EDITOR'S NOTE: The author of this article-in-draft requests comments and suggestions for improvement and clarification, hamilljf@muohio.edu


Being Indian in NEO

James Hamill

Department of Sociology, Gerontology, and AnthropologyMiami University Oxford, Ohio


Last edited 23-Sep-05

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Migration History

Allotment and Statehood

Tribe and Culture

Culture, Adaptation and Knowledge


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Among Native American peoples the complex issue of social identity and community often arises in terms of asserting a tribal rather than an Indian identity. That pattern may not hold true, however, for the eight tribes that are now located in the northeast corner of Oklahoma (NEO). All of these tribes were removed to the area in the mid-nineteenth century; each suffered from the Euro-American policies intended to disintegrate their culture and assimilate the survivors into the dominant society. In the face of this acculturative pressure, people in the area retain a tribal identity but often express it in a more general Indian identity. Both structural and symbolic integration reinforce and create that identity for the Indian people of NEO. Structural integration takes theform of economic coordination and cooperation between the tribes. Symbolic integration is publicly evident in a series of symbols associated with powwow. These symbols include powwow regalia and cross the community along dimensions other than tribe (e.g. age, sex, cultural heritage).

Many other processes contribute to the Indian culture in NEO; some will emerge only through further research.


 Being Indian in NEO


Social identity has gained some currency as an issue in contemporary American society. Randall Kennedy (1997) for instance, argues that "racial" identities are inappropriate and weaken the intellectual position of ethnic minorities in the United States. A movement has formed around a young professional golfer of African American and Thai parentage, to include a "mixed race" category among the choices on the next U.S. census. The President of the United States has recently called for a national debate on race relations. All of these examples pertain, to some extent, to African American identity, but the issue is equally important to other groups, including American Indians.

The identity issue comes into focus for Indian people, as for many other groups, in various ways. One important focus is cultural misappropriation. Today no sports team can carry, without comment, a name that makes any reference to Indian people. Teams with names such as Chiefs, Indians, and Braves commonly incur criticism for their names; some teams have changed their  names in response to requests from Indian people. Another, sometimes overlapping focus is misrepresentation: Any popular movie, music, or other media that portrays Indian people or themes invariably is scrutinized for the "accuracy" of its depictions.    

In public media and popular culture, identity seem to be viewed as a unitary phenomenon -  as if, for instance, a single "accurate" depiction is sufficient to describe a people. Brief consideration, however, shows that social identity is far more complex. Each of us carries multiple identities that are often in c onflict. My identity as an adult American male, for example, is often at odds with my identities as husband and father. Usually these identities exist in the context of a single culture, but this is not true for many Native American people. Today, as in the past, "Indians" encounter pressure from the dominant culture to assimilate and to suppress their native identity in favor of an Anglo-American identity. As a result, many Native American people today live with identity conflict far more intense than the role conflict cited in the example above. To extend that example, an adult Native American woman may experien ce conflict between her Native American identity and her identities as mother and wife, and between her identity as an adult woman in Native and in Euro-American culture. Popular images of Indian people, augmented with ignorance, often compou nd these role conflicts. Because Indian people represent a comparatively small proportion of the total U.S. population today and because some often remain isolated in remote r ural reservations, very few non-Indian people have had any personal contact with Indian people. Some may have traveled a little in the west, where they saw appalling conditions on Indian re servations outside of Oklahoma, or they may contribute to various Indian charities, but they have almost never actually spoken with someone they knew was an Indian. As a result, non-Indian people often think of "Indians" in terms of popular media icons such as Indian environmentalists or Indian spiritu alists. These simplistic  stereotypes held by most non-Indians are usually applied as if a single "Indian" culture actually exist. They do not take into account the wide variety of contemporary Native American cultures both on traditional reservations and in the non-reservation context of Oklahoma. Many Indian scholars and anthropologists (Champagne 1994) disagree with that assumption. They point out that "Indian" is really a European phenomenon with historical roots in early mistakes. Christopher Columbus made the first when his 1492 landfal l in the Carribean opened relations between Europe and that part of the world. He believed he was in Asia, and referred to the people he met there as "Indians." The second mistake was made when that term was applied to all peoples in the hemisphere regardless of their cultural differences. The European cultures that established themselves in the Western Hemisphere have perpetuated these errors to the present day. Euro-American governments, for instance, enact laws that apply to "Indians"; Euro-American media appropriate stereotypic Indian symbols as icons. 

