Cultural Loss: White People at Powwow

11 05 2010

In the process of retracing one’s history, the intimately personal as well as the broad cultural history of one’s own people, we move through many stages of experience; from awe and phenomenal grief, to acceptance and gratitude, to fear and simmering rage, everything in between, sometimes many at once, sometimes all of them in a day. Anzaldúa speaks potently of these movements, sometimes related to loss of cultural self, sometimes to the little deaths of the personal self that knock at our door each day and invite a deeper knowing.

In this moment, though I’m just tired. Not in the exasperated, “I don’t want to deal with it anymore” sense we mean when we say, “I’m just tired,” since that wouldn’t account for my fierce desire to know what’s real. I mean tired in the way where your body aches a little though not anywhere in specific and a damp sadness seems to saturate your skin, though you haven’t been out in the rain. It pervades your being. I guess you could call it existential, but even that seems too rational a description of the subtle fatigue that creeps. I also just came back from a three days of a truly awesome powwow, spent with some of my best friends who I haven’t seen in quite some time, so the prospect of sitting down to write about loss feels like a buzz kill.

And yet, maybe the heels of powwow is the perfect time to talk about loss. Inevitably, Stanford Powwow (in particular, since it’s in the middle of Palo Alto) attracts a wide audience of natives and non-natives. Some are at the beginning of their seasonal powwow trail that will last for months into the summer, an annual ritual of dancing, singing, and contesting at each venue before heading out to the next venue with your family. For others, this is their very first powwow, having come at the invitation of a friend or seen a bumper sticker on their drive down el camino, intrigued by the word and its many “Ws.”

I spent most of the weekend walking around with Marlon whose astute sense of “between the lines” people-watching makes for great conversation. Early on Saturday, he commented on a white lady’s outfit- a sarape and blue skirt with suspicious leather sandals- and asked “do you think coming to a powwow makes people conform their dress to what they think looks native?” (Marlon was wearing slacks, a nice grey (designer) sweater, a matching Coach scarf, brown designer shoes, and black Prada sunglasses; most of the host-drum singers sit in hoodies or powwow tee shirts with back-turned caps on). We looked around us and quickly took note of the (presumably, because you can’t really tell for sure) non-native people and sure enough, there was a decidedly composed indigenous feel to most of their dress. We spent the remaining two days counting examples: “one, sarape,” “seventeen, Uggs and beaded earrings,” “forty-five, walking stick wrapped in tan leather-lace,” “sixty-six, eagle feather he probably shouldn’t have and a stuffed bobcat slung across his back” and so on. The white people are always indicative of the general quality of white peoples’ relationship to natives in the United States, like little thermometers that tell you the many temperatures of how dominant culture relates to Indian country. Sitting with Steph Tsosie at powwow two years ago, I remember a white guy coming up to us and asking if there was a list of all the tribes at powwow. All of them? Like, in their totality? Another white guy came up to the front tent and said, “I heard there were a bunch of important chiefs here. Do you know where I can find them? I saw one guy wearing some feathers on his head- I think he’s one of them- but I wondered if you knew where the rest were.” Sorry, buddy. They just valiantly rode off into the horizon and you missed them. Better luck next year. Early Saturday morning, five white girls from Paly High across the street came dressed in war paint, mini skirts, and moccasins, like they were attending a Pocahontas convention.

The assumptions of spectacle that white people bring to “cultural” events like powwow is, to choose a diplomatic word, instructive. On the one hand (the most important hand), powwow isn’t in the least concerned with white people and what they think. On the one hand, powwow is useful to highlight the vibrancy of Native Americans culture(s), their persistence even in the face of a mainstream society that sees them as (dead and) historical. On the (other) other hand, the incredible sense of voyeurism and consumption that white people bring to powwow is mind blowing. After the jingle dress special today, I was standing next to my friend Lauren (who was still wearing her dress), chatting about the contest, and over the course of ten minutes or so several (white) people stood off about ten feet, pointing and focusing their cameras, taking pictures, moving around her to try and get a better angle. Some had the courtesy to ask, but most didn’t. Some carefully placed their child in the frame- still avoiding actual contact with the Indian object (Lauren)- and told them to smile. Lauren and I stared at the ground as we continued our conversation and tried to position our bodies away from the camera.

