Veterans Administration powwow fiasco: Custer reenactor participates in color guard

Published in Indian Country Today in 2010. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

On Sunday, May 30, Guy Jones, Hunkpapa Lakota, was MC-ing the Selma Walker Memorial Day Powwow in Columbus, Ohio, when he received a cellphone text message. “You’ll never guess who just entered the arena here in Dayton,” was its gist, recalled Jones. He soon learned that someone costumed as George Armstrong Custer (shown here) was participating in the color guard for a powwow occurring simultaneously on the Dayton Veterans Administration Medical Center campus. “Send photos,” replied Jones, who is a lecturer, author, and co-founder of The Miami Valley Council for Native Americans (TMVCNA).

Custer reenactor (center) in color guard.
Each Memorial Day Weekend, the Dayton VA hosts the Patriot Freedom Festival, produced with the American Veterans Heritage Center (AVHC), a nonprofit on its grounds. The popular shindig, which included a powwow for the first time this year, attracted more than 5,500 attendees over three days, according to the VA. The celebration honored all veterans, but also featured a service at the Dayton National Cemetery to highlight military contributions of Native Americans.

Jones’s cellphone soon displayed pictures of a Custer figure, with flowing blond hair and distinctive uniform, advancing into the arena with General Robert E. Lee and General Ulysses S. Grant lookalikes. Jones called the incident a hate crime. “Custer and his men killed the wife and children of my grandfather, Gall. This so-called man, this baby killer, this woman killer should never have been allowed within our circle or honored by inclusion in the color guard. Would you take a Hitler impersonator to a synagogue? Would you take a KKK member to an African-American church?”

“Blasphemy” was the term used by Dayton powwow vendor, Rick Haithcock, Saponi, a genealogist and author of numerous books on Native American lineage and history. “It was a disgrace and an act of discrimination against Native Americans. Why didn’t they honor Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, or other figures of Native history?”

Controversy erupts
Dayton vendor Leon “Sam” Briggs, Tonawanda Band of Senecas, a blacksmith and artist, protested to a group of event organizers, calling Custer’s appearance “a desecration of our sacred circle.” A heated discussion followed, during which an organizer hit Briggs twice in the abdomen and twisted his arm, causing it to bleed, according to accounts from Haithcock, Saponi vendor Keith Freeman, and a non-Native veteran who observed the encounter.

The organizer, who later described himself to Indian Country Today as descended from two tribes and adopted into a third, said in a lengthy interview that he was “hotheaded,” but “I never touched him.” A second organizer, Mark Conrad, threatened Briggs with arrest “on federal property,” according to an AVHC document describing the episode. VA police appear not to have responded to the altercation.

Briggs, Haithcock, Freeman, and others left the grounds.

VA and AVHA react
Jones complained to the Dayton VA, and in a letter to Jones dated June 7, Guy B. Richardson, director of the medical center, apologized “for any negative impressions or experiences the Native Americans in attendance may have experienced” and said the VA had worked “collaboratively” with AVHC “to share the rich Native American culture with attendees.” Announcing the veteran who played Custer with the historical figure’s name rather than his own was an oversight that occurred in the rush of the day, Richardson explained.

The AVHC document called the incident both an oversight and “a simple mistake in judgment,” apologized for it, and affirmed “there is absolutely no place in our celebration for racism or bias of any type.”

TMVCNA protests
On the afternoon of June 7th, TMVCNA demonstrated at the Dayton VA’s gates, demanding a meeting to discuss legal and cultural issues surrounding powwows. Since the organizers didn’t anticipate the reaction to the Custer re-enactor, they may have made additional mistakes, Jones said. “Did they comply with federal laws regarding eagle feathers or the identity of craftspeople claiming to be Native American? The VA is a federal entity and needs to enforce the law.”

Jones also questioned the cultural expertise of event organizers. Such concerns may arise in Ohio, given the range of people and organizations that run its many powwows and the multiple types of Native status there. The state has no federally recognized tribes, but does have residents who are members of U.S.- and state-recognized tribes and additional Native communities in other states. Numerous local groups and individuals claim relationships to Ohio’s ancient Native people and to tribes that formerly resided in the area, including those removed during the 19th century. One Ohio group says it has state recognition, though the attorney general contradicts this. Plenty of non-Native enthusiasts also turn up for Indian-themed occasions and even produce them with their own goals in mind.

The result can be a complex, conflict-ridden and, Jones says, inaccurate picture of Native history, culture, and identity.

VA reassesses
On June 14, the VA issued another statement downplaying the Custer figure’s participation, describing it as “an unfortunate incident” that was offensive to “some.” Spokeswoman Tenisha Smith reiterated the VA’s apology and emphasized the minimal nature of her agency’s involvement. “We were not directly responsible for the powwow. We did not even approve or disapprove the event being in powwow form. No VA employees were present except on their time off. All we did was look over plans to ensure everything complied with federal law — no politicking, for example.”

Jones described the apologies as perfunctory. “They feel empty. The people involved in this powwow, from the VA to the so-called Indians who ran it, don’t grasp the import of what happened. A powwow is a part of living culture. What is culture? It’s land-based, it’s spirituality, and it’s about language. Knowing a few phrases or some dance steps does not make you Indian. And if you are Indian, you know that a powwow is not a costume party or a reenactment, like those staged along with the Dayton event.”

Next year?
A powwow is planned for the 2011 Patriot Freedom Festival. Will a Custer reenactor take part? Yes, the “hotheaded” organizer told Indian Country Today.

No decision has yet been made, said AVHC board president, Walter H. Rice, a federal judge. “I cannot tell Native Americans how hold a powwow or how to honor their ancestors and their veterans. However, there will be discussions.”

What is the law?
The organization of the powwow on the Veterans Administration campus in Dayton seems to present novel legal questions, according to Rapid City attorney Mario Gonzalez, Oglala Lakota, who has represented many Indian tribes and tribal organizations during a long and distinguished career: “Ordinarily, when a Native cultural or religious event occurs on federal land, such as a national park, a federally recognized tribe or an enrolled member has obtained permission or a permit. In this case, however, it appears that no federally recognized tribe or enrolled tribal member was in charge of the event, so this may be a unique situation.”

Gonzalez noted the federal government has a trust relationship with the federally recognized tribes, which is enshrined in federal law, and a duty to consult with them, as described in President Clinton’s 1994 executive memorandum on government-to-government relations between the United States and Indian tribes.

In addition, Gonzalez emphasized, tribes without federal or state recognition retain rights under federal law. “Their treaty rights have been recognized in court decisions, and their right to practice their traditional religions and ceremonies should also be recognized and accommodated to the fullest extent possible by the federal and state governments.”

Gonzalez suggested that the issues pertaining to occasions that fall outside the ordinary pattern could be clarified. “If there isn’t a policy in place to cover an event such as the Dayton powwow, perhaps there should be.” 

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph courtesy Veterans Administration in Dayton.

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