Early in my career a Navajo colleague brought this point home to me in the clearest terms. While we were conducting some research on the Navajo Reservation on the logical structure of Navajo folklore, this Navajo research associate recommended that we talk to one of the prominent Medicine Men of the area. On the way to the Medicine Man's camp we passed another camp on the right-hand side of the road. My associate said that in the past the occupant of that camp had been a Medicine Man and would have been a good person to talk to, but this was no longer so. I wondered how it could be: I understood that "Medicine Man" was an achieved status related mainly to having the requisite knowledge and skill to perform ceremonies. It made little sense to me that the man had lost his knowledge; I though that perhaps he had died. I had read that Navajo people often abandoned a hogan after its occupant's death, but this camp was active: Several vehicles were parked in the yard, and smoke was rising from the hogan. When I asked my associate what she meant, she replied that the man had "married a Zuni." She said "Zuni" with such disgust that I dropped the subject, but I noted her expression about other "Indian" people.

I learned from this experience, and many others like it, that Navajo people do not consider themselves Indians. Rather, they consider themselves Navajo. Subsequently I learned that this attitude was not unusual in the southwest. Not only do the Navajo consider themselves Navajo before they consider themselves Indian; Hopi people consider themselves Hopi, Ute people consider themselves Ute, Papago people consider themselves Papago, and so on. Furthermore, people express this "tribal" identity in numerous ways. When asked who or what they are, they   reply in terms of their tribe: "I am Navajo" or "I am Hopi." They also participate in activities such as ceremonies, political meetings, and social gatherings that serve to create and recreate the tribal identities they express.

My recent work in northeast Oklahoma, however, leads me to doubt that tribal identity supersedes Indian identity for Native American people in this area. In the summer of 1995 I began supervising students in an annual six-week ethnographic field school in the area. The field school emerged from a desire by my employer, Miami University, to strengthen its official ties with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. In the process of finding ways to enhance these ties, members of the Tribe mentioned their concern that they might lose their elders' knowledge. Accordingly, the university instituted the Miami Ethno-History Project to help the Tribe record, document, and preserve its cultural heritage. As supervisor of the field school I direct the students in collecting and analyzing data on Miami tribal oral history, culture, and folklore. My observations have lead me to believe that "Indian" identity supersedes "tribal" identity here, but that the "tribal" identity remains an important in these people's concept of themselves.

My description does not apply in any way to all Indian people in Oklahoma or even in northeast Oklahoma. There are Indian people living in the area today whose  ways of life are derived more or less directly from the "traditional" ways of a century ago. Furthermore, because of intragroup variations in attitude, approach, and opinion, as well as the creative nature of culture, no representation can be entirely accurate. Because language always idealizes, all descriptions of cultural phenomena are misrepresentations to some extent. I do not intend   here to capture any of the rich variation that characterizes the northeast Oklahoma Indian community; I will briefly outline what I see as some of the symbolic and structural processes that culturally unify the Indian people of northeast Oklahoma in the context of their Miami, Quapaw, or other tribal identities.

Migration History

The Miami Tribe of Oklahoma has its headquarters in Ottawa County, Oklahoma. Until 1907 when Oklahoma became a state, the area was part of Indian Territory. Local people refer to it as NEO, for northeast Oklahoma. The county, which borders Kansas on the north and Missouri on the east, is the northeastern most county in the state. For over 100 years the Miami Tribe has shared this small area with seven other tribes. None of the eight tribes is indigenous to the area; each arrived in by a different historical and cultural route, entering NEO over almost a 50-year period beginning in the early nineteenth century. They spoke languages from four different families and come from three different traditional culture areas. All came to NEO through forced removal, some because of treaties and some as political prisoners.

