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June 1, 2020

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Powwow unites dance, song and story

History lives as students, their families and their community hold a powwow

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Koda-Wataka Robinson, 15, front, of Camas dances Saturday during the Grand Entry at a traditional powwow.
Koda-Wataka Robinson, 15, front, of Camas dances Saturday during the Grand Entry at a traditional powwow. Students' families and communities join to teach history and culture in the Title VII Native American Indian Program. Photo Gallery

Olissa Dominguez performed the Girls’ Fancy Shawl Dance at Saturday’s Traditional Pow-Wow wearing soft moccasins and a colorful butterfly shawl carefully sewn by her mother and grandmother.

It’s not a costume, she stressed. “It’s called regalia,” the 12-year-old Pacific Middle School student said: traditional Native American garb, hand-made based on designs passed down through generations, which holds meanings not obvious to the casual observer.

The powwow at Covington Middle School was steeped in tradition, from a dance and ceremony honoring Native American military veterans to an invocation delivered in the Navajo language to the high-pitched warbling of the Flag Song by a youth drum circle from the Yakama Nation.

Master of Ceremonies Bob Tom explained that the song “represents the relationships that we have with the sky and the Earth.”

Olissa, who is of Athabaskan and Inuit heritage, is one of about 300 Clark County students enrolled in the Title VII Native American Indian Program, administered jointly by the Evergreen, Vancouver and Battle Ground school districts. The program sponsors the annual pow-wow, and most of its students take part.

Their heritages are as diverse as the dances and drumming.

“Our program represents 53 different tribes,” said Gary Wallace, the program’s staff coordinator.

Students in the program get tutoring and extra help with academics. Parents, grandparents and other relatives teach them traditional dancing, languages and drummaking.

It’s a far cry from the days when Native American children were shipped off to boarding schools and punished for speaking their native languages.

“Our parent advisory group gives us direction,” Wallace said. “We ask the parents to come with their kids.” This year, the program is focusing on helping students in K-8 with reading, and preventing dropouts in grades 9 to 12.

Wallace works closely with Robert Barnes, who heads the Title VII parent advisory group, to organize the all-day gathering that draws dancers and drummers from throughout the metro area and beyond. Free of charge, it often attracts 1,000 or more to watch the dancers in their elaborate regalia, eat fry-bread and shop for jewelry, clothing and craft goods.

This year, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt and Police Chief Cliff Cook were among those who stopped by.

Saturday’s program began with a solemn Grand Entry and Color Guard procession and a ceremony honoring veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. That was followed by a series of intertribal dances, in which members of the audience were invited to take part.

Each dance has its legend, as Barnes explained. The Men’s Grass Dance, in which the dancers wear skirts made of lengths of yarn, recalls the Plains Indian legend of a blind boy who asked a shaman if he could dance. “He danced, and suddenly he could see, and the first thing he saw was the grass of the plains.”

The sedate Womens’ Traditional dance recalls a time when women would stay at the edge of the circle while the men danced, bouncing lightly and precisely. The Mens’ Traditional, with its loud booming drumbeat, repeats the themes of the hunt and the heartbeat of life.

Audience members at powwows are asked to follow a code of etiquette, including standing and removing their hats during Flag and Honor songs, traditional dances and prayers.

And the pow-wow itself is a solemn ritual for its participants. For example, Native Americans who want to join the dance circle for the first time must be introduced by their family and tribe in a ceremony called Coming Out.

“It is a powerful message for the dancer to realize that they will be representing their family,” the program notes. “It is a reminder that they are dancing for their people from the past, present and future. When they are dancing they are not to take it lightheartedly, they are to tell their stories, heal the people in the audience who need special blessings, or their own family members.”

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.

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