Incarcerated First Nations drummers, dancer
honor Native cultural history, values
The scent of burnt sage pierced the air of San Quentin’s Chapel B at the prison’s Native American Spiritual Group’s Winter Pow Wow. The Dec. 30th event’s theme was “To all our Relationships,” celebrating indigenous life and humanity.
The pulsating drumbeats and energetic tribal chants stimulated the crowd as incarcerated Gregory “White Eagle” Coates, in full Straight Dancer regalia, rounded the ceremonial drum. The aging Coates’s bad hips and arthritis did not slow down the elder’s ritual stomping steps, which are intended to banish evil, according to Native American tradition.
“It is essential for us to have these events — to be a part of our sweats (sweat lodge ceremonies) and prayer — it’s our way of life,” said Russell Salgado, an incarcerated drummer. “We look out for each other. The drums and dances make us whole.”
The Pow Wow included honoring elders and traveling the “Red Road,” a spiritual and cultural path to recovery and reconnection back to their traditional ways. The “Red Road,” helps those who are incarcerated to work on and maintain their sobriety.
“Living our traditions helps me stay clean and sober,” said John “JT” T. “I used to Sundance when I was six years old. Playing the drum here is reminding me of who I am. This Pow Wow is like telling me, ‘This is who you are.’”
The drum is a major part of Native life; it is used for prayers, calling people together, and even announcing mealtimes. The songs and drum rhythms are passed down like the dancers’ steps through grandparents or elders.
The drumming crew played and chanted the “Forgiveness” song and “Dog Soldiers,” a tune that Native American chaplain Hector Heredia said is meant to honor veterans who suffered from shell shock – later termed PTSD.
Coates performed “Star Child,” a chant for his mother who passed away and made her way back to the “Great Grandfather” (Creator).
Most incarcerated Natives come from predominantly Catholic or Protestant backgrounds. This spiritual program teaches them about themselves and their traditional rituals, Heredia previously told SQNews.
Historically, Native people have faced bans on traditional dancing, drumming, speaking Native languages and wearing long hair. So for some San Quentin Natives, this is their first reintegration into their cultural identity.
“This Pow Wow is about honoring our relationships. It makes you reach inside yourself and go deep and show you it’s much bigger than just us,” said Brandon Orman, who is incarcerated. “It helps set me back on the path I need to be on and these songs require you to change.”
This year, the Pow Wow was combined with San Quentin’s Asian American Pacific Islander and the Native Hawaiian Religious Group Makahiki Celebration. The mixture of traditions gave the participants and guests an education about different indigenous ways of life, including food, dances, and songs.
The special event closed with the Natives’ group “Round Dance,” also known as the friendship dance, where all attendees got out of their seats and side-step danced around the drum. The final scene was a reminder of the festivity’s theme: “To all our Relations.”