The first wave of removals brought together peoples from three different language families (Iroquoian, Algonquian, and Siouan) and three different culture areas (Southeastern, Northeastern,  and Prairie-Plains). Three tribes (the Shawnee, the Seneca-Cayuga, and the Quapaw) came to this part of Indian Territory before prior to the Jackson administration removals of other tribes to Indian Territory. A mixed band of Shawnee and Seneca arrived as the result came of an 1831 treaty. Shawnee is classified as an Algonquian language (Voegelin and V oegelin 1977:17); Seneca, an Iroquoian language (Voegelin and Voegelin 1977:186-187). Kehoe (1981:167-177) classifies the Shawnee as belonging to the Southeastern culture area and the Seneca as Northeastern (1981:224-238). Both tribes subsisted on a mixture of corn agriculture and hunting (Driver 1961:28-29). They were soon followed by the Quapaw, a Prairie-Plains people (Kehoe 1981:283).

As early as 1813, the Quapaw claimed much of what is now southern Arkansas and Oklahoma. They moved to the area they now occupy according to the terms of the Treaty of New Gascony ratified in 1833 (Wright 1951). Voegelin and Voegelin (1977:308-309) list Quapaw as a Dhegila dialect in the Siouan group.

After the Civil War, four more tribes, (Miami, Peoria, Ottawa, and Wyandotte) were removed into Ottawa County. Three of these peoples (Miami, Ottawa, and Peoria) spoke Algonquian languages (Voegelin and Voegelin 1977:16-17) and the Wyandotte, spoke an Iroquoian language (Voegelin and Voegelin 1977:187). The Ottawa and the W yandotte came from the Northeast culture area (Kehoe 1981:217-218); the Miami and the Peoria, from the Prairie-Plains area (Kehoe 1981:301-304).

All of these tribes also have similar but distinct histories involving removal first to Kansas and later to Oklahoma. By the terms of an 1831 treaty, the Ottawa were removed from their homelands in Ohio to a reservation near Ottawa, Kansas. The Peoria and other tribes of the Illinois Confederacy were removed, by the terms of an 1832 treaty, to what is now Miami County, Kansas. An 1842 treaty removed the Wyandotte from their home in the upper midwest to Wyandotte County, Kansas. In 1846 the Miami were removed by treaty to Miami County, Kansas.

Therefore, by 1850 these four tribes had large reservations that occupied much of what is now eastern Kansas. The map in Figure 1 (Waldman 1985:181) shows the locations of the all of the eight tribes, except the Modoc, that now inhabit NEO.



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By the mid-1850s these reservation lands were suffering pressure from white settlement. In 1855 the Wyandotte reservation was allotted in severality to tribal members who became U.S.  citizens, while 200 Wyandottes who did not become citizens migrated to a 33,000-acre reservation in Ottawa County, Oklahoma. The Seneca had granted this reservation from the northern portions of their land, but the Seneca and the Wyandotte left the area for Kansas during the Civil War and returned only after the end of the conflict. The Kansas belonging to the Ottawa was allotted similarly in 1862.

After the end of the Civil War, Congress passed the Omnibus Act of 1867, which abolished the Kansas reservations for these tribes and removed them to their present home in northeast Oklahoma. This act returned the Seneca and the Wyandotte to Oklahoma and removed the Ottawa to a 14,000-acre reservation purchased from the Shawnee. In 1873 the Miami, Peoria, Wea and Pankishaw were finally removed to what would become Oklahoma.

The Modoc, the last of the eight tribes in NEO, came to Indian Territory in 1874. They were from California culture area (Kehoe 1981:376-377) and spoke a language in the Penutian group (Voegelin and Voegelin 1977:288). The Modoc people who finally reached Oklahoma were the survivors of a group that participated in the Modoc War of 1872-1873. After their defeat, the leaders of the uprising were hanged, and the remainder of the warring faction was exiled to Fort McPherson, Kansas. Within a year these survivors were removed to a small square tract (2 miles on each side) that was purchased from the Shawnee.

As a result of these relocations, the small area that is now Ottawa County, Oklahoma became home to a widely diverse group of Indian peoples. The eight nations were established by the mid-1870s and each tribe controlled its own territory. Operating With th is relative autonomy, each tribe was free to deal with its neighbors and its people according to its own cultural, social, economic, and political traditions. This situation changed in the mid-1880s, however, with the dominant society's movement the to allot Indian lands and thereby force the  assimilation of Indian people into white society.

