3rd annual pow wow celebrates Native American culture

Local tribes, guests and students banded together to sing, dance and drum at the Dover High School third annual Native American Heritage Pow Wow on Saturday. (Delaware State News/Ian Gronau)

DOVER — When Galya Cooper was in fifth grade, living in Texas, she remembers a teacher insisting that she was black instead of being Native American.
She said the teacher was disappointed that Ms. Cooper wasn’t embracing Black History Month from the perspective of an African American.

“Black History Month is really important, but it’s not about me. My teacher was fighting me about who I was,” said Ms. Cooper. “She was like ‘You’re not Native American, you’re black. Martin Luther King didn’t die for you to claim to be something you’re not.’

“It was wild for me. I didn’t know what to say. I know how my parents raised me. I tried to tell her: ‘That’s not true, this is who I am.’”

Ms. Cooper, who is of Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape and Cherokee stock, said this was one of many experiences she’s had growing up in Texas and Dover that led her to believe that much of the public is misinformed about her heritage.

Luckily for her, she grew up in a household that continually reinforced her cultural awareness and taught her how to engage with her ethnic background.

Many young people aren’t as fortunate, she said. For this reason, it was important for her to start and become president of a Native American Club at Dover High School (DHS) her freshmen year. Out of that club, the DHS Native American Heritage Pow Wow was born.

Stacey and Galya-Stacey Ricketts, the parent adviser for the Dover High School Native American Club, and her daughter Galya Cooper, the club’s president, showcasing their wares at the pow wow on Saturday. (Delaware State News/Ian Gronau)

On Saturday, local tribes, visitors and students filled the halls of the high school for the event’s third year. Native American drummers, dancers and various exhibits were on hand for guests’ enjoyment. Authentic Native American food such as “frybread” was also served.

The Native American Club notes that the traditional, non-contest pow wow serves as an activity to educate the public, celebrate Native American Heritage Month and honor all past Native American student alumni of DHS.

The organization of the event is a partnership between the school and the club. Sonja Tunnell, a DHS secretary, acts as the club’s advisor. Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape herself, she was thrilled when Ms. Cooper came forward three years ago to suggest the formation of a club.

“We already had lot of other clubs like Japanese Club, Spanish Club and French club, so when Galya came up with the idea for a Native American one we were really excited,” said Ms. Tunnell. “So we approached the principal, got permission and within two weeks we decided to try to hold a pow wow. The first year was hectic because we only had about two months to plan it, but we got it together and now here we are at the third one. Since the first pow wow, we’ve started to see more and more engagement, word is spreading and the community has been very supportive.”

Ms. Tunnell dealt with frequent ethnic misunderstandings herself growing up.

“When people think about Native Americans, a lot of their knowledge comes from old western movies,” she said. “Growing up, people would look at me and always ask what I was. They’d say: ‘Are you Puerto Rican or mixed?” When I’d say I’m Native American, they’d say: ‘Oh, like you live in a tepee?’ It’s just nice to have an event that tries to educate and celebrate our heritage with anyone who’s interested in learning more.”

Money raised at the event goes toward donations for the performers, and the expenses of hosting the pow wow. Leftover funds support Native American Club outings, said Ms. Tunnel. Last year the club was able to go to a Native American Museum in New York and this year they are planning a trip to the Native American Museum in Washington D.C.

Dover Mayor Robin R. Christiansen even made an appearance at the event, saying he too feels invested in the cultural celebration because of his heritage.

“It’s a great event, it continues to show the diversity of the Dover community and I’m excited to be here as well because of my background,” he said. “I’m part Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape. Some of my ancestors were here living in this area even before there was a city of Dover.”

Ms. Cooper, now a senior, will graduate next spring. Although she’s still trying to select a successor to preside over the club and lead the organization of the pow wow in subsequent years, she said her younger brother — entering DHS as a freshmen next year — will likely help.

Passing the torch

“It’s just a good club to be a part of, even for people who aren’t of Native American ancestry but just want to learn about it,” said Ms. Cooper. “But it’s especially important for students with Native American background who don’t have a resource like this available to them. It’s a place for these students to meet others like them who can relate on a cultural level, because that can be hard to find.”

Stacey Ricketts, Ms. Cooper’s mom and the parent adviser for the Native American Club, says she’ll be doing her part to keep the effort going as well.

“Even though Galya is graduating, I’m still going to be part of the club and continue to help to organize things,” said Ms. Ricketts. “This is a very important thing for Dover and the school. We have to carry it on.”

Ms. Ricketts, now a Dover resident, is a member of the Lenni-Lenape tribe of New Jersey. She’s proud of her daughter’s effort to grow the club and feels that the region has a need for more like it.

“For a lot of our students who say they are Native American, they get ridiculed or taunted. People say: ‘You’re not Native American because you don’t look like one,’” she said. “So many people have an model image in their head of what Native Americans should look like, but the Eastern Chesapeake and Algonquin natives especially have a whole different look and type of culture. Because of that, a lot of students disown their native heritage and just be what the other students they socialize with want them to be. A club gives them a place to meet, but also educate other students.”

Ms. Ricketts claims that in the western states, Native American Clubs in high schools are very commonplace, but they are less popular on the east coast.

“Our club is one of only three in the tri-state area,” she said.

One of the biggest factors in keeping the club and pow wow alive has been the school’s participation, said Ms. Ricketts.

“The gym is the perfect place to have the pow wow, getting a good venue is the hardest part,” she said. “The school also helps a lot in advertising the event too — they offer a lot of support. The first year people were a bit skeptical about whether or not we’d continue having this every year. But now, on the third year, it’s obvious that we’re here to stay.”

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