THE POW WOW IS A CIRCLE OF POWER

By Lona Lyons

 

“Everything an Indian does is in a circle, and this is because the Power of the World always works in circles and everything tries to be round. …The Sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball and so are all the stars. The Wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in a circle, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round…. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood and so it is in everything where power moves.” -- Black Elk, Oglala Sioux Nation

 

The first thing Chuck Grey Wolf noticed when he participated in the recent pow wow in Waimea was the amazing generosity and hospitality of the local people. “I was touched and honored by the Hawaiian people,” he said. “They are very caring.”

Chuck wore the carved turtle and shell necklace framed with lauhala weaving which had been given to him as gifts and expressions of the aloha spirit by some local people. I had watched the opening ceremony of the pow-wow in which the two indigenous people - the Hawaiians and the Indians -- gathered in the pow-wow circle. There was a profound poignancy in their earthy reverence for nature and for each other. One-by-one, they touched their foreheads together and then embraced. I thought of the white-skinned people who had disenfranchised both of them in the past and wondered if they had unwittingly created an unspoken bond between these two. Yet I knew the power of the circle could transcend the past and heal all the wounds if only we would let it.

“My mother taught us to see as the dog sees,” says Chuck. “They are color blind and see only the color grey. That way I can accept all people.”

The purpose of the pow-wow varies. Curing disease, building relationships, celebrating a successful hunt, and tribal councils found a context in the circle. In the days when the Indians walked the land freely, the pow wow was an opportunity for communication and communion. The men discussed where the good hunting was and the women talked about who had come of age, who was ready for marriage and who had “walked on” into death. There were many kinds of dances including an owl dance in which the women asked the men to dance. There was a friendship dance where people shook hands and met each other. Regardless of the purpose, the current day pow wows have certain elements that are constant. There are prayers, honoring the elders who carry the knowledge, wisdom and customs, and a display of the flags from all nations.

“The pow wow is our church social,” says Chuck Grey Wolf. “We break bread, share a meal, dance, talk and sing. It is a way to continue our culture. There are no wars over religion.”

As a young Indian boy growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Chuck was the brunt of ridicule, beatings and ostracism by other races. With a rich heritage that includes Hopi, Apache and Mayan, the gifts of his lineage were stifled by lingering anger and resentment. But in 1990, a near death experience from a stroke changed the course of Chuck’s life.

“I saw the white light at the end of the tunnel and I told the Creator, ‘If you give me another chance, I’ll change and give everything away.’”

Chuck was true to his word. After he got out of the hospital, he continued praying, did sweats and sought counseling to deal with the anger and bitterness in his heart. He gave everything away. “It gave me great freedom. I knew more would come. I knew that every day was a miracle and a blessing and I am honored to be here.”

The ‘90s ushered in new creativity for Chuck which included three years as an actor on the television series Northern Exposure, along with other acting work and commercials. While the attention from the public could have been an ego trip, instead Chuck found it a humbling experience. He was always uncomfortable when people asked for his autograph and picture until the Elders suggested that he honor the person back. “Ask for their autograph and picture,” they counseled. It was like a wake up call for the greedy fans who had not bothered to look into Chuck’s eyes and really see him. When he asked them for their autographs, they were startled awake and became present in the moment because of the totally unexpected request. Chuck has a collection of photos and autographs to remind him of the rich exchanges that resulted.

In the Native American tradition, the grey wolf is the teacher of the ways and helps others. Chuck Grey Wolf teaches the way by guiding people to make their own drums with a wooden frame and an animal hide stretched across it. It is a prayer work in which the spirits of the tree and the animal who gave their lives for the drum are honored. It is entered into reverently and humbly. When Chuck makes a drum, he listens to the ocean, the birds, the wind and the knowledge of the animal and the tree that are the materials for the drum. The bird walked the earth and was taught by the seasons. The bark of the tree surrounded and protected its knowledge that was gained from many years standing in silence and listening.

“We believe that you are born with two instruments,” says Chuck, “your drum and your flute. The drum is your heart. From the time a baby is alive in the womb, the sound of its drumbeat begins. There is an expression in our tradition about following the Good Red Road. It is the path with heart.”

“The flute is your voice. The first words I taught my children to say were not Ma-ma or Da-da. Their first words were ‘I love you’.”

Chuck lives on the Good Red Road, going from pow wow to pow wow, teaching, learning, and offering his drums. “I’ve never tried to sell a drum to anyone,” he says. “People always come up to me and ask if they can buy one. It is only then that we talk about the drum.”

The Hopi Indians have the word “lo-lo-ma” which roughly corresponds to aloha. It conveys a greeting in which everything is to be honored. “No indigenous people have a word for goodbye in their language,” Chuck points out. “We don’t want to end the relationship. With no word for goodbye, we keep the relationship going.”

The circle never ends.

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Updated September 26, 2001