You can tell it’s important to these people that they get the right photo, to document that they saw a real Indian before they fade back into the obscurity of their Media-mediated imaginations, or actually die off altogether, like a Lion they see on Safari whose tenuous existence is only protected by the institution that “compassionately” houses them.

More than a little uncomfortable, she turned to me and asked, “Do your people think this is a zoo?”

I wrote earlier that voyeurism is the ignorance of colonial consciousness writ large. It denies what’s true- that we are present- but you can tell in most white people’s composure that they see themselves and function as distant observers, not participants. They show up, get the experience, catalogue it, chronicle it, then slide back into the comfortable soma haze of their lives until the urge for commodified sustenance takes hold of them again. I use the word “commodified,” because the way they relate to the world- and especially identifiably “cultural” experiences- suggests they see a petite package of experience they can ingest in order to make them more…“something.” The something is undefined, but the frenzy of it all, the excitement of witnessing the ethnic other in their native habitat, is so indicative of their relationship to reality: they see themselves as outside of it, separate from it. Powwow isn’t the only place this happens, obviously, but it’s one of the most blatant and egregious.

Lauren asks me why. Why do white people do this? The only thing Indians show up to powwow to consume is fry bread and coffee, she says. Consumption as a task is marginal to the primary task of singing and dancing and sharing a good time with your family, maybe you place in a contest if you dance/sing well. But white people show up because they think they’re going to get something, something authentic (whatever that is), something genuinely cultural, since their own sense of culture is so irreparably depleted and they desperately long to fill the void. “We don’t have a culture, so we’ll just come and watch yours and we’ll feel culturally sophisticated while we maybe buy some bead work, then we’ll go back to our culture-free world where we live and…well, God knows where you’ll go. Do they even have reservations anymore?” seems to be the underlying narrative. You can see it in their innocent quixotic eyes.

This is such an old, old story.

And it makes me tired. Today, I gave myself the privileged indulgence of just wanting to hang out with my friends without the constant violations of white peoples’ eyes and cameras and thoughts. I didn’t even care that I was white and hanging out with my native crew as I might have years ago; just so long as these white people weren’t so violently entitled in their voyeurism and exotification. It was a moment of weakness on my part, but I was tired. Mar could tell so he joked and told me to keep my relatives in line.

You can get to a place in your vision of the world where everything white people do (almost everything) is an attempt to recover their lost cultural selves. I don’t sense the pull in my own heart as much as I used to; that pull to belong because you know where you came from that white people lack. The truth is I don’t belong and now that I know why, I don’t have to try any more. It’s not a resignation so much as a realization. In a way, this gives way to a deeper sense of belonging, one not rooted in the endless search for contrived validations that never fully satisfy. The (invisible) culture white people have set up for themselves is premised on the notion of who does and does not belong. I partly wonder if it isn’t an unconscious response to that suppressed experience of invaders; we know we don’t belong so we’ll make it seem like you don’t belong in order to make ourselves more comfortable in our continued violations. Then, in your marginalization and distance from us, we’ll observe you to remind ourselves of what we’ve given up while we pretend that we have it all and that you’re worse off. This is the irony of their own incidental self-othering, and the violence of it in all directions.

And it’s tiring sometimes. I don’t mean that in a quaint way. It’s not quaint. But from this place, it’s rare you meet a white person who isn’t saddled with the unconscious grief of loss, and it’s tiring to bear witness to it constantly, now that I know what I’m actually seeing. I used to think I was just seeing patriarchical assholes whenever a rich white guy condescendingly flaunted his affluence or paternalized his wife in plain view, but now I know I’m seeing unfathomable loss and its pathology beneath the facade. It may not be apparent at first, but it never takes long to reveal itself in their speech, in their posture, in their gaze. Now it’s a sense that just registers in my body before thought. Marlon calls it “picking up faxes.”

Sometimes it’s easy to have compassion for the white experience of loss, usually when it’s acute and you see them searching for an answer they’ve hidden away from themselves- it was my experience for so long (and still is sometimes)- but in those moments when the mechanism of the colonial mind is running the show, the mind that sees everything as available for consumption, sympathy is more difficult to muster. Not when my loved ones become the object of the white void’s hunger. Not when instead of seeing a whole and complete human being, they see an image in their mind of the docile domestic native performing a nostalgic ritual dance that they can capture on digital film. At the very least, it hurts my friends’ feelings (and mine). And it utterly fails to acknowledge the fact that she just danced her ass off for 30 minutes and looked damn good. It fails to acknowledge all the hours of work that went into making her dress, all the hands and hearts that were involved, all the hours practicing her side step, all her life.

