Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Celebrating Traditions at the Ramapough Powwow

"Nokomis took her bean seeds from the little pouch she had carried across Minnesota. Even when most of their things had been stolen, she'd saved a few seeds. She loved to make gardens, and had a nose for whom to ask for seeds. She'd added to those few seeds with others that she traded from the people of Garden Island, in Lake of the Woods. All around that great and complicated lake, there had been women who planted corn, gourds, beans." - From the chapter, "Makoons," Louise Erdrich's Chickadee

Nokomis is the wise grandmother to Omakayas, part of Louise Erdrich's four part "Birchbark House" children's series of a fictional Native American tribe displaced by the white settlers in the 1800s.

I think of the wisdom of Nokomis and the fiery Old Tallow in Erdrich's stories. In our information age, I wonder about how we are obtaining and retaining knowledge from the older generations.

Did you, or do you, gather knowledge from your grandparents? Mine lived an ocean away in Switzerland, my paternal grandfather dying before I was born, and I only spent time with my grandparents on summer visits in my youth. Even then we were separated by language barriers. How I wish I could have spent more time with them to gather those seeds. My parents are speaking in their Swiss-German dialect to my infant daughter Grace, hoping to plant the gift of language within her, something I, quite regrettably, resisted as a child myself.

I attended the Powwow of the Ramapough Lunaape (also Lenape) tribe held in Ringwood, New Jersey, where many members live. Ringwood is a town you might mention and people will talk about how beautiful it is, with the hiking trails, lake and all its natural beauty, but it holds a dark understory. Toxic paint sludge from a Ford Motor Company plant was dumped here in the 1960s and 70s, and local residents, including the tribe, fight decades later for its complete removal. Ramapough Lenape Chief Dwaine Perry estimates in Ringwood the tribe has lost 30 percent of the elders, "the corporations, namely Ford at this point has robbed us of our elders, which in essence is robbing us of our culture, because if you have no one to share it with it dies out."

I'm grateful for traditions like the Powwow are kept alive, to celebrate this beautiful, too often repressed, culture.

A storyteller here tells children of catching fireflies in the summertime and wanting to capture the magic they held, and how children's imaginations are so magical.

I recently saw a commercial, I believe for Samsung, that enables parents to control the content on their handheld devices so it is kid-friendly. The parent hands the very young child their phone and off they are in the car. Shoving these gadgets in front of the youth of America horrifies me. I believe these corporations are targeting children as consumers-in-training and I can't understand why this is so common. I think children, as do adults, need to let their minds run free and wander instead of constant distraction. In an article in NorthJersey.com on the New Jersey Storytelling festival, Carol Titus, co-coordinator of the event says, "I think people are kind of wising up to the idea that imagination is being stifled by our looking at somebody else's images and not really coming up with their own. Teachers tell me that kids don't know how to pretend anymore. We have our own stories. We don't need other people's stories to tell us who we are. We need to tell our own stories to remember who we are." A storyteller Bernie Libster reflected, "In the electronic age, things are so impersonal. To me, there's nothing personal about Facebook, or the social media. Storytelling is human contact, without a screen."
While there's so many wonderful things about technology, on the flip side, do you worry about it stifling imaginations of both young and old? I do.

I pondered all this as I waited in the long line of Many Sisters for nourishment.

Most people were getting the "Indian tacos" (fry bread with meat or vegetarian chili, cheese and onions). I nearly got a vegetarian one in a nostalgic mood for my trip to the Southwest. A reader enlightened me in my travel diary to the Four Corners and Utah about this not being an authentic Native American food.

Blueberries are a local berry for New Jersey and corn is in abundance, so I gravitated toward the corn cakes with blueberries, four sisters soup (white bean, corn, peppers, potatoes with onions, celery and spices) and fresh mint iced tea, all heavenly.

"Out back, the seeds that Nokomis had saved so carefully were now sprouting. The corn leaves were sturdy and fresh. The dark potato leaves curled down from their mounds of earth. Tendrils of squash and bean vines had begun their searching climb up the poles Nokomis sank near each plant." - From the chapter, "Touching Earth" - Chickadee

There was such good energy here. The smell of sage burning in the air. The artisans selling their products. The dancing, storytelling, music and proud display of outfits.

I wonder how our United States history would have looked if we would have integrated the culture of the native people who were already here and co-existed peacefully, instead of the tragedy of segregation, displacement and often murder and death by disease.

I cannot wait to one day share Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books with Grace, but I too will read Erdrich's wonderful tales. Like Laura, young Omakayas enjoys the delights of the seasons, like maple sugaring, and the nights of storytelling, especially in the cold, stark days of winter.  I imagine a world in which Laura and Omakayas could have been friends.

"Nokomis and Omakayas arranged the food they'd brought. There were packets of split, dried fish, a makuk of special powdered fish, moose meat, a little manomin traded for with deer meat, smoke fish, and a bag of dried pumpkin flowers to thicken soups."
"Neshkey," said Nokomis, happy they had so much. "We'll have a good feast."...
For two days they prepared, knowing that the sap was just about to start running. There was a feeling to that time before the sap began, a quietness that had the going-out taste of winter. All that happened in the snow and cold, the storytelling and the sadness, too, was left behind. Omakayas opened herself to the warming wind. Before them, the sweetness of the maple waited, the warmth of the sun." - From the chapter, "Maple Sugaring Time," Louise Edrich's The Birchback House.

""Here, Laura and Mary," Pa said, and he gave them each a little round package out of his pocket. They took off the paper wrappings, and each had a little, hard, brown cake, with beautifully crinkled edges.
"Bite it," said Pa, and his blue eyes twinkled.
Each bit off one little crinkle, and it was sweet. It crumbled in their mouths. It was better even than their Christmas candy.
"Maple sugar," said Pa.
Supper was ready, and Laura and Mary laid the little maple sugar cakes beside their plates, while they ate the maple syrup on their bread.
After supper, Pa took them on his knees as he sat before the fire, and told them about his day at Grandpa's, and the sugar snow." - From the chapter "Sugar Snow," Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods


  1. Thank you for sharing the times at the Ramapough Powwow with us readers here. Your daughter Grace will surely love these stories too as she grows older, and you're a great storyteller too. Louise Erdrich is a favorite author of mine also, though I had not read her children's books. I will look for them!

  2. Thank you for the compliment, so appreciated from a wise, imaginative storyteller such as yourself! Both you and Louise Erdrich are among my favorite authors. Her children's books, like so many, offers so much wisdom for not just a younger audience but adults as well. Happy reading!