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NIEHS celebrates Native American Heritage Month

By L.H. Lazarus
December 2010

Young dancer wearing traditional costume.
Dancers use the young fancy boys style for fast-paced dancing that depicts movements of the horse. Feathers are from eagle, hawk, crow, and turkey. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Young dancer wearing headress and costume.
Shown above is the traditional pecha, a mohawk-like headdress of a fancy dancer. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Two young dancers wearing traditional costumes.
The grand entry parade showed off the dancers' regalia, which are made by the tribe members' families. Shown above is a male fancy dancer accompanying fancy shawl dancer Charissa Wilson, left. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Young female dancer wearing costume and holding feathers.
A jingle dancer performs a medicine prayer dance that originated among the Ojibwa Nation. The hand on her hip is a feminine motion, relating to the granddaughter in the story of the jingles, while the feathers in her hand honor the creator, the four winds, and Mother Earth. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS celebrated Native American Heritage Month this year with a lively program of historical and cultural perspectives, traditional dancing, singing, drumming, displays of tribal artifacts, and fry bread tasting. Held Nov. 17 in the NIEHS cafeteria, the event was sponsored by the Institute's Diversity Council, in collaboration with the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe of North Carolina.

Haliwa-Saponi( Exit NIEHS member Sharon Berrun, whose birth name is Wagetchi Tisuie, narrated the program. She spoke with pride about the history of the tribe, which currently has about 4,000 enrolled members, and outlined its relationship to other Native Americans in North Carolina. The last part of the tribe's name, which means red earth, is a reference to the rich color of the soil in Eastern North Carolina. Although the state of North Carolina recognized the individuality of the Haliwa-Saponi people in 1965, the tribe is still waiting for federal acknowledgement, which it hopes to receive in the near future.

National recognition for many Native Americans has been slow in coming. It was 1990 when President George H. Bush signed congressional legislation designating November as National Native American Heritage Month. Like the Haliwa-Saponi and the Lumbee of Central North Carolina, a number of individual tribes still await official designation by the federal government.

According to Berrun, the Haliwa-Saponi cultural program was designed to help children and adults learn about and appreciate their people's heritage. Native Americans borrow traditions from each other and meld them into their regional culture. The colors in the regalia worn by each dancer symbolize the four cardinal directions and have special connotations depending on the tribe.  In lieu of buckskin clothing, the Haliwa-Saponi adopted the cloth of the first colonists and decorated them with appliqué.

"The dancers," explained Berrun, "dance to give honor to the creator, the four winds, mother earth, grandfather wisdom, and people down through the generations." Berrun added, "They must adapt to the sound of the drum's tone ... to the rhythm of the beat." Dancers tell a story "by their movements and dynamic footwork [that] replicate the movement of a horse ... of a butterfly ... trampling down grass."

One poignant dance told of a grandfather's dream, as he saw his granddaughter crying and cried in turn. Together their tears dripped on their clothes to become the 365 metal jingles on women's dresses, representing each day of the year, arranged in seven rows signifying the days in a week. The regalia weigh from 25 to 50 pounds, making the dancer's graceful movements all the more impressive to their audiences.

"Singing," Berrun emphasized, "is an integral part of Indian culture." Several singers harmonize on cue with a lead singer.  Timing is marked with the tempo and rhythm of the drum, which she said represents the heartbeat of mother earth.

The NIEHS program ended with a friendship dance, as people from the audience joined the dancers on stage. The celebration also featured traditional Native American fry bread, a round, fried dough smothered in honey and dusted with powered sugar - a delightful treat for everyone not overly concerned about extra calories and saturated fat.

Two audience members watch the dancers.
The captivated audience of NIEHS staff and visitors included J. J. Bell-Nichols, left, and Elliott Gilmer, who seem almost entranced by the dancing and song taking place just a few yards in front of their seats. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A prominent Native American at NIEHS talks about science and culture

Principal Investigator Jerrel Yakel, Ph.D., head of the Laboratory of Neurobiology Ion Channel Physiology Group, is an active member of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science( Exit NIEHS. Yakel is proud of his maternal Luiseño and La Jolla heritage. Native American cultural values of "strong community ties, humility, and keeping a low profile," he said, can make science recruiting difficult.

"Science usually requires leaving family and community," Yakel continued, complicating the issue and possibly accounting for Native Americans being the least represented minority in science. Yakel, however, was willing to make the sacrifice. "Science fascinates me," said Yakel, who studies nicotinic acetylcholine receptor channels in neurological disorders.

Yakel has enjoyed recognition by colleagues at the NIH, NIEHS, and professional forums for the quality of his scientific investigations. In 2008, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society( Exit NIEHS profiled Yakel in an article for its magazine "Winds of Change" titled "Inspired by the Brain: Conversations with American Indian Neuroscientists," by Cassandra Brooks.

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