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Powwow Jew

Being Jewish among the the Quapaw in Oklahoma.

by Charlotte Hildebrand

September 14, 2000 | 8:00 pm

A powwow dancer with headdress and jingle dress.

A powwow dancer with headdress and jingle dress.

I can't recall now if my first trip to the Quapaw Powwow in northeast Oklahoma was the time I drove with my husband and infant son down miles and miles of dark country roads into the middle of nowhere, or that time - in the version of my failed screenplay - I drove with a carload of relatives, squeezed into the back seat between my sisters-in-law and the two family Chihuahuas, down miles and miles of dark country roads into the middle of nowhere. Whichever it was, the feeling was the same: I had never been this far away from the things I had known and grown up with: the bright lights and busy streets of the city, Jewish people who looked like me, language and music that I had known as a child. Here I was, literally, in the middle of nowhere, between nothing and nothing, feeling as if I had landed on the moon. Only I was the alien among a company of natives.

When we arrived at the powwow that first time, people appeared out of nowhere walking down the road, and a lone Indian in a wide-brimmed hat with a feather directed us to the parking lot. In the screenplay, the lone Indian was a tall Creek who had a crush on one of my sisters-in-law and, when he saw us, peered into the window with a wink and a sweet smile. In that version, he swept my sister-in-law off her feet, but in reality I don't think he said a word as he motioned us forward onto the powwow grounds.

We drove down a winding road, past tents and teepees and lean-tos; past visions who appeared in the headlights wearing the most exotic costumes I had ever seen - jingles and bells, feathers, beaver tails, porcupine quills, sequins, shells, satins and silks. Now, after 13 years, I can place the type of outfit with the type of dancer - grass dancer, fancy dancer, straight dancer, etc.- but back then, it was nothing less than extraordinary.

Today going to the powwow is pretty normal, if you consider vacationing in 99-degree heat and 150 percent humidity normal. Quapaw, which takes place on Fourth of July weekend, is more or less a family affair, meaning my husband's mother's relatives were here when the powwow began 128 years ago.Then it was a small gathering of families who lived around the town of Miami (pronounced MI-AM-AH) and the Spring River. Today, people arrive from all over to see prize-winning dancers from across the United States and Canada, one of the many stops along the powwow highway. In fact, if you plan it right, you can attend a powwow every weekend of the summer. But while tourists and townies attend, Quapaw is still an intimate gathering where cousins and friends are called into the center dance arena for special acknowledgments, and where anyone can do a two-step or a snake dance.

The center dance arena is where all the action takes place. That first time, as I stood with my husband on a hill overlooking the arena, I saw a group of men sitting in a circle with their backs to the audience, bent over in concentration, while dancers circled around them. From faraway, low chants, then some high calls arose and drifted over the dancers. What those people in the circle were doing I couldn't imagine - saying a silent prayer? - until it finally occurred to me they were bent over their drums, and the song and chants were coming from them. The dancers - some flying, some searching like wild animals, some regal queens bouncing up and down - circled around, moving to the rhythm of the loud, incessant drumbeat. When I glanced over at my husband, he was mouthing the wordless chant of the drummers, which at the time totally took me by surprise. But then again, everything during that first trip took me by surprise - everything was nothing I had ever known before.

I now know that what happens on the outskirts of a powwow is sometimes more interesting than what takes place inside the dance arena. For 13 years, my mother-in-law had been telling me stories about the spook light, and on this trip we had a chance to visit it. The spook light, a moving, some-times hovering, shimmering light, has been studied by scientists from around the world, who attribute its glow to gaseous fumes or car light reflections but in reality don't know what the heck it is. This time, we were up late enough - powwows can go on all night - to catch a glimpse of it, if it were indeed visible.

Sometime past midnight we headed out of Quapaw, past the bridge, down dirt roads surrounded entirely by woods, until we came upon parked cars with their headlights off and people standing nearby, talking quietly among themselves. We drove down the road, away from the other cars, and turned off our lights. There was a new moon, so it was very dark outside - I had never seen it so dark - and very quiet. The fireflies looked huge and bright, and at first I mistook them for the spook light, until they flew off, dragging their dimmers behind them.

As we sat there in the eerie silence, one of the cousins started to tell stories, ghost stories, about a restless little boy in a hooded green parka, who appeared in the middle of the night, staring into the eyes of a sleeping relative, and about some guys who went out drinking, friends of a cousin, who, when they walked down the road, got on all fours and turned into dogs. The longer we stood huddled together listening to this cousin's stories, the closer the woods crept in, the creepier it became. After about half an hour, we were so freaked out we jumped into the car and drove away without seeing the spook light. My husband's sister did see a lone man walking along the side of the road as we sped off (another cousin said he had green hair) but if he turned into a dog, we didn't stop to look.

Being a Jew among Indians has grown easier over the years, but it can still be hard. My children are both Jewish, but when they're in Oklahoma, their dark complexion (which could easily be mistaken for Israeli) looks pure Indian. When I see them running around with their aunts and cousins at the powwow, they look as though they belong here; even my husband seems to shed his city ways. At times, I feel like the only Jew in Oklahoma, although I know that's crazy, given the fact that there are thriving Jewish com-munities in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Still, it can feel lonely.

That night, before driving to see the spook light, I asked my husband to join me for a walk down (what else?) a country road at dusk. I had been feeling a kind of fish-out-of-water uneasiness and needed some company. As we walked, not saying much, I looked up and spotted a sliver of moon - the new moon. It struck me that this was the moon of Rosh Chodesh, the ancient celebration, when fires were lit on the Mount of Olives announcing the crescent moon, and where women put aside their work and gathered together to gain spiritual strength. Suddenly, I didn't feel so alone: I am connected to this Rosh Chodesh moon, which becomes an anchor, a security blanket, that spreads across the Oklahoma sky.

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