Allotment and Statehood

Most people know the General Allotment Act of 1887 as the "Dawes Act" after Senate Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts, its principal supporter in the United States. The Act authorized the President of the United States to survey each Indian reservation and nation, prepare tribal rolls, allot tribal land to each person on the rolls according to a formula (usually 160 acres per allottee), and "dispose" of "surplus" land through sale to European Americans. Before the Act was passed, tribes corporately owned the land in most Indian sovereignties. The original law required the federal government to hold each allotment for a tax free 25-year period and conferred United States citizenship on each allotee. The Act also exempted several eastern Oklahoma tribes including the Miami and the Peoria (Gibson 1987:234).

Congress amended the Act in 1893 to remove those exemptions and instituted the "Dawes Commission" to implement the enrollment and allotment. Among the formally exempted tribes of eastern Oklahoma, the so called "Five Civilized Tribes" resisted allotment. For example, these tribes refused to provide the Commission with tribal rolls, and in 1897 the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations attempted to allocate all of their tribal lands to their citizens leaving no "surplus" land for European American homesteaders. The Congress responded to each of these moves until 1898; in that year it passed the Curtis Act, which abolished the tribal governments and required the tribe members to submit to allotment (Gibson 1987:238-239).

The Dawes Act emerged from a complex mixture of European American attitudes and motivations that included fear, greed, and concern. At the time of enactment, the United States had spent more than a century in official belligerence with indigenous peoples (and nearly 400 years in unofficial belligerence) involving warfare, massacre, and removal. To most European Americans, Indian people were "savage" barriers to "progress" and deserved only to be eliminated. Only 11 years before passage of the Dawes Act, an alliance of Sioux and Cheyenne had confirmed these attitudes and fears with their victory at Little Big Horn. At the same time, railroad and oil companies were finding it difficult to gain rights to develop Indian lands (Miner 1993:128-130). In Indian Territory (what is now Oklahoma), a popular push for Indian land, called the "Boomer" movement, mirrored this corporate greed. The boomers sought to homestead what they viewed as unused and unowned Indian land; they pressured congress, perhaps with railroad and oil companies' backing, for legislation to open these lands (Warde 1989: 38-40).

Other European Americans, the so-called "friends of the Indians," regarded assimilation as the salvation of Indian people. They agreed with the anti-Indian sentiment that Indian cultures were backward, primitive, and not viable in a "modern" world, but expressed a concern for Indian people. These "friends," including Senator Dawes, supported allotment on the grounds that it would destroy Indian sovereignty and would force Indian people to enter into the mainstream of American life. Not surprisingly the result was the General Allotment Act.

In many ways allotment had exactly the effects desired by its designers. In Oklahoma in general and Ottawa County in particular, allotment effectively destroyed Indian sovereignty; in doing so, it devastated the indigenous cultures that existed in Indian Territory in the early twentieth century. Before allotment, Indian peoples had political control over specific territory. Within their boundaries they were relatively free to manage their own lives with their own institutions. After allotment, Indian people found themselves in the control of European American political and social institutions, in which they had no voice and were dominated by European American cultural values.

In other important ways, however, allotment failed to achieve its proponents' loftier goals. It cut the ground from beneath Indian cultures and at least hastened the end of some as distinct ways of life, but it did not encourage Indian people's assimilation into the dominant European American culture. The European American people were as bigoted, prejudiced, and fearful after allotment as before; the effectively marginalized Indian people and prevented their integration into white society. Therefore, from the Indian viewpoint, the result of the allotment movement was the destruction of the tribal cultural institutions that maintained tribal identity. At the same time, Indian people were blocked from full integration into the dominant society.

The allotment of tribal lands and the outlawing of tribal political authority culminated in the admission of Oklahoma as a state 1907. This step placed Euro-American people and cultural institutions finally and firmly in control land which, 20 years earlier had been Indian sovereignties that enjoyed limited but clear independence. These nations determined and enforced their own internal laws, administered their own educational systems, practiced their own modes of descent and inheritance, and organized themselves according to their own values. They dealt with Euro-American society through the executive branch of the federal government; the native representatives of these nations dealt with the president through the Department of the Interior.

