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American Indian Center teaches about Tri-Valley's original inhabitants

Children's Pow Wow shares indigenous culture with community

From left: 9-year-old Tank Mathew Young (in blue) and 9-year-old Asa Johnson (in red) participate in a dance competition during the Children Pow Wow’s, held Saturday in downtown Livermore. (Photo by Ryan J. Degan)

A flurry of activity could be found at the Livermore American Indian Center in the week leading up to the center's annual Children's Pow Wow, with volunteers getting regalia ready and working to help prepare for the celebration of Native American heritage.

Hosting events like last weekend's popular Children's Pow Wow -- a traditional get together of Native Americans that includes dancing competitions, native craft vendors and food -- is just one of the ways the center works to educate the community and help continue to revive Native American culture.

"(Pow wows) are a good cultural way for American Indian children to be raised, because there are so many negative things that happen to Native Americans in our life today," Mary Puthoff, program specialist for the Livermore-based American Indian Center, told the Weekly. "There's stereotypes and misconceptions about American Indians and we try to provide a positive community oriented get together. And anyone can go to a pow wow."

Located inside Livermore's Lawrence Elementary School, the American Indian Center serves approximately 400 students of Native American descent in the Tri-Valley, teaching cultural classes, promoting events like pow wows, and educating the wider community on the history and cultures of indigenous Americans who lived and thrived in the Bay Area for thousands of years.

"Our goal is to provide a positive learning environment for children of American Indian heritage, promoting our cultural heritage," said Puthoff, who is a member of the Lakota people from the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota.

Founded more than 40 years ago, the Livermore American Indian Center is run almost completely by volunteers and provides students and members of the community with a variety of activities to achieve these goals. The center will take students on field trips, provide information on scholarships, offer academic tutoring and often send educators to teach in classrooms about the history and culture of indigenous people.

Puthoff, along with her volunteers, also teaches indigenous American language classes to students, which she says is fun but challenging because every American Indian student wants to learn their own tribe's language.

Held last Saturday -- one day after California's Native American Day (Sept. 27) -- at the Bankhead Shea Homes Plaza in downtown Livermore, the Children's Pow Wow featured competitive dancing, singing, drumming and vendors selling traditional Native American foods, artwork and other items.

The afternoon began with a grand entry featuring all of the dancers dressed in their traditional Native American regalia, followed by an intertribal dance where participants joined in a group dance, jumping and spinning around the plaza. After a ceremonial prayer marking the start of the day, dancers broke down into age categories where they competed against one another in traditional and more contemporary dances.

In an effort to encourage participation from the youngest generation of dancers, the Children's Pow Wow also had a "Tiny Tots" competition for children from toddler age to 5 years old.

"One of the reasons we are having this Children's Pow Wow is for the children to run it so when they grow up they will know how to put on a pow wow," Puthoff added.

Sponsored and funded by the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center as a part of it’s ongoing series highlighting the cultural heritage of the many peoples who call the Tri-Valley home, the pow wow also included a tour of a 20-foot Lakota tipi.

As a "children's" pow wow, the event's dancing and organization was organized by the students, whose ages range from kindergarten to 12th grade, granting them confidence and allowing knowledge of the events to be carried onto the next generation.

One important point Puthoff wants individuals to keep in mind when visiting a pow wow -- which she says are held all over California every month -- is that the traditional clothing worn during a pow wow is referred to as regalia, not costumes. She says the term "Native American costume" promotes ugly cultural stereotypes.

"We are a culture not a costume," she said. "We discourage people from dressing up as an Indian for Halloween because that promotes the whole stereotype of American Indians. Also mascots come up as a stereotype of American Indians."

Putting on events like the Children's Pow Wow is just one of the ways the center corrects stereotypes about indigenous Americans, teaches the next generation about ancient traditions and reminds the public that their culture is alive and well.

Larger events like these also offer Puthoff the opportunity to advocate for "Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women," a movement that seeks to protect the disproportionately high number of Native American women who are slain without their killers being brought to justice.

"There's a big move to let people know about the missing and murdered. Because even today there's young women that are missing and they don't even do an investigation of it because it happens on reservations," she said. "My own birth mother was murdered and there was no investigation, so it is something that is close to my heart."

Education on Native American topics, past and present, is key, according to Puthoff.

In the centuries before European colonization and Western expansion, the Tri-Valley was the traditional home of the Ohlone people, who are a popular subject for lessons in Bay Area classrooms.

"Everything (the Ohlone) had came from nature, you know. (And) they had a huge population here because this is such a wonderful place to live. That's why we're all here today," she said, with a laugh.

Puthoff said that while people of Ohlone descent are still very much alive today, the population is significantly smaller than what it was compared to pre-European colonization "because they got killed off. They were just murdered a lot of them because the Gold Rush people came in and they killed Indians just like they were animals."

"Which has happened to a lot of American Indians and it happened to the Aborigines in Australia," she continued. "All indigenous people have been disenfranchised."

Puthoff added that while the Ohlone people lived throughout the Bay Area and California, the state is home to more than 100 Native American tribes, each with their own distinct language and culture.

In the Pleasanton Unified School District, students start learning about Ohlone culture in the third grade, with lessons that include a trip to Alviso Adobe in western Pleasanton.

There, students learn from the park's "Native Ways" program which includes activities that replicate different traditions practiced by the Ohlone people such as cooking, games and hunting practices, according to Lydia Rice, a third-grade teacher at Donlon Elementary School.

"I have been taking groups to our local Alviso Adobe for over seven years," Rice said. "The Alviso makes a concerted effort to update their program as they work with Ohlone descendants to align their program and activities with authentic Native American practices."

Puthoff also said the American Indian Center has a library with nearly 1,000 books about indigenous Americans, for residents interested in learning more about Native American culture. The center can be reached via phone at 606-4748, ext. 3, or by email at mputhoff@lvjusd.k12.ca.us.

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