Wheaton hosted its first powwow, a Native American ceremony involving singing and dancing on Friday, March 31. Several Native American performers led the event, including Casey Church, a Potawatomi elder and the Executive Director of Wiconi International, a Christian organization that works toward social justice for Native people. Red Line Drum, a Chicago-based Native American musical group, provided the music for the dancers, gathered around a single drum and singing traditional songs.
Professor of New Testament Gene Green and Solidarity Cabinet hosted the event. Green and Church meet regularly at NAIITS annual symposiums, or North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies. “The First Peoples of this land have much to teach us about life from their storehouse of traditional wisdom handed down through generations,” Green said. “They read with a different lens than we do and enrich us by their insights into Scripture.”
“Based on the church’s participation and perpetuation of the Doctrine of Discovery, I believe it is the church’s responsibility to humbly and consistently engage with indigenous peoples and not only understand but affirm its value after centuries of cultural genocide,” said Tramaine Kaleebu, president of Solidarity Cabinet.
The ceremony began with Church and his family all dancing together into the room as part of the Grand Entry, the traditional opening to a powwow. The members of the Church family then took turns introducing their individual dancing styles. Church and his son Bahozhoni
performed in the Northern Traditional Style and wore outfits appropriate to the warrior style of dancing. Church incorporated parts of his marine uniform into his outfit, and both he and his son wore golden eagle feathers. Although the eagle is a protected animal, Church has permission from the government to use the feathers for religious purposes. “I said, ‘Well, thank you, we’ve done this for thousands of years before you were here and now we finally got permission,’” Church joked.
Church’s wife Lora then introduced her daughters, Shá?díín and Déézbah. Déézbah wore a jingle dress, decorated with metal cones that clinked while she danced, each one representing a prayer. Shá?díín and Lora danced in Women’s Traditional style, one of the slower dances. “We’ll just take our time, and we’ll get there when we get there,” Lora said.
At the end, the Church family invited the audience to learn a group dance, leading the participants in a line that wove through the room and formed a spiral in the hallway. “I’ve never been so close to so many white people,” Church laughed when they finished. He then asked everyone to participate in an “intertribal dance,” in which everyone dances in the style of their own specific culture. “We all come from some sort of tribe,” Church said as he invited everyone to join.
Much of Church’s work focuses on reconciling Native American culture with Christianity. Church explained that when Christian missionaries first tried to reach native people groups, they demanded they give up their religious rituals before they could convert to Christianity. “There are still those who are so indoctrinated to this kind of ministry that they pray against us,” Church said.
However, Church argues that natives can fully embrace Christianity without compromising their culture. When he received criticism in his ministry for burning incense as a religious ritual, he compared it to the burnt offerings of the ancient Israelites, as well as other Biblical stories in which a fragrance was used in worship. His doctoral work focused on an alcohol addiction treatment program that used Native American traditions, such as sweat lodges, to take a Christian approach to addiction recovery.
“I was reminded that God works despite our massive failures. He was not limited or thwarted by the atrocities that befell these people throughout American history,” said sophomore Meredith Schellhase, who attended the event. “It was a beautiful time, and I hope it will be the beginning of a continued relationship between Wheaton College and the Native American Community.”