All Hands On Deck To Preserve Native Identity

Jul 2, 2015

For the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, preserving cultural traditions involves every generation. Along with capturing the memories of elders, they must also compete for the attention of Native American kids living in a modern world. That’s why there’s powwow club. Reno Public Radio’s Michelle Bliss has more for the final segment of our series Taking Back History. 

About a dozen dancers, mostly teens, are in their gym clothes building up a sweat as they furiously step to the beat. They’re getting a workout, but it’s more than that.

“When you come to the powwow, you're going to be dancing around and you're like a butterfly, flying and searching and moving in different directions," explains Janice Stump. She's a tribal elder who sews traditional regalia for powwows, everything from dresses and capes to beaded headbands and moccasins. "Some people wave their arms; they're so beautiful. It's like, what are they going to do next?

Kids and adults alike participate in the Powwow Club offered by the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.
Credit Alexa Ard

Her son Toby describes dancing at powwows as similar to a trance and "being where we used to be 100,000 years ago where we dance for the food, the land, the air, the water. It brings us back to the naturalism of a long time ago."

Another dancer, Angie Alsobrook says that the events are not just about dancing. "Not only am I out there dancing, but every time I step out, I'm praying for healing for others. Sometimes I get so into it that I forget that I'm dancing."

Powwows have certainly evolved over time. Along with celebrating native lands and communities, today’s powwow participants are often competing for cash. Some argue that the events are too contemporary and flashy, but Teresa Melendez, who runs the powwow club, says that’s actually perfect for connecting with tribal youth. 

“I tend to think of powwows as like a gateway—you know how people talk about marijuana as a gateway drug? That’s how I think about powwows," she says, "because once they start going to powwows, then they start saying: I’m curious about my tribal history. I’m curious about my tribal language.”

The other great thing about powwows is that they’re more accessible than a lot of other Native American traditions.

“If there aren’t people in your family who speak the language or practice the ceremonies or believe in those ways," Melendez says, "you can feel a little lost, like, who can I talk to? I really want to know these things. You can always go to a powwow. There are powwow fliers all over the Internet and on Facebook. You can go to a powwow, and you can start dancing, and you can do that on your own.”

The colony has been offering the club for a year now through its language and culture program, which is growing despite limited funding.

Michon Eben is the tribal historic preservation officer and oversees the preservation of everything from powwows and indigenous languages to traditional art forms like basket weaving. She doesn’t want to see anything else slip through the cracks.   

“There’s been a lot of lost tradition and lost culture," Eben explains, "due to the annihilation of a lot of tribes, especially here.”

One native artist that Eben is proud to highlight is 100-year-old Hilman Tobey, who spends his free time in a small shed, carving intricate ceremonial pipes out of natural materials like wood and stone. They’re eager to catch up at the colony’s new cultural resource center in Reno. 

100-year-old Hilman Tobey is continuing the native tradition of carving ceremonial pipes for prayer.

Several of Tobey’s pipes are on display at the center but he’s quick to reach for one in particular.

“This is my masterpiece," he says, "and these, see the black, red, yellow, white--those resemble the people of the world."

It takes about a month to make each pipe, and despite the time and labor involved, Tobey hands them out for free so that people in spiritual need can use them for prayer. 

“The belief is that your prayers are in that smoke that rises to the creator," Tobey explains.

Along with his woodwork, Tobey was one of the first participants in the colony’s oral history program, which is recording native stories one elder at a time. Local historian Alicia Barber, who helped get the program underway, says it’s essential that the colony collect its own stories:

Pipes on display at the RSIC that were carved by Hilman Tobey.

“I think particularly the Native American community has been documented and interviewed and researched by people outside of that community for, really, over a century.”

Even though most of that work has been done respectfully, outsiders are often so focused on cultural traditions that they can miss out on a lot. 

“What I think can be neglected is the fact that people in Native American communities have fully dimensional lives," Barber explains. "They have careers; they belong to a much larger community than that specific native community, and so that's something that can really be brought out that I think has been kind of missed over time. ”

Barber says capturing every aspect of the Native American experience is imperative for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony as it members assert control over their history.