For my Indigenous Spirituality class, we attended a Pow Wow near Salem at the Chemawa Indian School. Being born in Salem and never knowing my Cherokee father, there was a lot of symbolism in attending my first Pow Wow near Salem, but that’s another subject for another time. What is important here is the experience of a Pow Wow and how it is largely different from my church experience. And after attending church for the first time since moving from Eugene, these comparisons are fresh on my mind.
There was a lot to take in when I first walked into the gymnasium. Drums were blaring so hard I could feel the beat in my chest, burnt sweet grass filled my nostrils, and kids dressed in traditional Native attire (and also many who weren’t) were running around everywhere. Once the Pow Wow began, a classmate of mine pointed out the ten different drumming groups present, some were from different tribes not local to Oregon. As the opening dance began, I couldn’t help but notice the different races, ages, and genders all partaking in the dance.
After a couple songs were sung, attendees were invited onto the floor for a “healing song.” Our professors wife peer-pressured us into dancing, so I awkwardly stepped around on the floor (definitely would not call it dancing). Despite the discomfort, no one laughed at my awkwardness or pointed out how I was doing it wrong. Instead, the focus was any pain on anyone’s heart and the song and dance combined functioned as the act of lifting up that pain to the Creator – God, as we Christians might say. It was a communal act unlike any I’ve ever experienced.
We sat back down when the song was over and moments later another series of songs were sung as people danced. The focus of this entire Pow Wow was for the Veterans of U.S. armed forces (since tomorrow is Veteran’s Day), honoring those who fell in battle, returned from the battle, those who are still missing in action, and even those veterans who never saw battle. Such a ceremony was full of respect and honor for the men and women who sacrificed so much for our freedom.
What I could not help but notice, though, was how family-oriented everyone seemed to be. As people walked back and forth from the food booths or venders to their seats, they often ran into people they knew. Babies were passed around and kids were running everywhere while men and women of many tribes and races (both Indian and non-Indian) were catching up on each other’s lives and enjoying the celebrations. Even though there were a couple hundred people there, everyone treated each other as family.
Attending church after experiencing that Pow Wow was a little awkward. For one, it’s been two months since I last gathered with a church. Be it either work or laziness or a combination of the two, I simply haven’t gone to any gathering. So that contributed to the awkwardness, but also allowed me to see just how dramatically different the Pow Wow was to the average church experience (which is essentially what this morning was).
I walked in, found a seat, stood when the worship team started to play, greeted someone when told to greet someone, sat down when the pastor came up to speak, stood again when the worship team played the closing songs, and hung out for a little when it was over. Every bit of it was familiar, but yet still largely uncomfortable.
What contributed to my comfort yesterday was the fact I was hanging out with my class – people I had met before. This morning I went to church by myself – and I knew absolutely no one. While this was a major factor into the differences in comfort between the Pow Wow and the church I attended, I still noticed how fluid the Pow Wow was and how rigid church was. For instance, kids were allowed to dance in every dance; in fact, the ones who danced the most were the kids (especially this adorable little toddler who mostly just bounced). In church, kids were only heard from their Sunday school classrooms; they weren’t out among the rest of the congregation.
I also noticed that I was the only non-white person present at church. Maybe this was because I attended the later-morning service instead of the earlier ones, but this is definitely not the first time this has happened. In the Pow Wow, however, there were plenty of non-white participants, although most simply observed from the bleachers. My classmate who sat next to me later pointed out a symbol common to most Native tribes; a circle with four colors in it (red, yellow, black, and white). This symbolizes the acceptance and unification of all races and tribes – that although we are different in appearance, we are all one in relation to each other and creation (also called the Harmony Way).
My intent isn’t to say that Pow Wows are better than church, but to say that there are areas I appreciated more from the Pow Wow than I did the church. The church service was regimented and habitual whereas the Pow Wow was much more fluid and spontaneous. Instead of singing new songs (as the church did), the drumming groups in the Pow Wow sang old songs – songs that their ancestors sang, which seemed to command a sense of reverence amongst the tribal members. And the church separated the kids out from the rest of the group while the Pow Wow wanted their kids to participate in what the adults were doing.
Again, maybe these things are personal peeves that I alone must deal with, but nevertheless I appreciated the Pow Wow more than the church service. Not to say that one group of people now has more value than the other, but to say I liked the Pow Wow style a little more. It was more personal and yet contained a greater reverence not only for the Creator, but for their ancestors and creation.
Does this mean we should change our church style? Maybe. Seeing as this particular style is shared by many other churches I’ve attended, it makes one wonder where the creative people are and how much influence they have. But who knows, perhaps this is the style that speaks more to the people who attend on a regular basis and I happen to miss out on all of that because I don’t attend? If that isn’t the case, however, perhaps it is indeed time to make some changes.
Regardless of what that church does from this point forward, I have learned quite a bit from the Pow Wow experience in addition to everything we’ve read in my Indigenous Spirituality class. And I have the responsibility to utilize and steward this knowledge to be more authentic with the people around me (regardless of age, race, gender, or any other apparent differences), more aware of how alive the earth really is (much like a sibling), and more proactive in developing relationships within my local community.
I know that not all churches are like the one I attended this morning and not all Pow Wows are like the one I attended yesterday. But from what I experienced in the ones I have attended, the church experience could take a lesson from the Pow Wows. Humanity is fluid and flawed, so why should our churches feign something different?
Be true to you, your family, and your friends around you. Or as Jesus said, love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:39).