Spirit of the Tribes
It's expensive being an Indian," says Zack Morris with a feigned sigh.
His headdress cost a small fortune, with its deer fur strands melded with hundreds of hand-colored porcupine quills. The bald eagle feathers full of religious significance took months on a waiting list for a national depository to legally obtain - after the humbling experience of having to "prove" he was a genuine Native American.
Morris brought his one-man cultural campaign to Storm Lake this week, offering a display of Native American dance for students at Buena Vista University during Diversity Week. Why does he do it?
"Because otherwise, all people would really know about Indians is the Holly-wood version, and that just isn't right," he says slowly, his leathery face turning into a rare serious format.
Morris, a leader in the Sac and Fox tribes in Oklahoma, came to his cultural roots late in life.
His father brought him up without passing on the native language and many of the cultures, hoping he would be educated to succeed in the caucasian world. Only in adulthood did he discover the dances that have captivated him for the past three decades, leading him to win the national championship of Native American dance in 1995.
He demonstrates, cutting a serpentine trail across the stage, head wagging, bells on leggings keeping a rhythm.
His white hide footgear is in constant motion, winding around the stage in hypnotic, ageless fashion for minutes on end, not even breathing hard.
"There is not a right way," he said of the dance traditions, "this is simply my way."
In addition to countless pow-wows meant to help keep the ancient skills alive, Morris has been called on for some unexpected performances - including singing and choreographing the Tulsa Opera in a performance dedicated to Native American traditions - called "The Dreamkeeper."
"It's been a fun trip of many, many miles," he smiled.
Life has not always been so pure. Morris admits to being an alcoholic for much of his life. "I've got 15 years of sobriety, and I've discovered myself as a whole different person," he says.
Morris urged the large crowd of students to avoid making alcohol or drugs a part of their persona, recounting several tragic losses in which Native American reservations have lost precious groups of their teenage members to alcohol-related crashes.
"I've found that all alcohol does is delay your maturity into the best person you are capable of being," he said.
He also encouraged students not to consider their education complete when they graduate. "Don't stop with a bachelor's - go get a masters, a Ph.D., and never stop learning in your life... Know yourself, and learn about life."
He warned the young people that they will face discrimination somewhere in life - whether it be based on race, gender, age, experience or other reasons. "It can be a mean world out there. You will have to experience death and discrimination eventually. Continue to be who you are."
As for Native Americans, Morris said he encouraged the young members of the tribe to know their traditions, but also to compete in the modern world. For example, he said, his own daughter recently won a spot as a college cheerleader in Minnesota, going straight from the dusty little home football field without bleachers to the sprawling Metrodome.
While the Native American ways may seem foreign to European-based Americans, the people are no different in their wants and needs, he feels.
In their religion, the Sac and Fox people choose to worship in traditional small village buildings, sitting on the ground. "It makes us feel connected to the earth, which is a big part of our religion," he said.
"While we don't sit in an air conditioned and heated church pew one hour a week, religion is a big part of our daily lives at all times," and while they may involve the earth and the elements more in their beliefs, "our prayers also go to the same God and Jesus," Morris said.
He finished his visit by encouraging a crowd of young people onto the stage with him, where they joined in a joyous traditional chain dance as well as the familiar Friendship Circle ceremony.
The event was one of many taking place as part of Diversity Week, including a panel discussion, the annual International Fair, and a variety of presentations and performances representing many ethnic backgrounds. Student decorated special billboards in the Forum with their own thoughts:
"Different isn't bad," one student wrote, "different is different."
"Diversity is like a pizza," scrawled another.
In a third case, a small drawing of the planet is featured in bright colors, with a slash of ink pointing roughly toward Storm Lake. "You," it said, "are here."