After statehood, Euro-American people and institutions controlled education, law, and other important areas of life, and Indian people's relation to the dominant culture became local and direct. This rapid, sharp change in the political and social environment naturally precipitated change in the native cultures of the area.

I believe that Indian people in northeast Oklahoma redefined their cultural identity and reorganized the place of "tribes" in that identity as a cultural adaptation to this situation. Before allotment, the tribes were distinct cultures: The people were Peoria or Miami or Quapaw. Today, however, when asked about their identity, Indian people in northeast Oklahoma respond with either a roll membership or a genealogy. They say, for example, "I am on the Ottawa rolls" or "...Modoc rolls" to report their official membership in a Tribe. They are more likely, however, to report their parentage with a reply such as "I am Wyandotte-Shawnee" or "I am Seneca-Cherokee." (Often, too, this also reports their eligibility for official tribal membership according to the various tribal constitutions.) Such responses contrast sharply with my Navajo associate's disapproval of the Medicine Man's marriage to a Zuni. They indicate to me that in this area the Indian identity is central and tribal identity is one of the necessary components of that general Indian identity.

Tribe and Culture

My research leade me to believe that the Indian people of northeast Oklahoma do not live in separate tribal cultures. They are not Peoria as distinct from Quapaw, or Shawnee as distinct from Seneca. Rather, in response to removal, allotment, and other acculturative pressures, they have evolved a shared Indian culture: the Miami share this with the Peoria, the Ottawa, and all the others. These tribes, which traditionally were distinct, are now major structural units of an NEO "Indian" culture, much as the Navajo clans form major structural units of Navajo culture. The tribes are also necessary elements in the Indian cultural identity. Just as a person cannot be Navajo outside of the Clan system, people in northeast Oklahoma must have tribal affiliation in order to participate in this Indian culture. Tribal affiliation, while mandatory, is also fluid. People can and  do change their affiliation (roll membership) but when they do they do not change their  fundamental culture. They remain Indian and even retain their cultural connections to the tribe they leave behind. They only change the structure through which they express their Indian identity.

The shared Indian culture of north east Oklahoma has both symbolic and structural elements that maintain its unity while acknowledging its diverse tribal origins. The Indian people of NEO create and participate in a unified symbolic world, which they believe, came from all of its diverse elements. In addition, the former tribes are economically integrated through a complex division of labor, in which they cooperate to provide services for all Indian people in the region while maintaining their own access to wealth.

The Miami Tribe, for example, operates two senior citizens' lunch programs. One of these programs is located in the tribal headquarters building within the city limits of Miami, Oklahoma; the other at the "Longhouse," a tribal building in rural Ottawa County. The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe operates an Indian Health Service Clinic next door to the Miami tribal headquarters; the Peoria Tribe operates a low-cost housing complex on the eastern edge of Miami, Oklahoma. All of these programs, and others conducted by other tribes in NEO, are open to all Indian people and their families without regard to tribal affiliation.

In this economic integration, groups of tribes also form alliances to provide some services for all Indians in the area. The Ottawa and the Miami, for instance, sponsor a drug and alcohol abuse program; the Peoria and the Miami sponsor a domestic violence counseling program; the Ottawa and the Peoria manage a warehouse and a culture center for all of the eight tribes. In some cases, all of the tribes participate in projects. Recently, for example, they joined together to construct a Tribal Council building, and they jointly operate a tourist information center on the nearby interstate highway. In this economic integration, the tribes are the major structural units in a complex economic interdependency. Although all of the Indian people in the area can and do make use of the various services that the tribes provide, either alone or in alliance with others, the tribes are the providers of these services.

Analogous interdependencies are easily found in the ethnographic literature. For example, the Hopi Kiva Societies participate in a similar structure in the ritual sphere. The Hopi require the performance of a calendric series of rituals; each of the various Kiva Societies in the Hopi villages takes responsibility for performing a part of the total cycle. Each rite is necessary and benefits all of the Hopi people, and the performance of the entire series requires the participation and cooperation of all of Kiva Societies (Talayesva 1942).

