That’s entertainment!: Ohio Native leader decries show-biz powwows, new Ohio “tribes”

Published in Indian Country Today in August 2010.

The Mohican Reservation Campgrounds just finished one of its two annual powwows, one in July and another in September. The events are now in their 26th year. Check the enterprise’s website and brochures, though, and you’ll find a disclaimer. The place and the event are “not affiliated with any Indian tribe.”

            That’s because the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians demanded it, according to spokesperson and attorney Bridget Swanke. “After the tribe learned how the campground was advertising itself, it contacted the organization and eventually reached a settlement that was signed in 2003.”

            The disclaimer doesn’t seem to hurt business, though. In recent years, the powwow has attracted 22,500 audience members over three days, according to the Ohio Department of Tourism. It’s one of many such events that are run by non-Indians in Ohio throughout the powwow season, often several in any given weekend. Though Native people do dance in the “Great Mohican Indian Powwow,” some have questioned the propriety of doing so.

            Indian Country Today went to Ohio Native leader Guy Jones, Hunkpapa Lakota, for a comment. Jones, a lecturer, author, and co-founder of The Miami Valley Council for Native Americans (TMVCNA), in Dayton, is involved in the Indian community both in Ohio and on the Standing Rock Reservation, in North and South Dakota, where he is enrolled.

Indian Country Today: What’s the issue here?
Guy Jones: The place is a campground, not a reservation, and the event is a festival, not a powwow. A Native powwow, even a competition event, supports community and heritage; it celebrates abundance and growth — by introducing babies to the community, for example. These organizers are simply making money, and Indians are competing for prizes in what’s essentially a modern-day Buffalo Bill show. White people come to the “Mohican” event and say, “What a nice reservation, and look what fun the Indians are having!”

ICT: Some say you’re overly sensitive.
Guy Jones: Yes, they do. But the same Native people who dance in these events get upset about material taught in the schools — the stereotypes, the idea that there are no living Indian communities, the assumption that all Native peoples are homogeneous. Years ago, you could tell powwow participants’ communities by their regalia, by the beadwork patterns. Now it all looks the same. We’re losing tribal identities and gravitating toward a watered-down consensus — and these powwows contribute to this.

ICT: In Ohio, some powwows are run by people exploring Indian aspects of their lineage.
Guy Jones: Some of them do have Native lineage, and we Native people have invited them into our gatherings. The trouble starts when someone picks up a little information, then makes up the rest. It’s difficult. You explain something, hoping a person will understand that it fits into a very complex picture. But you have to wonder if you’re adding to their small knowledge base and encouraging them to think they know “enough” to do their own thing.

ICT: So you don’t question their lineage but rather what they do with it?
Guy Jones: I say, OK, you’re one thirty-second Indian. That means you’re thirty-one thirty-seconds something else. Why aren’t you celebrating that, too? If you deny all of what you are, you go down a road where nothing is real anymore. A Lakota word usually translated as “mixed breed” really means “interpreter.” If you’re a mix of cultures, you’re responsible for creating bridges among the peoples of your various backgrounds.

ICT: So this isn’t about entitlement?
Guy Jones: Not at all. It’s about responsibility — to spouse, children, family, community, the earth, Creator — and it starts with responsibility to yourself and who you are. Most claiming to be Indian blend into the white world during the week — so they don’t put up with the name-calling and all the rest of it — and turn Indian on the weekend.

ICT: What about your organization’s powwow at SunWatch Indian Village [a reconstructed ancient village and museum in Dayton]? Does its inclusiveness also water down culture?
Guy Jones: It does include southern and northern styles, and here’s how that happened. When I went home to South Dakota to get permission to run it, I was told we’d be dancing on someone else’s ground. So next, I went to Oklahoma to talk to people whose tribes once lived in Ohio, and they helped us run the SunWatch powwow for four years. After that, they gave us permission to continue. And I do very specific things to ensure many people feel welcome.

ICT: Does confusion over Native identity in Ohio affect policy issues?
Guy Jones: A proposed state senate bill would enable the Ohio Civil Rights Commission to recognize groups claiming Indian descent. This would affect the government-to-government relationships, the funding, and the sovereignty of existing federally recognized tribes. I ask, if these people really are Shawnee or Cherokee, why don’t they go join a federally recognized tribe?

ICT: And?
Guy Jones: For most, the answer is twofold: They don’t have the blood quantum, and they don’t have the culture, with its language, spirituality and community. So they decide they’re entitled to make up their own tribe. That’s not what being Indian is about.

c. Stephanie Woodard.

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