Native Americans keep culture alive

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They are one of Howard County's smallest racial groups -- their number so small that many residents don't even realize they have a presence in their suburban community.

For the 400 members of the county's Native American population, that gives an added urgency to the cultural programs that help Indian parents keep their culture alive for their children.

"If I didn't take them to powwows, show them Native American artwork or go to Indian education programs, they may forget their heritage and not continue passing it on," said Margaret Murga, a Haliwa-Saponi Indian who lives in Jessup. "To let it die out would be a shame."

And in Howard County-- which has no meeting hall or school-sponsored education programs for Native American children -- that can take some effort.

Each week, for example, Laurel resident Karen Harley, a Haliwa-Saponi Indian, and her two children join about 10 other Howard families from a variety of tribes in a trek to Greenbelt Middle School in Prince George's County.

There, they take part in a two-hour celebration of fellowship with about 30 Piscataway, Iroquois and Lumbee Indians from several counties that transforms the middle-school auditorium into a Native American community.

For a few short hours, young girls and boys put aside their Game Boys, teen magazines and mystery novels and don their feather-adorned Regalia, the traditional suit of honor, and their colored beads and buckskin moccasins.

The program, administered through the Prince George's school system with federal funding, gives children a chance to let down their guard with others who share their heritage.

"Most of my friends know that I am Native American, but they don't really understand what that means or anything about the history behind it," April Harley, 14, said at a recent meeting. "Here, these are people that I am comfortable around because they are the same as me."

Estimates of Maryland's Native American population vary. According to the 1990 census, about 13,000 Native Americans lived in the state. But the Baltimore Indian Center estimates that as of this year, Maryland had 7,000 Piscataways and about 6,000 Lumbees alone.

In Howard County, the 400 or so Native Americans mostly are members of the Haliwa-Saponi or Lumbee tribes of North Carolina or western Cherokee tribes, who came to the area for college and jobs in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Distance is obstacle

The county also is home to some members of the Piscataway, Shawnee and Pocomoke tribes who are indigenous to the state and remain in the area.

Many local Indians say the sprawl of the suburbs can be an obstacle to maintaining their Native American culture. And for children, the feeling of not fitting in can be pervasive.

"It's like putting one white child in an all-black school or vice versa," said Mrs. Harley, who recently was appointed to the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs. "You can't tell me that it's not going to affect their performance. And that's what's happening in suburban area schools."

That's one reason she is working to preserve the four Indian education programs in Maryland that she fears could be endangered by federal budget cuts, which currently threaten to slash by more than a third the $84 million budget of the federal Office of Indian Education.

Education in Howard

Mrs. Harley hopes to start an Indian education program in Howard County for the 34 Native American students in its school system. Ten Howard County parents already have approached the school system to request such a program.

The program would be similar to the $39,000 Prince George's program that includes the Thursday night meetings and tutoring during the school year. In the meantime, some Howard students, including Mrs. Harley's children, attend the Prince George's program.

"My children's self-esteem has increased a lot in going to the program because they have a better understanding of who they are, where they came from and where they are going," said Mrs. Harley. "If you're not on a reservation or in your tribal community, it's hard to fit in."

Feelings of isolation

That sense of isolation is not limited to the children, Native American leaders say. Howard County's few Indians are dispersed and don't have the same sense of cohesion Baltimore's tight-knit Lumbee community has.

"When you're spread out over an area like Howard County, it's easy for Indians to feel isolated and apart from others who share your background," said Debbra Mayberry, an Iroquois and Narragansett Indian who works with the Prince George's County program.

That's one reason the Prince George's program has become such a magnet for American Indian families from throughout the state, said Betty Proctor, the Piscataway Indian and Prince George's resident who runs it.

"At least by meeting together as a group, children and their parents can realize that they are not just one Native American child or one Native American person living in the metropolitan area, but there's 200 others who are learning tribal dances and beadwork to pass on, too," she said.

Celebrating culture

At a recent Thursday night meeting, about 25 children and their parents gathered to put the finishing touches on their Regalia and practice their dances for the Aug. 25 annual Baltimore Pow-Wow.

Those attending entered to the sound of drums from a cassette deck. Middle-aged mothers, representing the elders of tribes, took small, baby-like steps in the traditional dance of a warrior telling a story to the youth.

Boys such as Phillip Harley, 12, moved quickly around the tribal circle, at times bending low to the floor and then jumping to their feet as they moved their necks and legs to the music. The movements they did are called the "fancy dance," representing their youthful agility.

Even during the breaks, as children meticulously tied feathers to their head pieces or wove beads into their Regalia, the music echoed in the background in what one parent likened to a warm lullaby.

To the dancers, each move and each part of their Regalia represents a part of their tribe and their history that has been passed down through oral traditions from generation to generation.

"My mom is always sharing the history and stories she knows about the Haliwa-Saponi tribe with us, so I think I should learn as much as I can so that I, too, can pass it on to my kids," said Esau Murga, 13, who attends the Greenbelt cultural classes. "I wouldn't know about my culture unless my parents taught it to me."

Members of the Native American community are working to change that.

Bobby Little Bear, a resident of Columbia's Village of Long Reach and member of the Osage tribe of Oklahoma, and her father, Joe, visit six schools or festivals a year, sharing their culture.

"I don't want to teach people what it is to be Indian, but I want to help them learn about the culture and the people," said Ms. Little Bear, 35, who is a member of the state Commission on Indian Affairs. "I want mutual respect from them."

She takes a decidedly unsentimental view of her place as a Native American in a "mostly white-man's society."

"I'd like to go back and paint art on my land and hear my elders tell stories of my ancestors, but realistically, I have to survive in both worlds," said Ms. Little Bear. "I have to pay rent and get a paycheck, too, but that doesn't change me as an Indian."

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