A Native American Legacy
26 November 2019
The smell of corn soup, beans and hot grease on the stove, the taste of fry bread and sweet tea are some of the memories I cherish from visiting my mother’s parents in Geary, Oklahoma. A poster of Chief Little Raven and each one of my nine aunts and uncles in their high school cap and gowns adorn the walls in their living room. My cousins, sisters and I dared each other to run into my grandparents’ room and hit the drum that my Grandpa had rested up against a wall at the risk of being scolded and told to play outside. My grandparents’ house is where my aunts, uncles, and cousins would gather for family celebrations or during the weekend for a pow wow if we weren’t camping on the grounds.
Oklahoma is what I consider home despite growing up mostly in Washington state. The memories of my grandparents’ home in Geary, the few memories of pow wows with family and relatives, coupled with the memories I have created since joining the Navy, like my reenlistment and gourd dance in 2016, have rooted my heart forever in Oklahoma.
Last year during the Native American series, I shared experiences about growing up in two different homes and reconnecting with my culture and dancing. This is almost a continuation of that series as the final story in my series highlighted my father’s side of the family, and this year I am able to share my mother’s side.
I think the passion for my culture and family history comes from the experience of losing it and then gaining it back. I know not everyone has the opportunity to grow up knowing their family’s history- who they are and where they come from. If I don’t learn these things and pass them on, my culture and family history eventually die. I don’t want to be the link that breaks that chain, I want to help educate others so our culture and tribal history remains strong for generations to come.
My mother’s great-great-grandpa was Chief Little Raven. Little Raven was most known for his desire to maintain peace between the white Americans and his tribe, even after the Sand Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864. I remember growing up and seeing the same poster of him in my aunts’ and uncles’ houses, always reminding us of who we are- descendants of Chief Little Raven and a strong Native American family.
Despite this proud legacy, life on the reservation had drawbacks.
In 1943 as an opportunity to leave the reservation, my mother’s father, Troy Little Raven, enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a Commissaryman. His tours included the Pensacola-class cruiser USS Salt Lake City (CA 25), Gearing-class destroyer USS Fechteler (DD 870), Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer USS Lyman K. Swenson (DD 729), Cleveland-class guided missile cruiser USS Galveston (CLG 3), and Naval Training Center San Diego, California.
According to the ship’s official history, USS Salt Lake City was designated as a test ship for "Operation Crossroads" at Bikini Atoll, survived atomic aerial burst on July 1, 1946, and survived atomic subsurface burst on July 25, 1946.
Grandpa’s awards included the Korean Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, China Service Medal, five Good Conduct Medals and two National Defense Medals. Grandpa served for a total of thirty years, eventually returning to the reservation.
The tradition of service continued when my uncle Rory enlisted in the Navy as a mess management specialist in 1989 at the age of 23. Some of his tours included the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), Virginia-class nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser USS Arkansas (CGN 41), Naval Air Station Everett Washington, and Naval Air Station Adak Island. While assigned to USS Arkansas, they participated in Operation Desert Strike during the early ‘90s gulf war. He served for eight and a half years before returning home to help take care of my grandmother with my uncle Kris. His awards included the Meritorious Unit Commendation medal, National Defense medal, two Good Conduct Medals, two Armed Forces Expeditionary awards and the Battle “E” award. Both my Uncle Kris and my Uncle Rory are Southern Arapaho Chiefs.
Military service and tribal leadership are both traditions deeply embedded in the fabric of our family life, but there is a third, and it’s one that is encouraged from childhood. In our world, it is the tradition of the dance.
There is a slight difference between a pow wow and a dance. Pow wows generally follow a specific schedule of events and order of operations, while dances are less formal and sometimes held to help raise money.
At the end of September, I was asked to be the Head Woman Dancer for the Cheyenne and Arapaho American Legion Post 401 Veteran’s Day Dance. I felt very honored, and nervous at the same time. Depending on the size of the pow wow or dance, a lot of work and expectations go with being the head woman dancer-it isn’t just dancing the entire night.
Most pow wows and dances have a head man and head woman dancer that lead the rest of the dancers into the arena during grand entry and each intertribal dance. The committee usually selects these dancers based on who they think will be a great role model for the younger generation.
Being asked to be a head dancer is a privilege and we sometimes have a special or give away during the event. A special can be any kind of competition for a prize and a give away is exactly as it is described, we give the committee hosting the event, other head staff and members involved with the pow wow or dance gifts as a way of saying thank you and a sign of respect. Family and friends often assist with collecting and gifting of the donated items.
The Veteran’s Dance that Post 401 hosted was a gourd dance. We danced for almost 12 hours, honoring a number of different veterans present.
During a gourd dance song, when someone chooses to honor another person, money or gifts are placed on the ground in front of their feet. Men will gourd dance next to the honoree and women will dance behind them. The money that is collected goes to the honoree to do with as they choose. Most give it to the drum, the committee or keep it for themselves.
My heart over flowed as I danced the entire night, honoring veterans and dancing next to friends and family. I know I was tired but it never slowed me down, it gave me a spiritual high. I loved it.
For as long as I can remember, I have always loved dancing. Dancing to me is an expression of who I am and who we are as Native people. It’s not just going out and having a good time in the arena, there is a spiritual connection and expression of who I am, covering friends and family in prayer. Being able to celebrate who we are as a people with everyone in the same arena is very emotional for me. I believe dancing is something Natives have always done as a way to celebrate different life events.
I am grateful for the memories I had as a kid like playing with my cousins at my grandparents’ house, the faint pow wow sounds and smells and the ability to add to them. These stories I have written are my tiny contribution to keeping my family history and culture alive. The ability to help educate my fellow Sailors and share our rich culture with the Fleet has been nothing short of amazing.