Native American spiritual leaders from across California and the na- tion brought the spirit of family and the traditional healing dances to San Quentin’s 52nd annual Pow Wow.
Colorful dancers from Oklahoma and elders from Oregon mixed with the local Native American prisoners to celebrate the sacred circle of life.
“We came to let the men know that they are warriors and not gang members. A warrior takes care of his family,” said Tish Jordan, a reform advocate from Oregon. “We came to encourage them in the Native life-style and sobriety. One cannot enter the circle until one is purified.”
Sun, Gourd and Fancy dancers twirled and stomped around the prison visiting room to bless the event with their traditional tribal steps.
A Grass and Jingle dancer rounded out the ensemble, representing another part of Native Indian spiritual life through dance.
“It was amazing that this prison helps the people in their culture, where they can wear their regalia and sing their songs,” said Cindy Famero of the Comanche Nation, who traveled from Oklahoma. “I’m really honored to have connected with the people here, to hear their stories and hold prayer.
“It’s because of that feeling of being disconnected that this cycle of incarceration continues,” Famero added.
The March 22 event also celebrated the life and death of Myra Smith, a long-time San Quentin Native American Group volunteer. Smith was dying of cancer in the hospital, while the Pow Wow was underway.
“She touched a lot of people’s lives,” said Bill Churchill, a visitor, who performed the “Offering” (funeral) prayer for Smith at the ceremony. “She helped a lot of people get sober. She made the path of sobriety attractive and helped a lot people become empowered.”
Churchill’s song and spiritual chants filled the room. He sought to evoke a vision of Smith’s soul traveling over the plains and rivers of America as she makes her way back to the “Great Grandfather” (Creator).
“My friend, it’s me, I’m dancing in the west and watching you,” Churchill chanted in his Native tongue, “it means the sun rises and ends,” he explained.
Lee Planco, a visiting elder, 81,warned the small crowd not to take life for granted, nor to take for granted holding this event inside a prison.
“We never had jails or prisons in our ancient world,” said Planco. “So remember, behind that blue uniform there is an Indian. A women gave you birth, and she is sacred, remember that.”
Planco is a retired correctional officer, chaplain and advocate for Native American prisoners’ rights throughout the nation.
“We would have liked the men’s children to have been a part of this event,” said Jordan, the prison reform advocate from Oregon. “Most departments of corrections don’t allow the children to participate, but our circles are inter-generational; it teaches the future generations.
“When we come together as a people, it’s medicine and our kids’ spirits are innocent,” Jordan added.
San Quentin resident Gregory “White Eagle” Coates was given the honor to lead the ritual Grand Opening Dance. Everyone left the visiting room and danced their way back in forming a circle, representing the infinity of life. The dance was done before the meal was served.
“I had to learn my culture in prison,” said Coates. “So having others come in from out of state helped expose us to more of our traditions. The best was dancing for Myra (Smith, who was gravely ill) — she was a great woman.
“Our women have been holding it down. They have been keeping the language alive and the sweats (sweat lodge ceremonies). They are teaching the children. It’s time for us men to do our part,” Coates added.
“The drum is the heartbeat of the people. It feeds the spirits and the ancestors we carry within us”
Mike “Lil Voice” Powell, the colorful Fancy Dancer, performed the traditional Buffalo and Horse dances. The dances are for purification and healing as the steps are intended to banish evil.
Powell’s regalia was based on a spiritual vision he had. He created the dress that blended the colors of tall green grass, rainbows and eagle feathers. Powell is from the Ponca Tribe and is traveling the country to bring healing through the dances.
“I’ve been in and out of jail myself. I’ve been an addict and homeless, so I pray for the men here,” said Powell. “Once my family broke up, I stopped dancing and that started my downfall. But I prayed and received help. I was led back to dancing – now it’s tradition over addiction.”
The dancing and singing blended with percussions sounds of the Central Valley Native American Drumming Group. The rhythmic drumbeats are to simulate the human heartbeat, fast or slow.
The drum is one of the major parts of Native life; it is used for prayers, calling people together even announcing lunchtime. The songs and drum rhythms are passed down like the dancers’ steps through the grandparents or elders.
Most of the drummers are versatile in Southern and Northern tribal drum rhythms and officiate at inter-tribal marriages.
“The drum is the heartbeat of the people. It feeds the spirits and the ancestors we carry within us,” said Jordan. “Who are we if we don’t identify with our traditions and culture?”
The men in blue learned the Hoop Dance, taught by visiting Grass dancer Eddie Madril, who also MC’d the event. Madril’s sister was the Jingle dancer, her dress made of healing bells for the community. James Gregory performed the Tracking and Scouting dances. He is from the Men Southern Traditional dancers.
“It is important for the men here to know the dances that heal the community,” said Madril. “They need to understand that we used dance to tell our stories.”
Gregory also danced for Myra Smith, who helped him get clean and sober.
“She taught me how to dream again. If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be sober now.”
The ceremony bought together the various forms of tribal healing, steeped in tradition and grounded in family, which included the Native Indians who are incarcerated; the music and chants intended as a symphony of love.