“Rich in Culture, Rich in Tradition” read a blazing red banner at San Quentin’s annual Spring Pow Wow. The February 28 event was to celebrate the incoming Native American New Year.
“When the flowers begin to blossom it signals to us the New Year has arrived,” said Hector Heredia, SQ Native American chaplain, beaming with joy.
In North American indigenous cultures, the New Year is at the end of January or the first part of February, based on constellations and moon phases, according to a Manataka American Indian Council website article. The New Year is the time to celebrate the return of the sacred foods. According to some tribal tradition the first food that was created was the salmon and the second food was the deer.
Family, guests and prisoners filled San Quentin’s visiting room for the festivities. Indian sun, hoop and fancy dancers twirled and stomped around the visiting area to bless the event, as the scent of sage purified the air. The coronavirus scare and its associated deaths were not lost on the large crowd’s minds. The native elders chanted the “Black Wolf” song, a sacred prayer to honor the medicine men and ancestors, as the colorful tribal dancers moved around the pounding ceremonial drum.
“It’s the ceremony of life and death,” said Michael Paul Littlevoice, a visiting fancy dancer. “The drum and song is to honor our medicine people who are dwindling.”
Littlevoice said he’s from the Ponca tribe, but the “Black Wolf” chant comes from one of the oldest clans of the Choctaw tribe. Littlevoice, dressed in colorful rainbow regalia and eagle feathers, travels around the country performing the traditional buffalo and horse dances. The dances are for purification and healing as the steps are intended to banish evil.
“I don’t dance for entertainment,” said Littlevoice. “I dance for you all and your families’ healing. Dance is prayer and prayer is the key to life.”
Lee Planco, 82, a visiting elder, spoke about Native Americans’ struggles to institute religious services and to uphold Indian rights within the nation’s correctional systems. Examples are: sweat lodges, opposing grooming standards (cutting off their hair) and performing sacred rituals.
“We have to honor the ones who have fought for these things,” said Planco, who is a veteran, retired correctional officer and chaplain. “It took us seven years to get a sweat lodge in a Nevada prison. I had to tell their administration that I fought for this country and that includes the freedom of religion. They thought about it for a second and said OK,” reflected Planco.
Planco and Heredia, both military veterans, have a have a long history of Indian advocacy work. They both were a part of what they call the “Longest Walk.” In 1978, Native Americans walked from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. to protest 11 bills that were before Congress at that time. The bills would have limited rights to tribal government, hunting, and fishing. They also would have restricted access to social services by closing Native American schools and hospitals.
The 3,000-mile march started at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. The marchers were a mixture of non-native and Native Americans. The group of more than 2,000 would stop along the route and hold “teach-ins” about native culture, beliefs, and practices in various cities and towns, according to the Global Nonviolent Action Database. The trip took five months, but after more than 12 days of demonstrations and rallies in the D.C. area, Congress rejected all 11 proposed bills.
“Don’t take for granted the things you have,” Planco said to the men in blue. “We never had jails or prisons in our ancient world. So get out and don’t come back here—get out and honor your mother.”
Gregory “White Eagle” Coates, a San Quentin resident, performed a song on his cedar flute honoring all women. Visiting Hoop dancer Eddie Medril taught the prison residents the hoop dance.
“The dance tells a story of creation and honoring your ancestors,” said Medril. “When people walk as an individual it’s easy to forget their foundations. But when you start to look back at your ancestors, you can say I come from that— and that will give you the strength of more than you.
“Then you will know that you are a part of an empire and become unstoppable,” Medril added.
The magnetic sounds of the pounding drums bought out San Quentin’s new acting Warden, Ron Broomfield. Warden Broomfield joined the festivities and shared words of encouragement and inclusiveness. He has been making the rounds at prison programs and services.
The New Year celebration ended with a feast of salmon, the sacred food, and fry bread.
“Today was awesome,” said Joe Renteria, an SQ resident. “I believe everyone should experience this. If you look for your roots, you will find peace with the ‘Great Grandfather,’ just like a lot of us lost Indians do.”