A (white) woman walks up and asks, “Is your tribe here?” Lauren just furrows her face in confusion. Like, all of them? What kind of person would ask such a ridiculous question? Someone unbelievably lost.

Today I wanted to enjoy powwow with my friends; friends who are dear to me. And I did. Tanaya came in from Boulder, Mar came down from the city and stayed the whole weekend, and Lauren was there to dance and help her dad out with security. We laughed all day, Mar gossiped enough for all of us, and the weather was almost perfect. I spent more time watching the contesting than in previous years, because the dancers were so exceptional, especially the jingle dress dancers and the fancy shall dancers. All the singers were on point too, especially the host northern drum, Swift Cloud. So, I let myself play for once in a long time, in this little time out of “real” life when powwow is all that exists and my best friends are all with me and it’s really beautiful. And there’s a lot of love. And there’s a lot of loss too. I’m sure more could be said, more eloquently, but there it is.



13 responses

11 05 2010

LULULULULULULU’S. ‘Nuff said. Miss you and love you. Keep on keepin’ on 🙂 Go Stanford Powwow 2008, when you officially became Native LOL

11 05 2010
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11 05 2010

DEZ! you were SO missed. but you were there. did mar tell you we saw you all over the place? this year was still tepid compared to ’08. We actually went to BARS and stayed there, can you believe?

11 05 2010

NB: It has been brought to my attention that the sunglasses worn by a one Lola Firecracker were, in fact, by Marc Jacobs. My b.

11 05 2010

well said, luke taylor! i’m so sad i didn’t get to make it across the bridge to PA 😦

my fav part: “Early Saturday morning, five white girls from Paly High across the street came dressed in war paint, mini skirts, and moccasins, like they were attending a Pocahontas convention.” LOL this reminded me of halloween when i saw a group of girls dressed up as natives.

12 05 2010

Great post. Ive gone to stanford powwow for the last several years, and I agree w/ your assessment. I had my own lightbulb moment when I heard a white man complain loudly that people in the arena weren’t “doing anything, just standing around” during a *memorial honor dance.*

Thats when it became clear to me that a lot of these people come with the attitude that the powwow is a performance put on for their benefit; the idea that it is an ndn community event that they happen to be guests at never occurs to them.

Also, thanks for clarifying exactly what stuffed animal was that dude had slung over his back.

13 05 2010

Well written.

I did, in fact, show up to enjoy the dancing, get some shopping in, and have some coffee and frybread!

In addition to the homeskillet with the lynx over his shoulder who, when I was there, appeared to be recording the drum groups’ songs (and getting perturbed when the wrong group was announced and he missed his recording opportunity); there were a small handful of outside unregistered dancers who insisted on dancing during competitions. What you’ve articulated here and my own experience on Friday night describe the apprehensions I feel when I leave my house to journey to a powwow that attracts large populations of non-Natives. It makes me wistful for the powwow on my home Reserve in northern Ontario where I can drink my coffee and eat my frybread in relative peace… and gossip, too.

I like your blog!

13 05 2010

Thank you so much for writing and sharing this. As a white person adopted into the clans, who loves First Nations people and culture and who tries to honour this but always feels like a ‘tourist’ at powwow, I love what you’ve written here, especially “I partly wonder if it isn’t an unconscious response to that suppressed experience of invaders; we know we don’t belong so we’ll make it seem like you don’t belong in order to make ourselves more comfortable in our continued violations. Then, in your marginalization and distance from us, we’ll observe you to remind ourselves of what we’ve given up while we pretend that we have it all and that you’re worse off. This is the irony of their own incidental self-othering, and the violence of it in all directions.” This is perfect.

13 05 2010

Thank you all for your kind comments and reflections. Thank you also ( Adrienne, Marlon, and Lauren in particular) for sharing this post with your communities. I’m glad it resonates.

