Native Americans share festival of pride, history


Pernell Richardson donned a porcupine headdress, carried a cluster of feathers on his back and reflected on the centuries-old tradition he was about to kick and stomp his way through.

Richardson, 43, had just arrived at Patterson Park yesterday to dance in the Baltimore Native American Festival and Powwow, but also wanted to make an impression on his 14-year-old son, Will.

"This is a way for me to pass this along to him," said Richardson, a Virginia resident, as his son put on a bright yellow and orange vest in preparation for his own dance. "If not, this is going to die."

Several thousand people endured alternately wet and muggy weekend weather to hear traditional American Indian music, taste native food and peruse booth after booth of silver jewelry and colorful beads.

But dancing was the main draw.

Under a huge white tent, dozens of dancers entered the "sacred circle" as, off to one side, men slammed on drums in a frenzied beat and wailed in voices so shrill some had to hold their throats with their hands.

Will Richardson stomped and spun as the feathers and bright fringe attached to his body swirled around him. The dance he performed was once used to flatten grass in a field before tribal gatherings.

The Richardsons are Haliwa-Saponi, a tribe that lives mainly in North Carolina.

Nearly 2,100 Baltimore residents reported their race as American Indian on the 2000 census, and thousands more indicated that they are partly American Indian.

Powwows are intended to pass tradition on to the next generation of American Indians, but also have evolved into a way to show off cultural history to the outside world.

"The way they celebrate is through dance and through music," said Bilqis Amatus-Salaam, a 20-year-old spectator. "It's just a way to experience another culture."

Keith Colston, cultural director for the Baltimore American Indian Center, said this was the first time in several years that the festival has been held in the city. Previous powwows were held in the suburbs.

"It's meant to bring people together," he said. "It's a way of keeping and expressing our culture."

Daniel Gear, 39, said he remembers a time when some American Indians were ashamed of their ancestry, when his grandmother powdered her face to lighten it and when, as children, everyone wanted to be John Wayne when they played cowboys and Indians.

"You'd try to hide it as much possible," said Gear, a Choctaw-Monacan. "In today's day and age, it's cool to be Indian."

The regalia (not "costumes," the event's program points out - "dancers are not pretending to be something that they are not") is rich in symbolism and history.

Gear, for example, wore feathers from the tail and wings of an eagle. Eagles are seen by some tribes as a messenger to God, Gear said. Their wing feathers convey strength while tail feathers symbolize control because they help guide the bird's flight.

Today, Gear is so proud of his heritage that he named his son, who is now 7, Wagitci. It means "One Who Dances."

"We dance because we can," Gear said. "We dance for the ones who came before us."

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