Ponca songs finding new voices

2013-03-12T06:00:00Z 2015-01-22T13:56:26Z Ponca songs finding new voicesBy KEVIN ABOUREZK / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

This is their grandfather's song, and these are his grandchildren, singing as a way to honor their ancestor.

They sing Standing Bear's song so they will be remembered, because it's sometimes easy for others to forget they're still here.

The smell of burning sage and the sound of drums fill the former church sanctuary, where the five young men huddle around a drum listening to Steve Laravie talk about seeing models dressed in feathers and buckskin.

"Why are they mocking us?" he asked. "Because they think we no longer exist. They think we're a thing of the past."

The 31-year-old wants to change that.

Every Wednesday afternoon at 5, he meets with about 20 young Native men and women at the Ponca Tribe's offices at 17th and E streets to practice drumming and singing and to tell stories. The Ponca youth culture program is meant to teach the youth about their culture and history and to give them a sense of identity.

The program began in April 2012 and is open to any youth.

Every Wednesday, such as this one, it begins with drumming.

A young man leads the song, his voice low and steady. The other men and Laravie join as the beat builds and grows louder.

Portraits of their chiefs adorn the walls. Names such as Big Snake and Smoke Maker. Hairy Grizzly Bear and Black Crow.

As they finish, Laravie explains the song's words. It's about Chief Standing Bear's fight to gain independence and recognition for his people. It's a song meant to honor the chief.

"This is our song, our family song," he tells the young men and women gathered in the sanctuary.

His son, Steve Laravie Jr., often leads the singers. The 15-year-old Lincoln High School sophomore said learning about the songs helps him express his spirituality and stay on the right track. The youth group also has helped him learn to stand up for his people's rights.

On Jan. 28, he joined his father and others to sing and play drums at a rally at the Capitol to protest the Keystone XL pipeline and draw attention to perceived attacks on Native people in America and Canada. It was the first time the young man had taken part in such a show of cultural pride.

He said learning the Ponca songs -- many of which were nearly forgotten until now -- helps him understand who he is.

"They help me understand my language that was lost," he said. "That can help me express my Ponca identity."

His father said it's important for the youth to learn the culture, language and history. For many years, the Ponca forgot those things as they struggled to regain their collective identity after the tribe lost its federal recognition. But in 1990, it once again was recognized and its members were able to enroll again.

But much was lost in that time, Steve Laravie Sr. said. Songs and language were forgotten. The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska -- the northern band of the tribe that split into two factions in the late 19th century -- doesn't have any fluent Ponca speakers, Laravie said. The southern Ponca, who live in Oklahoma, have only a handful, he said.

Still, the language has persisted through publication of English/Ponca dictionaries, including a digital language library developed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. And many traditional songs have been recorded and archived by the southern Ponca and the Smithsonian Institution, Laravie said.

He has mined Smithsonian archives for Ponca history and music and found online resources such as a University of Oklahoma website that offers historical information.

About a year ago, after attending a Ponca powwow in Niobrara, he was disappointed to see the northern Ponca didn't have their own drum group.

"I took an oath to never let that happen again," he said.

Now, the youth program students sing about nine Ponca language songs, as well as several other Lakota ceremony songs, and they plan to take their drum to the powwow in Niobrara in April.

Steve Laravie Sr. has begun recording many of the Ponca songs they have learned and hopes to build a digital library that includes those recordings as well as older recordings of Ponca songs he has found elsewhere.

At the weekly youth meetings, he often gives lists of Ponca words to the students to learn.

"They're thirsty for knowledge," he said. "They're thirsty for who they are. They're thirsty for identity."

Vanessa Rodriguez Laravie, 11, said she knew little about her Ponca heritage, except that she was related to Standing Bear, before coming to the youth group meetings. She since has learned to stitch and make Native regalia, as well as sing along with the drum group.

"I always thought I was just American," she said. "But it shows my true self."

D.J. Laravie, 13, said he has attended Native sweat lodge ceremonies and enjoys being able to spend time with his friends and relatives while learning about his culture. He said the youth group has taught him leadership skills and made him proud to be Native.

He said he also enjoys spending time with his dad.

"My dad is trying to bring it all back," he said. "It makes me really proud."

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

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