13 05 2010


i’m sorry that you had such a terrible experience with some rude white people at the stanford powwow. i just wanted to take a minute to introduce myself, because i may have been one of the white people who you counted off in your list of clothing appropriators who are desperately trying to fill a cultural void… and i’d like to ask you to consider that perhaps generalizations do not do individuals justice.

i am a nurse practitioner at the native american health center, and i spent the weekend doing hiv testing and education at the powwow. i connected with many people of all ages and had the pleasure of sharing important health information that can save people’s lives. i also happened to be wearing sandals, because i like to wear sandals, and i was wearing beaded earrings that one of my patients gave me after he went home to visit family on the rez in wisconsin. he died of aids in march. i thought the earrings were beautiful and a lovely reminder of why i was out at the powwow: to help serve a community that is disproportionately underserved by the medical establishment and disproportionately affected by aids (at twice the rate of whites).

i am also white, so i’m sorry if you assumed that i was there because i had some sort of hole in my soul i needed to fill. i was there to work, and for the same reason my native friends were there – to support our dancer friends, enjoy the drums, eat frybread, and celebrate a beautiful and longstanding tradition of gathering at stanford.

i just wanted to say that… you can still think of me whatever you like… i just thought it was not fair of you to check me off on a list of white assholes because you may have seen my earrings. i am sure there were other people in uggs and sarongs who are also very good people who were there for honest reasons… people are more complex than they might appear at first glance.

again, i am really sorry for the behavior of other people…

16 05 2010
Kayla Carpenter

You have a blog! Cool. I am subscribing, if this is the way to do it… haha.

Happy I got to take a class with you. Glad to know you.

No’olchwindin no’olchwinte’
: May you grow old in a good way 🙂

20 08 2010

It annoys me that this blog completely racist against white people. If a white person said that natives don’t have a culture people would be up in arms calling them racist. Yet if other races or self-deprecating white people say that, it is deemed acceptable to completely dismiss an entire races culture. White people do have culture. We have our own languages ( English, French, Spanish, German, etc ), we have our own music styles ( for example, classical music and European folk music ), our own musical instruments ( ex., the bag-pipe, violin, etc ), we have our own distinctive styles of art ( baroque, renaissance, rococo, impressionist, etc ), we have our own styles of sculpture ( classical, Greek, neoclassical, mannerist, etc ), we have our own styles of architecture ( Neolithic, Greek, Roman, Medieval, Baroque, Beaux-arts, etc ), we have our own literature ( Homer, Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer, Voltaire, Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, etc ), we have our own forms of dance ( ballet, Irish Step Dancing, Serbian Folk dance, Ukrainian Folk dance, Ballroom, Clogging, Jigging, Waltz, Tango, Viennese Waltz, Foxtrot, Quickstep, Jive, etc ), we even have art forms that are not traditionally associated with other cultures such as cinematography, we have our own styles of calligraphy, we have a legion of historical figures and an entire wealth of written history that people, literally, can dedicate their whole lives to and not even cover it all, we have our own social structures ( Royal families, nobility, patriarchal lineage, democracy, governmental structures, etc ), we have our own religions ( both modern and historical ), we have our own philosophers, we have our our cuisines, we have our own clothing styles, we have our own sports ( soccer/football, American style football, cricket, hockey, golf, handball, rugby, tennis, etc ). I can go on and on listing things that are part of white culture but I am sure you have gotten the point even though I have barely scratched the surface. You can not say, as some like to, that there is only national cultures. For example, there may be a Scottish culture and a French culture but no comprehensive White culture. This is inherently false and does not give white people the same courtesy as the other races. Natives have culture but there is no universal native culture. People who are Cree are different from Iroquois, who are different from the Ojibway, who are different from the Inuit, etc although they may have some similarities. The same is true for Black culture. People from Zimbabwe are not the same as Egyptians or Somalis but people none the less speak of Black culture. The same is true for White culture. We are a large and diverse group of people who have many things in common, including shared history and some shared cultural practices. I take great offense when you mistake our desire to be tolerant and understanding of other people as having a “white void” that we are desperately trying to fill. Yet if White people never went to other peoples cultural events we would then be accused of being self-involved and not valuing others. It is insulting and racist of you to say that an entire race of people does not have a culture. It does not matter if you are white or another race. It is offense and derogatory. I have clearly demonstrated above that white people do indeed have a culture. Is it sad that you are ignorant of our culture and even sadder that when it stares you in the face you are so close-minded that you can’t find it in yourself to have a simple appreciation for another peoples culture. Our culture is not “invisible” or “non-existent” as you put it. You are just too close-minded and bigoted to see it. We are here. We exist. We have a culture and we deserve to have our people and our culture afforded the same respect that you would like to be afforded. It was my impression from reading the above article, that you are white. If you are not, please disregard this last statement. It seems to me that instead of white people as a group having a “white void” of non-existent culture that we have “given up”. It seems more likely to me that you, personally, have a void and still have your desperate sense of wanting to belong that you referred to and you find that sense of belonging by being self-deprecating and derogatory to your own race to prove your worth…as if to say to yourself…look at me. I am the only good one. I alone am the only white person able to truly appreciate other people and cultures. As if to say, those other people who came to the Powwow weren’t trying to find a way to show a little bit of understanding and friendship between the races. No…let’s find fault and criticize them…lets find a reason to be divisive and separate myself from them. Only to shoot yourself in the foot and deny who and what you really are and try and pretend that you are either a member of another race or just that you are the only good white person left on the face of the planet…or worse…that you still sit there and accuse yourself of having subconscious racism and that you still aren’t worthy and still have “work to do”. Give your head a shake. Quit being racist. Instead of criticizing others for not having a complete understanding of native culture when they try to make the effort to understand and ask ( in your opinion ) stupid questions…try learning about ( possibly your own ) White culture. You obviously are ignorant about White culture since you deny that it even exists. Take your own advice. Try learning about White culture ( and not focusing just on the negatives in history as EVERY group of people have less than savory parts in their history. ) Maybe if you open your mind for a moment, you might find something there of worth after all.