One symbolic dimension of Indian culture in northeast Oklahoma is evident outwardly and in public and in powwows. Indian people all over North America participate in these events, where they meet with friends, reaffirm their Indian community, and express their Indian values.

Though powwows are most popular in the summer months, Indian groups sponsor them throughout the year. In NEO, for example, the Quapaw Tribe sponsors an annual powwow on the Fourth of July weekend; the Ottawa do so on the Labor Day weekend; the Miami sponsor a subcategory of powwow, a stomp dance, in late January.

Tribes, such as the Quapaw, the Ottawa, and the Miami, are among the most frequent sponsors of powwows. Mutual interest societies such as the Tulsa Indian Club, special-purpose groups, such as the Three Rivers Powwow Committee, and even families also sponsor powwows.

Powwows vary in size. Some are very large, such as Red Earth held in mid-June 1997 (see (Figure 2). Local Oklahoma City Television news reported that more than 100,000 tickets to the 4 day event were sold. In contrast, the much smaller Three Rivers Powwow was held a few weeks later in Carthage, Missouri (see Figure 3). Many Indian people in NEO prefer the smaller, more local powwows because they provide more opportunities to meet and socialize with family and friends.


Figure 2 

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Figure 3

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Powwows consist of formal events focused on the dancing arena and informal meetings focused on family camps, which often are situated on the edge of the powwow grounds.

Powwows take many forms, but all express Indian identity through the amalgamation of symbols that come (in emic terms) from different sources. At most of the events sponsored by the various Indian organizations a program is provide, which outlines the public part of the powwow and demonstrates how the disparate symbolic elements in the gathering have been fused into a unified Indian identity.

The public events of the powwow center on the dance arena and the drum. The center drum and the associated singers are part of the official personnel of the powwow, along with the Head Man Dancer, the Head Woman Dancer, the Emcee, the Arena Director, the Powwow Committee, and others, depending on the size and prestige of the event. The center drum is responsible for providing the music for all of the powwow events and for various categories of dances that are interspersed with nondance events. Drums come in two completely interchangeable varieties, northern and southern, based on the tone of the instrument and the style of singing. The drum is almost always located in the center of the arena, but in some special circumstances it is placed elsewhere. At Red Earth, for example, which is held indoors at the Oklahoma City public convention center, the Drum is at the right of the photo (Figure 2). At the much smaller, outdoor Three Rivers Powwow, the Drum occupies its traditional place in the center of the arena. The powwow committee represents the host institution, but the other central personnel, such as the Drum, usually come from outside the host group. The Head Man Dancer, the Head Woman Dancer, the Emcee, and the Arena Director, are selected for their skill at those particular positions and their prominence in the Indian community. Each position carries its own responsibilities. The Head Man and Head Woman Dancers, for example, are responsible for starting all noncontest dances and participating in all Grand Entries. The Arena Director keeps the arena clear and ensures that all required personnel are present for all events. The Emcee announces all of the events and keeps the powwow moving. All of these positions have both functional and symbolic value: They not only contribute significantly to the execution of the powwow but also represent the Indian communities that congeal around the powwow.

All of these persons focus their activities on the arena to make possible the wide variety of dances that constitute the public aspects of the affair. Public events typically begin in late afternoon or early evening with an hour or so of Gourd Dancing. After the Gourd Dancing is finished, powwow participants parade into the dance arena in a Grand Entry behind an American flag and other state and Indian national flags and symbols (such as an eagle-feather staff), as appropriate.

The evening proceeds with a mixture of contest dances, honorings, and intertribal dances. Often it ends late at night with a Stomp Dance and/or a "49" after the schedule is completed.

Clothing has great symbolic significance in powwow dances. Powwow etiquette demands that women wear shawls but men are not subject to any such rule. The Gourd Dance and the various contest dances are associated with special regalia. Each Gourd Dancer wears a blue-and-red serape, and a beaded bandolier, and carries an eagle-feather fan and a rattle. The men's contest dance categories, Fancy and Traditional, are marked respectively by two body bustles, and one body bustle. Straight dancers wear a six to 8-inch beaver or otter sash that extends from the nape of the neck almost to the ground. A Grass Dancer's regalia features long pieces of ribbon or   yarn.

