With every step, a Native American dancer evokes the pride, and tears, of her ancestors
‘I need to go to a dance’
Barbara Craker slips into a janitor’s closet to gather her thoughts. Just beyond the closet door, eager audience members stream into the auditorium, even though it’s already filled to capacity.
Craker, 61, closes her eyes. She tries to ignore the clamor of the crowd. She smooths her Shawnee ribbon skirt, then adjusts her headpiece, resplendent with lime green, blue and yellow beads sewn by her own hand in a sunburst geometric pattern.
Before each powwow, she feels a reverence for the sacred ritual she’s about to carry out. On this night, it feels especially significant; she’ll be dancing a few blocks away from the historic Trail of Tears.
“I can feel if I need to go to a dance. Like, if I feel off balance at all [or] if I just have been feeling something's not right with the world. I'm like, ‘I need to go to a dance,’” Craker said.
It’s how she “re-centers” herself, she said.
A descendent of Quapaw, Eastern Shawnee, Cherokee and Catawba ancestors, Craker says she’s been dancing in powwow arenas since she was a toddler.
“We believe our ancestors are still always with us. So, you know, in a way, you kind of feel them over your shoulder or looking at you and going, ‘Do that the right way,’” Craker said.
A powwow commences
The intertribal powwow took place recently at The Fairbanks, which is home to the American Indian Center of Springfield.
Once Barbara Craker feels ready, she opens the door and steps into the auditorium. The speaker cues the drum circle and asks the men in the room to remove their hats. The powwow is set to commence.
The first person who steps into the arena is the head male dancer, followed by the head female dancer, who is Craker.
“We dance all together as families. So there are little children, there are old grannies, the old grandpas, everybody comes together and dances at the same time,” Craker said.
This powwow will feature a gourd dance to honor the harvest and a veterans dance to pay tribute to warriors.
“And depending on what outfit and what style of dance you have, you will dance differently. So I'm in this southern ribbon skirt—so I'll dance with slow, measured steps with kind of a deep knee bend. We do not wiggle our hips. That is considered a no-no,” Craker said.
Shells, beads and ribbon as ancestral art
Her dancing is one artistic way she expresses her identity—moving in the same way her ancestors did, to the drum beat symbolizing Mother Earth.
But dancing isn’t her only creative outlet; she’s known for her Native American textiles and jewelry.
“I do the beading. I do the sewing. I do all that sort of thing. And so there's other people out here tonight wearing things that I've made,” Craker said.
For Craker, each stitch is woven with history in mind.
“Satins, believe it or not, were imported way, way, way, way back when. So a lot of Natives picked up making the ribbon work and that kind of thing. Beads are a European import usually—although Natives always had their own beads with shells. And people have heard of wampum. Usually it's like a purple, white shell bead,” Craker said.
Springfield’s Native community is rebuilding
The leaders at the American Indian Center of Springfield are trying to reunite the community after years of splintered efforts. Craker says the pandemic dealt another blow to the local community, making powwows and in-person gatherings impossible. Nationally, the pandemic has led to higher mortality rates among Native Americans than any racial group in the U.S., according to a study led by Princeton University.
Craker slowly steps around the men striking drums in the center circle.
There’s a sense of awe that accompanies these traditions, some of which have survived for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
“We have memorial songs where we're not really dancing. We might stand in place, but I mean, I can cry through my emotions because I'm thinking about loved ones that are lost. And it can be rough sometimes, you know, but you feel the emotion and then you deal with the emotion and then you're re-centered again,” Craker said.
Craker dances with joy. She also senses the pain of her ancestors.
Southern Missouri has been home to many Native peoples, including the Kickapoo, Shawnee, Deleware, and most notably, the Osage.
According to the State Historical Society of Missouri, many tribes passed through this area during forced relocations, including the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears.
By the 1830s most Native Americans had been pushed out of Missouri. Today, Springfield’s Native American community has one of the highest poverty rates of racial groups in the city, according to the American Indian Center and Prosper Springfield, which collects U.S. Census data.
All of that bears heavily on Barbara Craker as she dances.
“I wouldn't call it grieving, because there's anger about lands being taken and property that we don't have anymore. And of course, I mean, people would have inherited that normally. That would still belong to our Native people. And generational trauma is a real thing,” Craker said.
Now that the pandemic is less intense, the region’s Native Americans are gathering, once again, for powwows.
“Some urban Indians don't know how to dance,” Craker said. “They don't know how to sing. They might come to a powwow, though, because they still want to be connected to their people.”
The American Indian Center of Springfield will host another powwow on Saturday, Nov. 5 at the Greenwood Laboratory School on the Missouri State University campus. The event will be open to the public.