Social distance powwows are another example of Indigenous communities adapting to crisis.
Scrolling through Facebook posts, I see Indigenous peoples dancing in uploaded videos from all over North America. There is fancy dancing, grass dancing, the Anishnaabe’s jingle dress dancing for healing. Through headphones, I hear the drums keeping beat for those bouncing in their best regalia. I feel their spirits lifting me, bringing me home.
In late March, an Indigenous dance movement, the Social Distance Powwow, was born. Like many Indigenous traditions, the movement was born out of necessity. Originally started on Facebook, the group formed due to strict social distancing measures imposed in many Indigenous communities. It has since grown to include over 190,000 members and inspired similar groups on Twitter and Instagram. Weekly events bring people together, while people celebrate graduations, sobriety dates, and birthdays with powwow posts as well.
Powwows are intrinsic for many Native communities. These multifaceted events are a space for singing and dancing, to talk and laugh, to show art, to pray. They are also a space for Indigenous peoples to just be. In a country where 87 percent of content taught about Native Americans is history from before 1900, powwows are a space where we are not invisible. In a country where the Navajo Nation has the highest rate of Covid-19 infections per capita compared with individual states, powwows are a space where we can feel safe. As Tommy Orange says in his bestselling novel, There There, “we keep powwowing because there aren’t very many places where we get to all be together, where we get to see and hear each other.”
I currently live in Tāmaki Makaurau in Auckland, New Zealand, thousands of miles away from my home in the United States. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, I am unsure when I will be able to go home or see my family. But because of these virtual powwows, I have been able to see friends and relatives singing and dancing, celebrating birthdays, and taking solace in remembering those who have passed on. The Social Distance Powwow has given hope to Native peoples. It has given me hope.
The Social Distance Powwow is not the only example of Indigenous peoples staying connected during this time. We have come together digitally to continue speaking our languages, practicing our traditions, and supporting each other during the coronavirus pandemic. From showing how to plant traditional crops to Indigenous language social media challenges, we are adapting our lives, as we always have, to the current crisis.
I spoke with Hannah Orie (Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians descendant), a teacher at Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Institute, a language immersion school in Hayward, Wisconsin. For Orie, social distancing has meant not just the closure of school, but disruption to the spiritual and cultural rhythms of her community. “[Ojibwe] people are going to ceremony every weekend … and now some of them are either postponed, canceled, or very few are going,” she said. It’s why Orie has started a social media challenge where community members create minute-long videos speaking the Ojibwe language during the lockdown.
It cannot be understated how difficult the reality Orie describes is for many Indigenous peoples. Until 1978, with the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, many aspects of Native religions were outlawed in the United States. With that history, even one lost season of ceremonies can have a momentous impact on the revival and preservation of this culture. This is particularly acute when many knowledge holders in our communities are elderly or at-risk to complications from the coronavirus. “What if one of us is going [into town or work] and we talk to one of our most prized language speakers … and they happen to get sick and be gone? Like that’s it,” said Orie.
This is why Orie has tried to continue her teaching efforts through social media, while continuing to practice on her own and with her school’s staff online. As we talk, it becomes clear that she’s motivated to continue her work so that the language will remain strong in her community even in this crisis.
Indigenous peoples are also adapting customary ways of knowing, doing, and being during the pandemic. Rachel Kapule (Kanaka Māoli, or Native Hawaiian) has helped reorient Ho’okua’āina, a community group on O’ahu using kalo (taro, the purple starch used to make poi) to engage youth where she is a program coordinator, after many of their volunteer-led mentoring programs were shuttered when Hawaii went into lockdown.
Even as Ho’okua’āina has not been able to have any volunteers, it has stepped up to help distribute kalo to Hawaiian families in need, while also starting a program to help people grow kalo at home. The program advertised free cuttings of huli, the stem of the taro plant, and then uploaded a series of videos to help show how to grow kalo in home patches.
Kalo has always been a staple of the Kanaka Māoli — it is even being bound up in versions of a creation story. “We’re super vulnerable to any sort of disaster where we can’t get food shipped in,” Kapule explained, noting that kalo can help alleviate food insufficiencies as a crop well-suited to the climate.
At its core, the work is about bringing people together, regardless of whether they’re Kanaka Māoli or not. “Even if you’re not Hawaiian, this is still your home, and you do have a kuleana, a responsibility, to take care of it,” said Kapule.
This moment is difficult for Indigenous peoples. Many of the inequities — health, education, and poverty — we struggled with before have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Add that to the reality that our communities are separated in moments of crisis, and the situation feels insurmountable.
But what I was reminded of listening to Orie and Kapule is the history of my own family, taking comfort in the fact that we have been here before. I come from Chatsiks-si-Chatsiks (Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma) and Chahta (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma) peoples. I come from peoples who have walked the Trail of Tears. I come from peoples who have had their languages, their land, and their lives taken. I also come from peoples who survived all of this, even if they couldn’t imagine what the next day, or month, or year might hold and who might be there when it came.
Through all of this devastation, we have sung, and danced, and cooked food. We have spent time with one another and we have always come out on the other side, always. So today, when we watch online powwows, or speak our languages on social media, I do not know that we are recalling times of comfort before the coronavirus. Maybe we are. But, I also think we are remembering those exact moments when our ancestors faced what must have felt like the end of the world. And as we call out to them, we remember that if they could survive then, we can survive this, too.
Rory Taylor is a Ckiri/Chahta journalist covering Indigenous politics, policy, and culture. He currently lives on the territory of Ngāti Whātua Orākei in Tāmaki Makaurau where he is pursuing a master’s degree in Indigenous Studies at Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau.
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Author: Rory Taylor