Variation in dress material and decoration defines the categories of women's contest dances. Cloth Dancers wear cloth dresses, often of gingham, that are decorated with ribbon; the buckskin dress is beaded in great detail with traditional Indian designs; the jingle dress is marked by nearly 400 small metal cones (about 2 to three inches long and one inch in diameter at the base).

Figure 4 shows some of the different dance regalia.


Figure 4

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Fewer regalia symbols apply to noncontest dances, but both contest and noncontest dances are surrounded with lore that Indian participants in the powwow know and can discuss at length.

This lore often includes the dances' cultural genesis. Men's Fancy and Traditional dances are said to come respectively from the Southern and Northern Plains culture areas. Participants believe the Grass Dance has Northern Plains derivation and that the Straight Dance originated in the Eastern Woodlands culture area. The Southeast Culture is identified as the origin of the women's Cloth dance category, the Eastern Woodlands as the source of the Jingle dance, and the Northern Plains as the source of the Buckskin dance. The Gourd Dance is a post-World War II phenomenon that originated in southwestern Oklahoma with the Kiowa.

Not only does the lore establish different cultural sources for various categories of powwow dances. It also distributes those sources, like the regalia, across the cultural origins of the peoples who participate in the powwow. The dances also carry another symbolic dimension that cuts across the community along lines of age rather than cultural origin. Some of the dances, such as the women's Jingle and men's Grass and Fancy Dances, are strenuous and require athletic agility and conditioning. These dances are symbolically associated with younger people. Other dances, such as the men's Traditional and the women's Buckskin, are more staid and are associated with older people. Powwow dances therefore do more than provide a symbol system that brings together peoples of disparate cultural origin; they also provide associations that unify the community with respect to age.

In some ways the Gourd Dance is a microcosm of the symbolic structures in the powwow.The dance, as conceived by its Kiowa creators, is a Warrior dance and is restricted to male veterans of the armed services. Before becoming eligible to dance, a veteran must be invited to join a Gourd Dance "Clan" or "Society." These groups then sponsor the Gourd Dance portions of the scheduled powwow events. Women dance behind the men in the arena as members of a women's auxiliary to the Clan or Society. As warrior veterans, all of the Gourd Dancers should be adult men and at most powwows they are. In NEO, however, the gourd Dance Clans and Societies have modified the rules to allow the veterans' male descendants to dance with their fathers and grandfathers. Therefore all Indian peoples at the powwow participate in the NEO Gourd Dance even though it has a specific tribal origin. The dance itself structures the community in terms of age and gender; like the powwow in general, however, it provides roles for young and old, and male and female.

The symbolic structure of powwow in NEO mirrors the tribes' economic interdependence. The economic structural units are tribes, who provide both goods and services to Indian people either alone or in cooperation with other tribes. In powwow the structural units include dances and regalia that carry meanings of age, sex, and cultural origin. As exemplified by the powwow schedule, these disparate symbolic elements combine to make a unitary expression of the NEO Indian community. They cross-cut the community in various ways, but everyone participates in forming the cultural event.

Culture, Adaptation, and Knowledge

Anthropologists, disagree on the nature of culture; if we did not our discipline would die.

Many take a functionalist position in which they attempt to understand culture in terms of its interaction with the physical and social environment. This viewpoint emphasizes the adaptive quality of culture: how culture provides people with a way to live. According to this view, culture tells us how to furnish ourselves with the necessities of life and perpetuate the groups that support our existence. Other anthropologists emphasize the symbolic aspect of culture: in their view culture resides in the mind as a body of knowledge that gives meaning to the external world and allows people to interpret events in their daily lives. Both points of view contribute to an understanding of being Indian in NEO.

Two hundred years ago the ancestors of the Indian people who now inhabit NEO probably lived in separate and distinct cultures. The Miami were not Ottawa, nor were the Peoria Quapaw.

Each followed unique way of life that was similar to their neighbors but was economically and politically independent. The descendants of these peoples in NEO have suffered severe changes. They have been removed from their homes, many not once but twice; their patterns of ownership have been replaced, their leadership structures destroyed, and their religions eradicated. From the functionalist point of view, these changes must have produced drastic adaptive modifications in the original cultures.

