“Powwow Dances in Her Mind” – by Poppy Gallegos-Zingarelli

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I imagine brightly colored jingle dresses, practically floating in front of me during a powwow. I dream of crispy Navajo fry bread, so succulent and warm. I can picture a poor indigenous family on the rez, struggling to get the smallest bit of clean water. I will never have to go through any of the hardships that Native people living on reservations face every single day of their lives. There are also parts of my heritage that I will not have experienced until later in my life because of the disadvantages of living in the City of San Francisco. As a Native American woman living in an urban society, my upbringing and exposure to my culture has conflicted with experiences of how other Native Americans have struggled. Although indigenous people living on reservations have had their share of hardships, they have been swimming in more culture than I have ever known.

Growing up in San Francisco, I have been surrounded by so many beautiful cultures; yet, I still find myself searching for parts of my own to relate to. Compared to other places in the United States, such as Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, there is not a large Native population here in my hometown of San Francisco. Because of this, there have been many disadvantages for me growing up in an urban Native American mixed-race household. That includes never having been to a powwow before. Even though Native Americans are the poorest demographic in the country, most are still able to experience different events that we have, such as special ceremonies and powwows. Because I don’t live in a rural place, such as a reservation, I’m not able to experience such events. Growing up as an urban Native American, I have not experienced many Native gatherings and have been deprived of the beauties of my culture.

San Francisco definitely has its cultural advantages – there are so many people from countries all around the world. But the Native population in San Francisco is extremely small. I don’t know many Native Americans outside of my family, who are spread out all across the United States. Growing up in a mixed-race family, I was conflicted about how to identify; I didn’t know what race to tell people when they first asked me. Through and through I am Native American, Spanish, and Portuguese from my mother’s side and Italian from my father’s side. From Hollywood’s perspective, I look like every Native stereotype: big long noses, thick hair, dark skin, and tall as a tree. The truth is, people don’t know how white I was raised: celebrated Thanksgiving, called Indigenous People’s Day “Columbus Day,” and I have never been to Native gatherings. Even my grandparents were not involved in many Native get-togethers. Because of my internal whiteness and the whitewashed ways of my family, I have not been able to see the beautiful elements of my people. Growing up white has taken away so much of the Native culture that I am trying to learn more about. 

Language has been a barrier that has been hard for all Natives, including myself. For many years, tribes were banned from speaking their own languages. The Navajo (Diné) Nation was one of the many tribes that were forced to go to boarding school and learn English. This was demanded by the white Americans in order to make Native people more “civilized” and therefore be accepted into their society. In these schools, they were not allowed to speak their Native tongue, or else they would be beaten or badly injured. The journeys to and from these boarding schools were very dangerous as Natives were often injured or killed. 2018 has been a huge improvement from those horrible times; many Native languages are being resurrected in order to reestablish indigenous customs. I myself do not fully understand my Navajo language. This is an internal struggle for me because in a way I am not (in my mind) a real Native. Both my mother and grandmother do not know the language and that is why they never taught it to me. Yet to this day, I do not blame them for not teaching me a language that was taken away from them. If it were not for Duolingo, I would not be learning it at all. 

I am proud to be an indigenous young woman living in an urban contemporary society. I’m grateful to have been a part of the San Francisco Intertribal UNITY Council, where I have met other Native youth and organized community events. These experiences have enabled me to grow stronger and be more passionate about my Native ancestry. Using my voice in this city has helped me to educate others about indigenous people and how colonization still affects us to this day: on reservations, how we exercise the right to vote, through the loss of our languages, and the crisis of missing Native women. Although I have not lived what people call “the true Native experience,” and have not gone through the same hardships, I am still educating people about the struggles Native people endure as a whole. One day I will attend a powwow; maybe I will even dance in it. But for now, I am like that little boy or girl watching their mother bead for the first time: I will have to learn from afar and start from the beginning.