By: Chris Warren.
As I described in this article from February 2014, a majority of my closest friends are of a different race, ethnicity, or religion as me. I never consciously singled out dissimilar folks to be friends with, it just sort of happened that way. When I had an opportunity to go to an American Indian festival & powwow last weekend, I was just as naturally drawn to it. What began as a fun afternoon outing ended as new insight about American Indians that had somehow slipped past me in all my multicultural experiences.
The first thing I noticed was that American Indians are devoted to their culture more than any other group I’ve ever been exposed to. We modern day caucasians think of “culture” as movies and art and music and whatever is trending on Twitter. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, but they are things made or done by others while an audience watches (for example, a symphony performance). We have no personal connection. There are many witnesses and very few participants.
American Indians are the exact opposite. Their cultural identity is based almost exclusively on the idea of personal contributions. As we walked around the festival, there were craftsmen making blankets, jewelry, clothes, carvings, and tools. All of the items had a special meaning beyond their practical purpose and nearly all were made from natural, straight-from-the-earth materials such as stone and animal skins. No Indian was sitting around watching. Everyone was doing something according to their unique skills.
Ask an American Indian about their culture and and they will likely show you something they made themselves that you can touch. It is not for entertainment or art for art’s sake. American Indians do not build famous buildings or erect great monuments. They make statements with small, everyday objects and consider rivers and mountains their “monuments”. When a culture reveres the Earth, it only follows that they do not believe they can build anything greater.
I also noticed another unusual trait of American Indian culture: While everyone makes individual contributions, no one person calls attention to themselves or tries to elevate himself above the others. There are no “celebrity Indians”. Their humility is stunning. It’s almost as if no one wants to take too much credit for what they do out of a concern for appearing ostentatious. Each person is proud of the skills they bring to the tribe, but they see themselves as merely an equal among many. One piece of a jigsaw puzzle is no more meaningful than any other…yet if even one piece is missing, the entire puzzle fails. It is a community that is greater than the sum of its parts.
At one point of the event, they had a dance that everyone was expected to participate in. The Chief started things off and little by little the crowd joined in. By the end, it was just a big group moving in a continuous circle. No one person was in “front”. Even in dance, American Indians embrace community.
The most memorable insight I gained from my afternoon with the American Indians is that they have a very strong sense of who they are. The young kids understand that the stories their elders tell are not just stories. They are an oral, living history of times past that has something to offer the present and give a vision for the future. The elders understand that the young kids are the key to keeping the culture alive.
American Indians are very much aware of time. They feel a deep continuity between generations and go to great efforts to maintain it. I’m very confident that a hundred or more years from now, there will still be American Indian craftspeople hand making articles of their culture and telling real life stories of a people who would not let themselves forget who they are.