By Maddie Orton
Drums representing Mother Earth and the heartbeat of the nation set rhythms for hours of dancing at the annual Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Pow-Wow.
“Our dance is one of the most sacred things the Native people have,” says Patrick Little Wolf Brooks. “And it’s our voice to the Creator, our voice to the people. I’ve had people walk up to me after I dance and were in tears.”
Brooks and fiancée Emelie Jeffries are the head dancers at this year’s Pow-Wow. They’re positions of tremendous honor.
“None of the dancers will enter the circle until we’ve entered the circle first. We’re also part of the honor guard at the beginning of the Pow-Wow,” says Jeffries.
Pow-Wows are living events, not re-enactments. At the core, they’re spiritual celebrations.
“For me, every step is a prayer,” Brooks says. “Because we don’t dance for ourselves, we dance for others. We dance for the ones that don’t dance anymore, we dance for our children, we dance for our soldiers.”
And, while there are basic steps learned in childhood, nothing is choreographed.
“You can’t choreograph a prayer. So, when you truly pray to Creator, your dance steps represent you. You’re actually speaking in your own language to Him,” says Brooks.
Because it’s a ceremony of religious importance, and there’s a long history of cultural misrepresentation, the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation provides background information on their website and introduces prayers, dances and traditions to attendees. Etiquette basics are posted, so non-Native members of the public feel informed and welcome. Educating schoolchildren and the public is a big focus of the event.
“We weren’t allowed to be native,” says Mark Gould, tribal chairman and principal chief of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribe. “In 1924 is when we got our citizenships, 1978 is when we were allowed to practice our religion. So when we used to have our ceremonies, we used to have a guard out at the end of the driveway to the street.”
“A lot of people, what they know of Natives is from late-night reruns of the Lone Ranger,” says Jeffries. “It’s great that the public does come out and are interested in being educated and finding out what the Native culture is really about.”
Pow-Wows are also an opportunity for Native-Americans to celebrate and learn about their own heritage. Lance Kelly is Navajo from Arizona. This is his first year joining his dad to travel down the East Coast, selling hand-made items over the course of several months on what some refer to as “The Pow-Wow Trail.”
“This is actually the way that we make a living,” says Kelly of the family’s business, Kelly Indian Jewelry. “It’s something that we do that preserves our culture because a lot of the youth is forgetting,” he explains. “My family’s done this for over 30 years and I’m one of the ones that’s going to keep it going I hope.”
Kelly is in good company. Members of about 25 tribes gather to sing, drum, dance, celebrate and educate. And while Gould says his tribe still occasionally runs into challenges with the government, he says they’ve come a long way: “We’re a loving tribe, and we are surviving.”
The annual pow-wow has passed, but lessons on the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape can be found in the tribe’s online museum and, in the next year or so, in a brick and mortar one as well.