How would a two-headed being perceive the modern day powwow?

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AUTHOR: Paul Halvey

The two-headed creature is an archetypal character in folklore. Often representing choice or opposing views, it is present in tales across cultures.

American Indian culture is no exception. So how would a two-headed being perceive the 13th annual Harvest Pow Wow?

The event this weekend at Naper Settlement features performances of American Indian drumming and dance, as well as cultural crafts for sale. It is organized by the not-for-profit Midwest SOARRING Foundation, Save Our Ancestors Remains and Resources Indigenous Network Group.

Cultural activities include storytelling, basket weaving, sweetgrass braiding, beading, jewelry making and dance stick carving. A children’s area offers games, crafts and the chance to make arrowheads. Award-winning singer and guitarist Michael Jacobs will perform at 5 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday. This year, the marquee guest is Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who is author of 18 books and screenwriter for the films “Smoke Signals” and “The Business of Fancydancing.”

The event poses a dilemma for our imaginary two-headed character. On one hand, or head, the powwow can be seen as a way to raise awareness of American Indian culture and increase respect and interest. Or it could be considered crass commercialism that is insulting, if not sacrilegious, to American Indian heritage.

For organizer Joseph Standing Bear Schranz, a descendant of the Ojibwe tribe, the powwow is a chance for community involvement and charitable fundraising and a way to break down some stereotypes that are barriers to cultural understanding.

But to Alexie, who has never before included a powwow on a book tour, gatherings this far from a reservation tend to lose the genuineness that makes them so special. They can attract “New Agers,” American Indian wannabes, frauds and tourists — a group he refers to collectively as “goofy white people.”

“Everyone is earnest and well-meaning but clueless and goofy,” he said. “It’s mostly amusing, but it can sometimes be insulting if not sacrilegious. I expect to see a wide range of human behavior on display.”

Alexie, who will be on hand from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, grew up on a Spokane Indian reservation in Washington state. Born with hydrocephalus, a condition commonly known as “water on the brain,” Alexie underwent surgery at the age of 6 months. Though he did not experience severe mental retardation as doctors warned, Alexie suffered severe side effects throughout childhood including seizures and uncontrollable bedwetting. He learned to read by age 3 and excelled academically, but his scholastic skill combined with his gangly appearance made him a frequent target of grade school bullies.

In college, where several fainting spells in anatomy class convinced him to abandon his pursuit of a medical career, he discovered a passion for writing poetry. His most recent works are the novel “Flight,” published in April, and his first young adult novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” released this month. Based on his own experiences growing up on the reservation and leaving to attend a predominantly white high school, the book is an irreverent but unflinching look at the teen years.

“It’s a dark book but very funny. Kids are living the same lives we grown-ups are,” Alexie said. “Adults pretend they have it more together than teens. But the truth is, nobody has it together. I want my books to be as complicated as life — moments of joy and magic but also of loss and loneliness.”

Alexie will read from his work at a book signing at 7 p.m. Friday at Anderson’s Bookshop, 123 W. Jefferson Ave. in Naperville. For information, call (630) 355-2665 or visit andersonsbookshop.com.

Schranz says the SOARRING group “is blessed” to have “a cutting-edge author” attend the powwow.

The Naperville cultural grant, which in recent years brought the powwow to the city from the smaller site it was outgrowing in Mokena, has enabled the group “to bring out the best of our people and showcase our culture,” said Schranz. “The world is shrinking. It’s important to put positive things out there.”

Promoting American Indian culture is only part of Schranz’s mission. He is also an activist who has campaigned against racism, worked to reduce the impact of proposed developments on sacred sites, recovered spiritual artifacts from museum displays and promoted protection of the environment. He and other members of SOARRING have saved 1,400 acres in Illinois, including an eagle sanctuary and burial ground near Starved Rock State Park. The group maintains a small herd of bison near Carlinville, Illinois.

Schranz credits diplomacy and ongoing communication, rather than noisy protests, for the organization’s successes to date.

“We must all try to improve things without hurting other people,” he said. “The power of the heart is greater than the power of the fist.”

Perhaps one such heart is even better than two heads.

If you go to the powwow

What: 13th annual Harvest Pow Wow organized by Midwest SOARRING Foundation

When:September 29-30, 2007
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday
Grand entries are at 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday

Where: Naper Settlement, 523 S. Webster St., Naperville, Illinois

Cost: $8 for adults, $5 for ages 6 to 12 and those over 62

More Info: (773) 585-1744 or www.midwestsoarring.org

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Paul Halvey is a Daily Herald Correspondent.