and ancestry, family membership and vision quests. The Women’s Traditional Dance, for example, requires the wearing of a “fringed shawl…folded over one arm, an awl and knife case on the belt and a feather (often eagle) fan…and will (also) feature beautiful beadwork in patterns and colors that reflect tribal and family affiliation.”
Similarly, the Fancy Feather Dance necessitates the wearing of “loom beaded sets of suspenders, belt cuffs, headband, and armbands,” as well as large feather bustles, moccasins and sheep bells worn beneath the knee.” Dancers often wear additional regalia elements such as shields, rattles, breastplates, headdresses, dance sticks or knives that may have been gifted to them from tribal elders or other important people in their lives — and they are worn with pride.
As the regalia are replete with history and tradition, so are the songs and dances that are performed, like the Woman’s Fancy, the Grass Dance or the Northern Traditions, which have been passed down through generations via the oral tradition. And though an unschooled non-Indian may find it challenging to appreciate the intricacy of the different footwork or comprehend the meaning behind each type of dance, being able to watch the competition and witness dances that are steeped in history and culture is simply special.
As we wandered around the busy arts and crafts booths later that afternoon, ooh-ing and aaaah-ing over the totem animal jewelry, the beaded and leather goods, the art and quillwork — and as we tasted fry bread and sampled a buffalo burger, and watched the dancers in their breathtaking regalia weave around the stands and hang out with their families — I couldn’t help but cherish the unique experience we’d enjoyed.
For that afternoon, it felt like we’d entered another world — one where a people from an ancient past reached out and joined hands with their descendants and danced.
What You Can Do
This summer, take your kids on a spiritual tour of the Northwest. Attend a powwow or visit a Buddhist temple or enjoy a festival at a Greek Orthodox Church or participate in a singalong at the SoShine Festival. Recognize that by opening up your kids’ minds to another’s spirituality and culture, you’re also opening up their hearts to others and helping bust stereotypes or misconceptions.
To ensure an enjoyable visit, do some research first and teach your kids about why they’re attending, what they might see and learn and how to appreciate the experience.
While you’re visiting, encourage your kids to ask polite questions and sample different food and beverages. And afterwards, sit down with your kids and talk about what they enjoyed, what they found to be different and what they took away.
Finally, take photos and hang them in your kids’ bedrooms as a reminder that we can each learn from and appreciate the spiritual diversity that makes up our world.