Jeremy Russell of Woodburn, a Native American musician, had every reason to be floored with exhaustion late Saturday night at the conclusion of the 49th annual Spring Pow Wow at Eastern Oregon University’s Quinn Coliseum.
For hours, Russell, a member of the Bad Soul drum group, had been rhythmically pounding a drum with the five other members and singing high-pitched Native American songs while providing accompaniment for the pow wow’s dance competition.
The group received breaks of only about 10 minutes per hour over four-hour stretches, still Russell and his fellow drummers appeared as alive as the bright costume regalia worn by Native American dancers at the pow wow.
“You don’t get tired when you love to do it,” said Russell, who has close ties to the Grand Ronde Native American community in Western Oregon and is a member the Tsimshian Tribe of the Pacific Northwest Coast.
Why is he so drawn to playing the drums?
“There are no words for it,” Russell said.
The members of Bad Soul were among about 100 Native Americans who participated in the event, officially titled the EOU Indian Arts Festival Spring Pow Wow & Friendship Feast. The Native Americans who attended the pow wow on Friday and Saturday were primarily from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Warm Springs Indian Reservation and the Yakima Indian Reservation.
Other tribes represented included the Chippewa, of which Elysa Nason, a student at the Oregon Health Science University School of Nursing at EOU, is a member. Nason, like Russell, said the drumbeats heard throughout the pow wow are integral to the culture of Native Americans.
“The drumbeat is our heart,” said Nason, who is originally from Minnesota.
The drums are an integral part of Native American dances, which are always circular. Nason said this reflects the cycle of life, for we all eventually return to the earth we came from and then the process starts anew.
Native Americans who participated in the weekend’s dancing competition included Rod Begay, a member of the Yakima and Navajo tribes. Begay said dances can be taxing.
“(Native American dancing) is pretty physical,” he said.
In most competitions there are four or five dances of five to seven minutes for a single group with a minute break between each. Participants are judged on many things including posture, rhythm and whether or not they overstep, which dancers lose points for. Begay said overstepping occurs when a dancer does not come to a complete stop when a song ends.
“You have to know the song,” he said.
Begay always enjoys participating in Native American dance competitions and the atmosphere of pow wow’s like the annual event at EOU.
“It is fun,” he said. “That is why I’m here.”
The public address announcer for the pow wow was Mackie Begay, of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and a relative of Rod Begay. Mackie Begay said the EOU Spring Pow Wow is one of at least four conducted on university and college campuses in the state. Oregon campuses where pow wows are also conducted include Blue Mountain Community College, Portland State University and Oregon State University.
There are many other pow wows not conducted on college campuses, including ones in Pendleton at the Wildhorse Resort and Casino and in Joseph. Begay said pow wows on college and university campuses tend to be smaller than regular pow wows because those putting them on have fewer resources.
Begay reminded Native Americans entering Quinn Coliseum to be careful not to let any of the eagle feathers in their regalia fall off. He gives such warnings because only Native Americans are allowed to possess eagle feathers in the United States and they take this privilege seriously.
He said whenever a eagle feather falls to the ground, a short Native American ceremony is conducted before it is picked up. The feather is then sent back to the tribe of the individual from whom it fell.
The EOU Spring Pow Wow has been put on each of the past 49 years by Speel Ya, EOU’s Native American club. The club’s advisers are Katie Harris, Eastern’s Native American Program coordinator and a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and Linda Reed-Jerofke, a professor of anthropology at EOU.
Jerofke said the pow wow is a wonderful event because it is family friendly and gives outsiders an opportunity to learn about Naive American activities.
Nason said former Speel Ya advisers will be recognized at the 2020 pow wow, which will be the 50th. The late Jackie Grant, who died five years ago, will be among those saluted.
“She loved Speel Ya,” Nason said. “It wasn’t just a club for her, it was her family.”
See complete story in Monday's Observer