Prairie Awakening prayers aim to heal sickness of land, souls

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Sacred hoop dancer Dallas Chief Eagle always brings joy -- and a beautiful daughter -- to the Prairie Awakening.


Another perfect late-summer Saturday afternoon brought about 500 people to the Kuehn Conservation Area near Earlham for the 18th annual Prairie Awakening powwow. The event features Native American sacred ceremonies, songs, dances and foods.

“We were again blessed with great weather and a great crowd,” said Chris Adkins, Dallas County Conservation’s environmental education coordinator and longtime organizer of the powwow. “As we awakened the prairie and remembered its original wildness, I hope we also awakened the people who came here to their own history and to the stories of the First Nations.”

Native Americans from as far away as Oklahoma and South Dakota came to dance and sing, beat the sacred drums and tell the sacred stories, and many of the ceremonies encouraged audience participation. Non-native attendees seemed eager to learn the steps and hear the stories.

Dallas Chief Eagle, from Pine Ridge, S.D., and his youngest daughter, Delacina Chief Eagle, first led the crowd in a simple hoop dance, an audience-participation activity that gets everyone on their feet to dance, laugh and think about the relations of earth to sky and of women to men.

The Chief Eagles then gave a stunning performance of the elaborate sacred hoop dance, moving gracefully across the lawns, sometimes with as many as 20 hoops at once, and simulating the figures of animals and humans.

Adkins said many ceremonies occur behind the scenes at Kuehn prior to the Prairie Awakening public event. A sweat lodge was built, for instance, giving the Native Americans a chance “to express on this land again the sacred parts of their culture,” he said.

Ancient burial mounds on the Kuehn grounds were desecrated in the past, Adkins said. “This event gives healing for our own culture and a chance to step back into the wild origins of the prairie and also healing for the First Nations to retrieve a part of their history as a people that was lost for a long time.”

The Prairie Awakening is not merely an exercise for white people to observe the colorful and exotic ways of the First Nations, giving polite applause and getting a commemorative t-shirt, Adkins said.

“This is a chance to heal ourselves and the landscape, too,” he said. “It’s a mutualistic, symbiotic ceremony, a chance not just to share their culture but awaken it and return it to its rightful place.”

Many local Native Americans have helped Adkins organize the Prairie Awakening over the years, such as Howard Crow Eagle from Des Moines, a Lokota tribesman with the Central Iowa Circle of First Nations, who served as the master of ceremonies.

Adkins said a dedicated group of about 25 volunteers are also essential to the success of the powwow, especially after the Dallas County Conservation Board had its budget cut by 20 percent three years ago and the funds for the Prairie Awakening dried up completely.

“Without a whole lot of help from a core group of volunteers,” Adkins said, “we would never be able to pull this off.”

The event has always been free.

When the shadows had lengthened, a ceremony was held involving lighting a bonfire and telling stories about healing the land and bringing wildness back to the prairie.

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