When U.S. soldiers returned home from Vietnam, some were received with disapproval, if not outright hostility, said Vietnam veteran Arnold Littlehead of Vancouver.
In contrast, many Native American soldiers, such as Littlehead, were welcomed warmly into their circle of friends and family, often in the festive setting of a pow-wow.
Originating in the late 1800s as a way to preserve a threatened culture, pow-wows made a comeback after World War II with the intention of recognizing “warriors” for their service.
“A lot of native songs were created during World War II to honor people going into the military or going overseas,” said Littlehead, 62. “When they come back from war, we have a ceremony that will clean them. They are welcomed back into a circle of friends and relatives. They are welcomed back in a good way so they know that whatever happened there, it happened there and it’s not happening here.”
The tradition was alive and well Saturday at Covington Middle School’s annual pow-wow in Vancouver.
The local Title VII Native American Indian Program, administered jointly by the Evergreen, Vancouver and Battle Ground school districts, has sponsored the pow-wow since at least 1980, said Teresa Florendo, the program’s assistant
The event helps accomplish one of the program’s missions: to connect students with their Native American culture. The program also provides academic support, such as tutoring, to its more than 400 Native American students in grades kindergarten through 12. The program’s students represent more than 50 tribes, Florendo said.
The pow-wow’s Grand Entrance honors veterans by bringing them in a procession onto the dance arena, in this case, Covington’s gymnasium floor. Dancers and drummers accompanied them, prancing on soft moccasins and creating a riot of color and textures from their regalia (traditional garb) and movements. Then, the gathering sings a series of high-pitched warbling songs in the veterans’ honor. That includes the Honor Song, one of those songs composed during the World War II era, Littlehead said.
Each of about 35 veterans on Saturday introduced him or herself and shook everyone else’s hand on the arena. Nanette Robinson of Camas stood in for her husband, U.S. Special Forces veteran Billy Robinson, who died Feb. 3 at the age of 71. She said the pow-wow’s recognition of her husband during and after his life is comforting.
The honorees also included World War II veteran Robert Korhonen, 90, of Portland. Korhonen isn’t Native American, but his wife of 52 years, Vivian, was. She died in 1995.
Sergio Dominguez, the pow-wow’s head male dancer and a senior at Evergreen High School, said he was disconnected from his Native American culture until he was enrolled seven years ago in the Native American program. Through the program, he learned how to do traditional grass dancing and drumming.
He wore grass dance regalia for Saturday’s pow-pow. The regalia includes skirts and collars of ribbons to remind of grass.
The dance celebrates the Plains Indian legend of a blind boy who asked a shaman if he could dance. The boy danced, and suddenly he could see. The first thing he saw was the grass of the plains.
Dominguez said his native culture also instilled in him a deep respect for his elders and those who serve in the military, and he believes appreciation for veterans is more emphasized in native culture than in mainstream American culture.
His personal admiration for veterans inspired him to join the U.S. Army after graduation.
“I respect my elders and look up to them,” Dominguez said. “Seeing what they did for our country, so we could be here today, that’s what motivates me (to join the Army), so I could set that example for the next generation.”
Free of charge, the pow-wow entices thousands of spectators from around the metro area each year with traditional dancing, drumming, cultural information, fry-bread and native clothing and crafts for purchase.