17 09 2010

I will try not be sarcastic although, truthfully, I am a bit taken aback by what you have publicly said here. I will respectfully acknowledge that what you wrote is your opinion and you are entitled to it. Instead, I want to share why I am taking my seven year old daughters (who are only 1/16th Cherokee) to experience a Pow Wow. I feel that our heritage (the blood is from my side) is an important part of their souls. I have never been to a celebration, so I am grateful to have this opportunity. Haven’t found a hole in my soul yet, but I promise to keep an eye out for one in case.

The funny thing is that I actually found your post while I was doing extensive research the night before we go to the Pow Wow about the manners which are appropriate *especially* so we do NOT cause offense. I will take a second look at the nice dress (NOT buckskin or any imitation of hide, although I wish I had something that beautiful) and poncho (because it’s going to be a bit cool out) that I was going to wear, along with the closest thing to what I would consider appropriate (and comfortable) shoes for the event that I own – and yes, they are store bought brown leather dress shoes with a little moccasin fringe. If you don’t like my clothes, I can only suggest perhaps you should look at my heart.

The point is, I had no intention of being rude, I was dressing this way, or making my best effort, to show my respect. I’m sure these other people you speak of had the same idea. I would like to gently ask you to consider when you see someone dressed in the ways you have listed as personally offensive above – that as misguided as their fashion choice may be, at least they tried, in their own way, to participate and understand. Or is what you are really saying that it’s only “real” native clothing if a native is wearing it? Technically then, anything I choose to wear is accurate 😉

I’m sorry, but if you are going to exclude people in your mind, then really, you have already practiced racism yourself. I guess many elders don’t agree with you or “white” people wouldn’t be invited at all. In my opinion, you have two choices; these peoples’ involvement and some effort in return at understanding the needs of your culture – or exclusivity, which has historically been a bad idea that merely creates misunderstanding.

I’m afraid you really do sound a bit condescending, which to my knowledge is directly contrary to the humility and grace which have been an integral part of any American Indian teachings I’ve ever heard. I would hope that you are grateful for the services or money which is donated, some of it by the people who you find so amusing. I cannot say I find it amusing when anyone reaches for understanding, or faith, or their lost roots…I find it beautiful.

I feel I should mention though, that if you are so respectful and proper, you should probably pay more attention to the performance and less to counting people you find inappropriate. I know my opinion is uninformed, and will probably be unwelcome, but I have at least endeavored to be as polite as I believe you should be. I hope I’ve misunderstood you, but if you are in doubt, consider if you would read what you wrote above aloud to an elder and expect them to agree? Would they be proud of what you said? Peace to you and your people.

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