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Indigenous reflect on hard times

By Brian Kluepfel
Saturday October 12, 2002

While most of the United States will celebrate Columbus Day this Monday, Berkeley will remember the consequences of colonialism. For the past 10 years, the city has designated the Saturday nearest to Oct. 12 – the date Christopher Columbus arrived in America – as Indigenous Peoples Day. Today, more than 100 Native American groups will gather at Martin Luther King Jr. Park to dance, sing and remember.  

“Most native people felt Columbus wasn't a hero,” said Shar Suke, organizer of the event. Suke wears moccasins, along with an approximation of her traditional Oneida dress from the early 1800's. 


She is a dancer and has danced at powwows, like today’s, since she was a small child. “My mother taught me to dance, and it sustains my spirit,” she said. “It connects me to the past and the future.” 

This year's powwow, a word that in the Algonquin language means “a gathering of people,” is centered around dancing, but kicks off with a foot race. The run begins at the 3,000-year-old Ohlone shell mound ruins near University Avenue and Fourth Street and goes to Berkeley’s downtown where the rest of the day's events take place. The Ohlone burial mound is now the site of a parking lot, but the native roots run deep here – in fact, 20 feet beneath the surface. 

This sort of buried history is one reason the powwow is not exactly a celebration, said organizer Suke.“This is a healing process for a lot of our people,” she said. “We carry the genetic memory of trauma to our ancestors.”  

The modern powwow's history is rooted in government-sponsored relocation of native peoples to reservations in the 19th century. 

Grass dance societies were an outcome of the displacement, and dances were one of the few traditions that were allowed in the natives’ new homes. 

There are many different dances, for different age groups and sexes, at powwows. Attendees today might see women perform Shawl, Cloth, or Jingle dances, while the men may dance the Straight, Fancy or Grass dances. Dancers are commonly judged by a panel of experts, and winners sometimes receive cash prizes. 

“We like to compete,” said Suke. 

Suke grew up in Oklahoma learning combined native traditions of her Oneida grandfather and Cherokee grandmother. Her grandmother used to make her elk skin moccasins, but in recent years Suke has learned the craft herself. 

“When you come to the circle, it becomes an extended family, so you learn from others,” she said. 

There's a permanent reminder of the holiday in Berkeley as well. The city's Turtle Island Monument at the park, designed by Potawatomi Lee Sprague, will be rededicated today. 

Berkeley is not alone in recognizing native peoples this weekend. The cities of Sebastapol and Santa Cruz also commemorate Indigenous People's Day, while the state of South Dakota calls the holiday Native Peoples Day.