By Zack Cutler
Editor's note: This is a re-print of a story that was first published about a year ago, with additional annotations from the author. Enjoy!
Growing up in Maryland, all I knew about Native American culture was stories I’d heard as a child and learned about in school. We had presented a play in 2nd grade so I knew a little bit about how the early Pilgrims and Native Americans had shared Thanksgiving together, but that was about it.
So I was excited to find out about the Poarch Creek Indian Pow Wow, and looked forward to attending so I could learn something more, something real. Armed with a camera and an open mind, I attended the Pow Wow on Thanksgiving day. Upon entering, I immediately felt the drums shaking the earth, smelled the aroma of roasting corn in the air, and I was overwhelmed by the energy, the colorful regalia, and the tribal dancing.
I saw a family that was on their way out. Among them was a young toddler, tears streaming down his cheeks, crying because he didn’t want to leave. Touring the grounds, talking with the vendors, trying to soak up as much as I possibly could, one of the most amazing things I took away from my time there (I went both days) was that I wasn’t looked on as an outsider. Native Americans from several tribes shared their Culture with me.
I spoke at length with a man who makes jewelry, and he taught me about the different qualities of opals, the different types of opal, and where each type comes from. He even taught me how to spot a fake.
Everyone was open and warm. They would patiently explain and clarify, describing to me the differences between dances, how the voting works for the different competitions, the importance of the Eagle Feather, and so many more intricacies of Native American Culture.
I learned that Native Americans aren’t characters of folklore, they are men and women and children who go to work, attend school and contribute to their community. They are enriched by the lush history of their heritage, and their prosperity has afforded them a chance to share their heritage on a scale far grander than my 2nd grade Thanksgiving play ever could provide.
While I learned nothing more about the traditional Thanksgiving story, that isn’t what the Pow Wow was about for me. What it did was provide a wealth of context and knowledge about the Culture, shared by people willing to share. That willingness to share is what helped those Pilgrims get through their first winter in Massachusetts, so many years ago.
Personally, I would like to thank the Cultural Authority Staff, the Tribal Members, the volunteers, the employees, the dancers, the vendors, and everyone involved for making this something I will remember forever. Some of the songs I heard have stayed with me long after the event ended. While I might not know the words, the melodies continue to run through my head, and I frequently find myself humming them.
When the event was over, I understood why that young toddler was so upset about leaving. I completely agreed with him.