My elected position has provided me with unique insight into our local Native American community. Over the last five years, I’ve collaborated with Indigenous leaders, business owners and families, some of which I now proudly consider as friends. They’ve given me perspective into their world through a vastly different lens. After many awkward conversations, I’ve grown more comfortable to ask questions to gain understanding.

Despite these relationships, as a white person, I always assumed I wasn’t welcomed to powwows unless I was formally invited or had a Native chaperone. Wanting to respect cultural boundaries, I did not want to appear as a curious onlooker or offend anyone. In 2013, I had the chance to accompany my daughters to the Black Hills Powwow on a school field trip. We received a brief introduction to traditional music and dance, and we remember a talented artist who created a powerful piece in front of the audience.

In 2017, I attended a pre-powpow dinner with other local officials and Native leaders. We participated in a blessing with sage purifications, discovered the meaning of spirit plates and discussed ways to improve Native and non-Native relations. With each of those meaningful opportunities I was fascinated by the leaders and their stories and it inspired me to not only learn more, but actually do more. Yet, despite those two positive experiences, I was still reluctant to attend the powwow without some sort of special permission.

Some may not understand what a powwow is or why people should attend. After all these years, and with two limited opportunities, my best description of this event is an incredibly large, colorful reunion of family and friends, which integrates traditional music and energetic dance competitions, with an emphasis of preserving Indigenous culture.

Thankfully this year the Black Hills Powwow board recognized there were many people like me who were curious, yet hesitant to attend. By partnering with the Human Relations Committee (HRC-MOA) they offered Wacipi 101 classes to learn about the event and proper etiquette. It also provided a safe place to ask questions- free of negative repercussions or judgment.

The class began with a soft-spoken Lakota prayer, followed by a powerful traditional song. They shared the 12 Lakota values: the rules that guide everyday life. Together we learned the drum is a living entity- the drumming representing the heartbeat of the Native people. The regalia is unique and handmade, and usually reflective of a specific person and honors a family or tribe. If a feather drops, there is a special protocol. We don’t touch it because each feather is considered sacred.

I was encouraged to support artists by purchasing Native goods and was told it was acceptable for me to wear Indigenous jewelry.

Our teachers described the delicate balance of honoring their history and embracing their culture while living in a whitewashed modern world. The lingering traumas of Indian Boarding schools and limited resources negatively impacted many lives for generations; however, they stressed the traditional music and dance are true medicine to help heal their relatives.

The love and support they feel at powwows ground them in cultural identity and reaffirms their purpose. By far, the most important point we learned is our Native friends welcome others to share in their cultural celebration. They want everyone to understand the great significance of a powwow and the healing it brings to our community. They repeatedly stated that everyone — yes, everyone — is invited.

We know the best way to learn is to immerse ourselves in the experience, so we left the classroom feeling more confident with our new-found knowledge.

As we walked around the powwow, we noticed everyone was glad to be back after a long two-year hiatus. We witnessed many reconnections with happy tears, laughter and warm embraces. As we drew closer to the drum circle, we felt the reverberations throughout our bodies. We recognized that it truly sounded and felt like a heartbeat. The rhythm and energy were invigorating, and subconsciously our feet started tapping, knees bending and some of us found ourselves lightly bouncing to the music.

Everyone we encountered smiled, made us feel welcome and said they were happy we were there. They allowed us take pictures of them in their regalia and some even introduced us to friends and family members, telling stories of past powwows. I did my part part to support local artists by purchasing a gorgeous pair of beaded earrings.

I feel these earrings are a symbol of the important lessons we learned and a reminder we don’t need permission or a special invitation to help celebrate Native American culture.

We left with a deeper understanding to actively participate, communicate and support one another. I wholeheartedly believe this experience has made me a better Rapid Citian, and hopefully a more informed leader.

I’ll confidently attend future Black Hills Powwows and I hope you’ll join us next time.