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Curious Louis: Annual Pow Wow gives American Indians living in St. Louis a chance to connect

Because this region was the home of ancient burial mounds built by the Mississippian people almost a thousand years ago, Basmin asked Curious Louis what efforts are being made to help American Indians today reconnect with their heritage.

"STL: recognized as a gathering place & Sacred ground to US First Nations. What efforts are being made to reconnect People here today?"

Every year Washington University’s Buder Center for American Indian Studieshosts a pow wow that draws tribes from across the country. Buder Center Director Molly Tovar said the event also is an opportunity for local American Indians to get to know each other.

“The Buder Center is really the hub and central place for our Native people to come,” said Tovar. “Where we’ll see many of them as well is (at the) pow wow. All of a sudden people are surprised (saying) ‘where did all the Native people come from?’ and ‘they are here in St. Louis.’”

According to Tovar, the St. Louis region is home to about 3,000 American Indians from many different tribes.

“There aren’t any designated tribes here in the state of Missouri but there’s approximately about 76,000 — 80,000 American Indians in the state of Missouri,” said Tovar. “But there isn’t any designated language because many of our Native people have been relocated here from the Relocation Act, so we call ourselves the Urban Indians.”

Southern Drum Ottertrail sings at the Buder Center Pow Wow on Sat. April, 9, 2016.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Southern Drum Ottertrail sings at the Buder Center Pow Wow on Saturday.

The Relocation Act of 1956, sometimes called Public Law 959, encouraged American Indians to move to cities by paying for job training and the cost to relocate.

Members of the Osage Nation trace their ancestry to the Mississippian people and considers St. Louis’ mounds sacred. The Osage purchased the city’s last surviving mound in 2009 and plans to start preservation efforts this summer. But the Osage Nation is now based in Oklahoma.

Joseph Masters of the Sioux Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians explains the subtext in his Anishinaabe name, which means Thunder Bear.

The Buder Center held its 26th annual Pow Wow at Washington University’s Field House on Saturday. This year the event honored the role Native languages play in preserving a tribe’s culture and tradition.

Tovar said the idea is “to put a shout-out and the word out that language is so important” and encourage people to continue with language classes and the immersion programs that many tribes have started in recent decades.

For Buder Center alum Joseph Masters, learning Anishinaabe, his tribe’s language, gave him the opportunity to more deeply connect with his heritage in a way that was largely lost in the boarding school era, when American Indian students were punished if they didn't speak English.

“We want to get back to that because your language also dictates how you think and how you react to things,” said Masters, who is from the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians. 

Masters said his language has many layers of meaning that can be difficult to translate. For instance, on the surface his name in Anishinaabe means Thunder Bear.

"But an Elder back home would know that I'm Bear clan. And as Bear clan I'm a keeper of the medicines. And medicines not just like what you would see that you would take,  plants or roots. But medicine comes in many different forms. Laughter we all know is medicine and has healing powers. Singing and listening to music is medicine. But as Native people we just know what medicine means in that context," Masters said.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.