Powwow Marks Construction of U.S. Indian Museum

George Stuteville
for National Geographic News
September 20, 2002
The pounding of an Indian elk-skin drum and the high-pitched wail of
tribal powwow singers echoed over the National Mall in front of the U.S.
Capitol and conjured up visions of irony for George Horse Capture.

"We were native to this land—here for thousands of years and yet we are the least-known group of people in this country," he said. "Our lack of historical knowledge is a shortcoming in our national education, but it does not have to be that way forever."

Raising America's awareness of its indigenous people is the personal quest of Horse Capture, a senior special assistant for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

The 65-year-old Horse Capture, a member of the A'aninin Gros Ventre tribe in Montana, envisioned the inaugural powwow as a way to draw attention to the museum.

The event, which took place the weekend of September 14-15, drew hundreds of Native Americans and thousands of Washington, D.C.-area visitors. The National Geographic Society joined public radio station 88.5 WAMU and Washington television station NBC4 as the sponsors of the powwow.

Making Indian Culture Real

The museum is scheduled for completion in fall 2004, and will attract about 6 million visitors annually, said Smithsonian spokesman Thomas Sweeney.

"This will show Indians are real," said Horse Capture, gazing toward the tent where a group of young women practiced their "fancy shawl dance."

In their garments of blazing reds, calicoes, and electric blues, they looked like a circling flock of songbirds.

On the other side of the tent Danny Garneaux waited to join the ceremonial circle with the other men who would perform the grass dance.

Most days, Garneaux wouldn't get a second glance, wearing scruffy jeans and T-shirts in his day job on construction sites in Norfolk, Virginia.

This day, however, tourists approached respectfully, asking if they could take his picture as he stood, arms folded, in the full regalia of a warrior from his Oglala Lakota tribe.

The black-fringed leggings and shirt with the headdress of porcupine quills and deer fur, the necklaces of a red tail hawk claw and bone whistle transformed him into a "real" Indian—the man his family called Wakinyanmaza (Iron Lightning).

Legend of the Grass Dance

Several stories are attached to the grass dance.

"My family said the Creator gave a lame boy a song as he was sitting watching the grasses swaying on the plains," Garneaux said. "The boy told the elders about his song and his desire to dance and then he started making his outfit. As he worked, he sang. When the time for the dance came, the boy went to the circle to dance and he fell and stumbled, but as the song went on, he became stronger and by the end, he was healed."

The more traditional explanation of the dance is that it was a service performed by young strong men who stomped down the shoulder-high buffalo grasses so families could erect their teepees.

John and Nancy Butterfield and their three children came from suburban Northern Virginia to join the 1,200 spectators jammed into the powwow tent.

"We know so precious little about our Native Americans," said John Butterfield, who teaches literature at Fairfax County High School. "When I was growing up, all I knew was cowboys and Indians. It's changing a little in the school curriculum now, but we have a long way to go in recovering this history," he said. "We've all lost a lot—more than we'll ever know."

Though Rachel Duran, 24, grew up with a passing sense of her ancestral heritage with the Navaho Tequa tribe of Colorado and New Mexico, her visit to the powwow was the first time she had ever attended such a festival.

"I wasn't raised with a lot of awareness. As I get older, I find that I am more curious. Someday I will definitely learn more about my background and heritage," said Duran, a graduate student at George Washington University majoring in international commerce.

Ultimately, all of us may learn more because of this museum, said Horse Capture.

"In the long run this is a blessing for all our children when the Native Americans will no longer be viewed as strangers in their own land."

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