Among these adaptations, tribes lost much of their cultural independence and evolved a pan-Indian culture with the other tribes in the area. The Indian people remain under the political domination of the Euro-American federal government. They no longer control concepts of ownership for themselves, they have only limited and hard-won autonomy in law, taxation, and other areas of political concern. Most of them participate in the dominant Euro-American economic system, but they often take advantage of the economic services that the tribes provide to Indian people, not to members of specific tribes, people in the area.

This generalized Indian cultural adaptation can is evident not only in the economic structures administered by the tribes, but also in the symbols that are visible in the public performance of the powwow. These symbols divide the NEO Indian community in some terms, such as age and sex, that cross-cut tribal membership and in other terms, such as the lore of cultural origin, that acknowledge the different cultural heritages which formed the community.

Powwow is one of the symbolic processes that create the community.

In powwow all of these symbols are made real through their expression and are merged into a unified whole. For example, the division of rolls for men and women in Gourd Dancing and the inclusion of men's and women's contest dances establish the importance of gender, without regard to tribe, as a grouping principle in the community. In addition, because both genders are necessary to the legitimacy of the dances and the entire powwow, this inclusion creates the community through their performance. The cultural heritages represented by the powwow regalia do not signify the participation of those cultures in the event; rather, they signify the contribution of those traditions to the Indian way that powwow celebrates. The presence of Fancy Dancers at the powwow, for example does not mean that southern Plains peoples are competing at the powwow; rather, it means that nineteenth-century southern Plains culture contributed one way to compete in the event as an Indian.

The NEO Indian community represented by the tribes, through their economic interdependence, and by the powwow, through the symbolic unification of the community, is nearly invisible from the outside. The Indian people of the area look much like the non-Indian people, and they participate with the non-Indian people in many aspects of life. They have the same sorts of careers; they are teachers, farmers, doctors, lawyers, and welders. They go to the same schools as the non-Indian people and (at least in the case of the Indian community that coalesces around powwow)often attend the same churches.

Tribal membership and participation in powwow are only two of the ways in which the Indian people of NEO create and express their Indian identity. Others will emerge only after more research. The roll of religion in the formation of community and identity among the Indian and tribal communities is an important area for future study. Such research could describe the influence of the Native American Church in defining Indian values, the roll of mixed Indian and Euro-American congregations in the formation of Indian identity, and the relationships between the Indian people who attend predominantly Indian churches and those who participate in powwow. Other research should examine variability within the NEO Indian community and others like it.

The NEO Indian community, like all other communities, maintains its integrity not so much  because people in the group agree with one another but because they disagree. It is not unity of language but the heteroglot chaos and discord that bring people in the community together and keep them talking to one another (Bakhtin 1981:262-263). Research that describes the dimensions of this discord and documents how it functions in forming and maintaining this community would contribute significantly to our understanding of culture.


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Acknowledgments. The research reported here was supported by the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, the office of the Vice President for Student Affairs Miami University, the office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs Miami University, the College of Arts and Science Miami University, and the Department of Sociology, Gerontology, and Anthropology Miami University. I would like to thank the students in the Miami Ethno History Project for their help and support including Mr Reid Anderson, Ms Kerri Carlson, Ms Kerry Garnet, Ms Kirsten Mathias, and Ms Shelia Sastry. The people of northeast Oklahoma who helped and corrected me along the way deserve special thanks. They include, Mrs. Julie Langford Olds, Mrs Patty Shinn, Mrs Sharron Burkibile, and Mr Wes Watkins.

1. I use the culture area concept here only as a heuristic to convey broad similarities that characterize peoples in geographic regions. I recognize that culture area cannot be used to explain those similarities but it is a useful tool to describe and refer to the commonalities often found between neighboring peoples.

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Gibson, Arrell Morgan 1987 The Centennial Legacy of the General Allotment Act. The Chronicles of Oklahoma. LXV(3):228-251

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Warde, Mary J. 1989 Fight for Survival. The Chronicles of Oklahoma. LXVII(1): 30-51

Wright, Muriel H. 1977 A Guide to the Indian Tribes of Oklahoma. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.


(c) James Hamill