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Dr. Grauer's Column - Summer Powwow

Summer Powwow

Summer. The surf was crummy and I was done with it. It was still early, and I was reading Tommy Orange’s novel, “There There”, which a school parent gave me. The writing was great, woven like a tapestry, except the characters in it, Native Americans, were hurting badly. The hurt was vivid and lifelike. The sense of hopelessness: “We got in the car and rode home in silence, the low sound of the engine and road leading us toward some sh-t we’d never make our way back from.”

I thought I’d take a drive. A google search showed that there was a Kumeyaay (Indian) powwow going on out in Dehesa on the Sycuan Reservation. 

I’d been to quite a few powwows, but this one was different. No drumming, almost no dancing or song, no feather and leather costumes. They called it a “recovery powwow.” From here by the ocean in Encinitas, I drove east just 20 miles or so and the landscape transformed into hot, dry, grey-brown, and scrubby, the kind of land the US government gave to the Natives back in the day when the policy towards them was assimilate or die. (Come to think of it, this has been the policy for 500 years.)

When I got to the powwow grounds, which were laid out over a grass field, football goalposts rising up on each end, the raffle was just ending. A woman got on stage and the story she told easily could have been one of the chapters I was reading in Tommy Orange’s book. I looked around. Hot sun and a lotta people in baggy, black clothing. The only thing Red about me was the back of my neck, but the Kumeyaay from this area come in all shapes and sizes. They look Hispanic or Black or White, and not so Red. But I looked different, no question. At a booth selling beads and jewelry, a woman asked me, “What are you doing out here?” 

I didn’t really know for sure, but “I’m here in support” was what I heard myself say. And she smiled warmly and now I could see her eyes. My whole body relaxed. 

“Today I’m here in support of the children, the women, and the elders,” the woman on stage was saying. “I used like a pig, the more the better. I had a husband and three kids… then I started working the steps. I was never much of a student in school, but I got an A in AA. I had to bury my brother who died, drunk. My favorite brother.” 

I thought, it would be hard these days to find someone who would get on stage and say, “I’m here in support of the White man.” I’ve had this discussion a few times now and never get far with it. This often feels like a tragic flaw to the uptown school I am developing, and I sometimes feel almost frantic about developing our financial aid program. 

I wandered the grounds. Another booth was selling nectar from ocotillo flower, salve made from arnica and cannabis, and an herbal perfume called “hummingbird nectar.” So many medicinals and herbs—what is medicinal, or therapeutic, or recreational? Is that a spectrum?

Miss Sycuan (pronounced “si-kwan”) came on stage, wearing a white frontier-fringed dress, a beaded crown of all colors, a diagonal red sash like the royals wear, and no shoes. She pulled some raffle numbers, then more speakers came out one at a time to testify about their descent and recovery. In my regular life, I pretend I am immune from this kind of pain, that I have to drive east over the hills and into the dry hardpacked land to find it in another realm. But nobody is immune. [1]  The Grauer School has had several students and alumni struggle with drug abuse (and most other things you could think of) over the years. One of them overcame it long ago and is one of my best friends today. Not long ago, an alumna died and her parents told me, at the funeral, our school was the best thing she had in life. I get that we are not supposed to blog about this all. We are supposed to be immune, badness all magically filtered out at our school gateway like a dreamcatcher.

I walk up to a booth selling dreamcatchers of many kinds. I have one at home, with an eagle feather some Alaskan Natives gave me long ago, and it hung above my daughter’s bed the whole time she was growing up. At the booth, a young man is talking about how a stand-up paddle group is forming, how they will paddle together on weekends over in Mission Bay, and he asks me to join. 

“But I’m not native.” 

“Are you from Earth?” he wants to know.

On stage, a man says he grew up in Mission Viejo on the rez. He starts with a Kumeyaay greeting—he is a language keeper in an age of language extinction. He grew up with hopelessness, using hard drugs at age 13. Now, writing this, I don’t remember if the only role model he had was his drug addict mother-in-law, or if that was the guy from the chapter I was reading in “There There”. Drinking and fighting were normal. He had no vision for any kind of life. No role models. So many Native dreams are filled with wild and frightful imagery. Death is just first among a few bad options.

Yes, I’m from Earth. And I too seek transcendence, deeper experience, like all humans do. What humans have available for this is dreams wild enough to explode hopelessness, or extreme sports experiences on waves or deep in nature, or horror movies, or music and art that occasionally reaches the soul. Sweat lodges. Spiritual quests. We dance! We fast. (Or we eat way too much fry bread.) Or will it be drugs and alcohol? Or mental illness or stealing cars. From my perspective as a teacher, it would be very hard to work with teens in particular without a deep understanding of this human drive.

We powwow. Right on our very school property, it is easily possible that, in years gone by, at powwow ceremonies, Kumeyaay passed along their oral history, Creation Story, bird songs, ceremonies, religion and peon games. Today, on these same grounds, we still powwow each May. We call it GrauerPalooza, our outdoor spring arts festival. (And it’s also true that our land has been blessed several times by Native medicine men and women. But still there is always pain.)

All normal humans are drawn to transcendent experience, and this is traceable back to the caves. Once we recognize that we share this drive for something larger, something wilder, something heavenly, we can be human together. We can teach the young honestly. We are all relations. 

I get in the car and ride back to the coast in silence. When I get home, compulsively, I look up Crazy Horse’s Prophecy:

Upon suffering beyond suffering; the Red Nation shall raise again and it shall be a blessing for a sick world. A world filled with broken promises, selfishness and separations. A world longing for light again. I see a time of seven generations, when all the colors of mankind will gather under the sacred Tree of Life and the whole Earth will become one circle again.

Dr. Grauer and Lakota medicine man Roger White Eyes riding in the Black Hills of Dakota.

And I know what drew me to the powwow. A teacher is essentially a healer, a dreamcatcher, at least the best ones all are, and they are masters of the circle. If we are going to have a school, especially one that exists for teens who are coming of age into a new world, let us hold this prophecy of a “whole earth” at the heart of all we do.

Thank you for reading.

[The Indian Voices News posts that the Annual Sycuan Powwow is coming up on September 6-8, 2019 at the Sycuan Powwow Grounds in El Cajon, California, and the California Genocides Conference is set for November 22-24, 2019 at San Diego State University.]

[1]  Suburban high school heroin use has increased by 94% in ten years, many starting off using prescription opioids. Understanding Suburban Heroin Use, Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, Roosevelt University.

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Kumeyaay Rock Art

Native American Dreamcatcher

Kumeyaay Basket

Dr. Grauer and Lakota medicine man Roger White Eyes riding in the Black Hills of Dakota.

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