Why would elders sing a warrior song for a teenager that was not in the war or military, but had just won a pageant?
It is almost 18 years later and I am still fully understanding this experience.
The year was 1999. I was 18, and just won a second pageant, Miss National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). This was hosted by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Their homelands are also known as Palm Springs, California. I was supported by my tribe, the Yakama Nation to run for a second title. I am honored that I was able to hold two titles of Miss Yakama Nation and Miss NCAI.
Quick note: The National Congress of American Indians is the largest policy organization for tribes.
Two elders and Yakama Nation Tribal Councilmen stood before hundreds of tribes and sang a wáashat song for me. This specific song is one they sing for warriors. At the time, I was not sure why they chose this song.
After they were finished they leaned in and joked about pageants being as tough as battles. They motioned towards my calf. Right before I flew to the pageant, I had just played in a Yakama softball tournament and my leg was completely scratched up from sliding. Yes, I was a tomboy running for a pageant. It shocked a lot of people, especially myself.
We laughed and it eased the uncertainty.
Then they looked at me and said, "Never forget the role of women in this tribe."
I was not sure what they were going to tell me from that point.
"Women were in our wars." They asked me to carry this message.
Reflections of The Conversation
I thought many times about that conversation. Mostly, with fear. Petrified in place. How am I to carry this message? Now those elders have both passed away. I continue to collect stories or ideas about the Yakama War.
Have you ever felt uncertain about how to carry out the requests from elders?
Well, one day I was having a difficult time. I had to find some paperwork, get packed for a trip, finish my keynote, and make a lot of calls. Nestled in between the papers I needed, was a historical account of the Yakama War. I was given it during high school and I read it every so often. Usually, it was when I was in a reflective mood. This time was different. I was in an unsettled state because my family was in danger for a brief time. So, when I again read the story about how our people were in war before, it really spoke to me at a depth it had not before. I thought about the strength of our people. Our history has the power to energize you.
I wondered what it would be like to share some of this story. Then, I applied for a Native Creative Development Artist grant from The Evergreen State College.
I was ready to take the next step. I knew that if I want to push my art into the level, having support would help instill a confidence and a timeline.
I told myself, if I get this, then I will help share this message broadly. If not, I'll just continue to quietly share these words and ideas.
I got the grant. It helped cover some of the costs, but there were more costs spent in researching and travel. Also, I wanted to cover more aspects of the war. I was struggling with the deadline, there was so much to cover. I asked one of the grant reviewers for advice. They said to just focus on one area.
I contemplated which part of this story should be told first. I remembered the song the elders sang for me. So, that is why I focus on the Ayat (woman). If we share this story and the role of women both historically and present then it will help guide a better future for our girls.
Sharing with you
After so long, I finally decided to add my voice publically on the topic. In sharing these memories that are very personal, there is a certain clarity I want to convey. The time, place and manner in which elders continually chose to share and talk with us may come as a surprise. This is the real deal on elder wisdom and requests. They don't always choose very scenic areas or talk in a whisper. Sometimes, when elders share with you, it begins on a stage joking about a teenager's wounded leg and a new crown. The beauty of this is, our elders teach us to be inspired to share something at specific moments, no matter how random they might seem to others. In sharing this with you, I hope their message is one of the lights that illuminate the pathway for sharing our history.
There are many things to consider when sharing Native History.
What is the #1 question you have about historic Native battles?
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Here is a poem I wrote about this experience.
They Sang a Warrior Song For Her
This teenage girl stands with a new crown
Side-by-side her elders
Step on stage with hopes and dreams
Hundreds of tribes watch
They sang a warrior song for her
Her heart goes Boom! Boom!
Her breath slows
As she wonders what it means
When the elders sing you a warrior song
Questions ring through her head
They joke - we heard pageants are tough
Like battlefields of our people
She smiles and releases the question
They lean closer
There is another reason to be told
Never forget the role of women in this tribe
She braces herself for cooking lessons
For how to find a good ám
They say - Yakama women were in the wars
They continue on
We want you to remember this message
She carries this with her crowns
How should she talk about war?
Is this why pageant girls say world peace?
Years have passed
These elders have too
Even though she has more to learn
She uses her voice
They sang a warrior song for her
And women who lack ancient acknowledgement