by: Shanda Tice, Representing the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla is dancer Atusha Greene, 5 who dances with ribbons streaming behind her at the ninth annual Spring Pow Wow held last Saturday at Glenn Otto Park.

On Saturday afternoon, April 21, men and women sing and play drums inside the Sam Cox building in Glenn Otto Park.

Meanwhile, people sitting in the room chat, enjoy snacks or peruse the small number of vendors' tables, in an adjoining room, featuring such items as jewelry and shirts.

Nobody drinks alcohol or uses illegal drugs.

Everyone is polite and peaceful.

And veterans of wars in Iraq and Vietnam are greeted with great respect.

So it comes as a shock to realize that at one time in American history, this gathering would have been illegal under federal law.

That's because this is a powwow, a gathering of Native Americans for social and spiritual reasons. In the past, the government wanted to stamp out such events as part of a larger attempt to destroy Native American religion and cultures, according to several sources.

No longer forced underground, and growing more popular each year, powwows give Native Americans a sense of identity, says Kelli Cunningham, a Sioux who serves as a Native American cultural competency consultant to various groups in the local area.

'We lost a lot of people protecting our traditions,' she says, referring to the history of Indian wars and forced displacement. 'This is one of the ways we pass it on to our future generations.'

Cunningham is among about 150 people who attend the ninth annual Spring Pow Wow on Saturday. On the floor in front of the drummers, women, men and children take turns dancing, sometimes separately, sometimes in groups, sometimes as couples. Some dancers are dressed in elaborate regalia, others in casual clothes. An emcee encourages the crowd to join in.

'There's lot of room out here, ladies and gentlemen!'

The powwow is free and open to both Native and non-Native people and features traditional drumming, Indian fry bread, and arts and crafts. Each year, the Indian Parent/Student Committee of the Reynolds School District hosts the event to celebrate the Native American heritage of students and their families, according to Christine Bruno, chairwoman.

'We started the powwow to give our students an opportunity to learn about their culture in a small setting locally and to share their culture with the whole community,' she says. 'It's great to see our local Native American youth's self-esteem being lifted up by being involved with their culture.'

Cunningham adds that many of the nation's Native Americans no longer live on reservations, and some find it difficult to live in a world that emphasizes individual identity as opposed to communal belonging.

'The closer we keep our children to the circle, the (easier) it is for them to navigate society,' she says.

Cunningham's husband, Ed Goodell, a member of the Cree and Upper Chehalis tribes, serves as whipman, or spiritual leader for the Portland Indian community, he says. Dressed in elaborate regalia, Goodell says he makes sure ceremonies are properly performed for various rituals. He is one of several powwow participants who publicly pray for the 32 victims of the April 16 Virginia Tech massacre. The gathering generates a positive energy to counteract the negative energy unleashed by the massacre, he says.

'For us, regardless of the color of your skin … that kind of healing energy can't be beat,' he says.

He and other Native Americans at the powwow comment that such gatherings also serve to keep their young people strong and sober.

'When the lure of drugs or drink comes, they have the knowledge of the dancing to know where they came from,' Goodell says.

One such young person is Josh Bruno, a 20-year-old member of the Wasco tribe, and son of Christine, who wears a grass dance outfit to the powwow.

'It comes from the Plains tribes where they had the tall grass,' he says. He adds that he's been going to powwows for about five years.

'It's important to know who you are and your ancestors were,' he says.

It's also important to meet new people and renew old friendships through powwows, says Rebbecca Kirk, 15, a member of the Klamath and Warm Springs tribes. Rebbecca is Miss City of Roses of the Delta Park Pow Wow in Portland. The powwow takes place every Father's Day weekend in Portland, she says, adding that she has held the title since June 2006 and will relinquish her crown this June.

In addition to meeting people she knows at powwows, she also likes to move her feet.

'I like my dance because I feel graceful and calm,' she says.

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