American Indian Heritage Day: Building community through tradition

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“It is terrific today to celebrate American Indian culture, and I mean that — as you’ll see — not in a past tense,” said Bill Yellowtail, Director of Tribal Partnerships at MSU, at the commencement of American Indian Heritage Day last Friday. Yellowtail, a member of the Crow — or Apsáalooke, in the Crow language — Nation is a positive role model to Montanans of all backgrounds. In his life, he has acted as a Montana senator as well as the Regional Administrator for the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

“For the longest time in American history, we have had this idea, this concept, that Indians are somebody else, right? Somebody different, somebody over there,” Yellowtail continued. “In order to move forward in this century, today, this October, we have to consider that we are all together. We are all together in this nation, we are all together on this planet.”

Yellowtail’s words echoed off the brick walls of Reid Hall and Renne Library, filling the silence following his statement. “I want us to no longer think about ‘Indians are somebody over there, somebody different,’ but rather, let’s think more about what we have in common — that’s our task today.”

Those gathered around the small stage in front of Montana Hall knew Yellowtail’s call would be answered with music, dancing and games, proof of the vivacity of Montana’s various tribes and proof that Montanans, both native and non-native can celebrate the rich and diverse cultures within their state.

American Indian Heritage Day began in 2009 as a mandate from the Montana Legislature. The MSU campus has celebrated the event on the last Friday of September for the past 2 years. The event this year was sponsored by the Office of the President, American Indian Council, the Diversity Awareness Office, the Department of Native American Studies, ASMSU Campus Entertainment and the Museum of the Rockies.

The audience applauded as Yellowtail left the stage, replaced by Christian Takes Gun Parrish  (a.k.a. Supaman), the Master of Ceremonies for the event, covered from head to toe with blue-and-white plumage and matching beadwork. Supaman’s humor and energy immediately captured the audience’s attention, keeping even the youngest class from Irving Elementary from fidgeting — albeit with the help of some snack-time treats. “Are you happy?” He asked, displaying a broad grin as he got up to the mic.

Following an introduction courtesy of Supaman, Jason Baldes, a member of the Bobcat Singers, took the stage to explain the significance of his group’s traditional native music. “That drum represents a heartbeat of Native America — a heartbeat of Native Americans and our tribes across the nation,” Baldes said. “This drum is a universal instrument for all of our tribes, so this drum is very significant — it’s a representation of life itself.”

Baldes retook his place at the drum and the crowd rose in honor of the flag song. A brief silence fell before the beating of the drum began. A single voice rang out, soon to be joined by others. The audience stood listening to the singers, reminded of the longevity of this tradition.

Then came the dancing.

Feet and drums pounded as one, beating out a story and a song. “This dance that I do is a warrior’s dance,” Spur Roundstone explained. “We tell a story as traditional dancers. We’re warriors — we track, we look around.”

Roundstone and the other dancers dressed in traditional garb for their performances. “There’s a different outfit for each kind of dance,” explained Scott Zander, Director of Native American and Alaskan Native Student Success and one of the organizers of American Indian Heritage Day.

“The singing, the dancing, those two aspects are really important to Indian culture,” Zander said, “and we have students here that are able to do that.”

“I first started dancing when I could walk,” said Shannlyn Spotted Elk, an MSU student and one of the dancers featured at the event. “I have always grown up with a powwow life.”

Spotted Elk whirled around on stage, performing the women’s Fancy Shawl dance for the audience. Her dance featured intricate footwork and spins. As she moved, she held a shawl over her back like wings. “The shawl imitates a butterfly, which is a graceful creature,” she said.

As she danced, Spotted Elk’s concentration and conviction were evident. “Having knowledge of my Northern Cheyenne background and knowing where I come from lights up my world when I dance,” she said. “There’s no greater feeling than being able to honor my ancestors that contributed to where I am today.”

After the dances, Supaman invited the children onto the stage and asked them to hold up whatever they had in their pockets. From there, he performed a freestyle rap about the things in front of him, weaving everything from a candy wrapper to a keychain into his song.

While this entertainment held the attention of many, the grassy quad behind Reid Hall buzzed with activity. People of all ages competed in traditional Native games and, whether throwing sticks through moving targets or racing after a ball, they participated with enthusiasm. “Everyone was engaged, and I was glad to see that — adults and children alike,” Zander said.

When, at last, the elementary students had run out of breath, the American Indian Heritage Day celebration ended with a word from Supaman: “Remember, be happy.”

Yellowtail spoke to the strength and endurance of Native culture, “We will wake up each morning and we will choose, because we have the authority to choose — it lives here in our hearts and in our minds — we will choose this day to be optimistic.”