TAMA — Slowly the cadence of the drums began to build. Decked out in bright yellow, orange and light blue regalia, the young Meskwaki dancers performed the buffalo head dance, which dates back to the tribe’s time on the East coast.
This weekend marks the 100th anniversary for the Meskwaki tradition, which due to flooding this year, is located behind the casino in Tama. The five-day celebration kicked off with a focus on children — a key group tribal members say must be reached to maintain the Meskwaki way of life.
Toddlers joined with tribal elders during opening dances, but the young dancers took over as the afternoon progressed. Jarron Johnson, 12, who participated in a variety of the dances, said keeping the powwow alive is important to the tribe.
“It’s part of our religion and it’s fun,” he said.
Older Meskwaki members attest the annual celebration allows children to learn from experience. Bits and pieces of Wakashan, the tribe’s language, are picked up through the songs which provide a foundation for kids to learn about the Algonquin dialect.
“The children can see adults and learn by observation,” said Benjamin Bear, a 57-year-old resident who lives on the settlement. “After a few years it becomes natural. It’s the reason we encourage them (children) to take part.”
Without the language, one expert said, the tribe would lose a key part of the culture.
The latest tribal census found there were 258 fluent speakers, mostly in their 50s and older, said Conrad Brown, a resource developer for the tribe’s language program. Brown, 53, compared the problem to a ladder, which loses a bit of knowledge each step of the way down.
“We grew up in one-room shacks with no T.V., no radio, no electricity,” he said of his childhood. “The only thing we had was our parents and grandparents who would talk for hours” in the tribal language, he said. Nowadays, technology and other entertainment attracts youngsters.
In order to alleviate this problem, the tribe approved a 10-year plan to overhaul the language curriculum for the settlement school. The plan calls for immersion education, where qualified fluent speakers would also teach basic subjects allowing for a fusion of knowledge and culture. But putting the plan in action will have its difficulties, Brown said.
“I’m more optimistic than I was,” he said. “We have a good 30 years to turn this around.”
One of the powwow’s emcees said the tribe has always faced its challenges of survival, but with the help of celebration and other efforts, the culture will live on.
“Dancing is one outlet to let your spirit go,” said Larry Yazzie. “The drum resonates with the mind, spirit and soul.” “They say the drumbeat is the heartbeat of our people. By dancing, (carrying on our culture) can be done. The children will rise up. ”
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