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The Social Distance Powwow

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Lori Walsh: So much has been interrupted or lost due to coronavirus and so much expression and connection has swept online. Some of those offerings have quickly become more than anyone expected at first. The Social Distance Powwow Facebook group, as of this morning, is more than 140,000 people strong and joining us with this story is one of In The Moment's frequent guests and the facilitator of the group. Welcome to Whitney Rencountre. Whitney, welcome back.

Whitney Rencountre: Hello. Good morning. How are you doing, Lori? Thanks for having me on this morning.

Lori Walsh: I am doing well. And you're still working and trying to figure out how to meet the needs of people in your community. Tell us a little bit about that for you.

Whitney Rencountre: Yes. So Rural America Initiatives Ateyapi Youth Mentoring Program in Rapid City, South Dakota, we serve students fourth grade through 12th grade throughout the school district here and currently, with our early Head Start programs as well, zero to five year olds. Overall where we're sending food and supplies to over 400 families each week during this tough time, and so we're very thankful and grateful. Our mentors are kind of volunteer essential workers, just because of the population that we serve rely on our services so much that we didn't want to close down completely. We're trying our best to stay virtual and no contact drop off for the supplies as such and keeping our staff safe during this time. But it's certainly challenging times for us.

Lori Walsh: Tell me a little bit about the Social Distance Powwow Facebook group and how that all got started.

Whitney Rencountre: Yeah, so myself and another one of the founders, during the springtime and especially going into the summertime is when a lot of colleges or other organizations have their huge powwow celebrations. And a powwow celebration is actually a place where people will gather to share songs and dances. And many of the participants, the singers and dancers, they are professional at what they do. They practice all the time throughout the winter time and travel every weekend, sometimes a thousand miles one way. And so it's become a huge part of the Native American, Indigenous way of life. And I think it's just so important to our culture and these songs and dances are so important to us.

And, matter of fact, some of the dances sprung up around the time that the Spanish flu pandemic hit the world and we couldn't understand why people were getting sick and why people were dying around that time. And so some of the dancers, like the jingle dress came around that time from the Ojibwe tribe and so many people dance that style nowadays. And so this was a response to what is happening in the world today, the Social Distance Powwow group page on Facebook, and it's caught on like wildfire. So many people are so happy that it's there to provide an outlet and a way to help us through our challenges and our problems today.

Lori Walsh: For me, going through the Facebook page and seeing these people from different tribes everywhere, as a non-Native, I've never seen so many expressions from different people in their living rooms in different regalia. There are a lot of non-Native folks who are tuning in and learning about things that are important for the first time because it wasn't part of their culture. It wasn't part of their home town. Tell me a little bit about the reach for that and just the side effect, the thing that maybe you didn't plan to happen is also helping people be seen in new ways.

Whitney Rencountre: Yeah, absolutely. So growing up here in South Dakota on a reservation myself, going to college, when I went to college at Black Hills State University here in Spearfish, South Dakota, I wanted to bring my family with me to the university because everyone there had an open mind and an open heart. And they understood that we had a powwow there on campus at the Donald E. Young Center every year. We sold Indian tacos. We fundraised for these events and people were really excited to learn and open. But in the bigger picture, most people are not really familiar because it's human nature to stay with what you're comfortable with. And I think far too long, historically, the Cowboys and Indians theme has really created a division in our society. But when we break down those barriers and we think of things with an open mind and open heart, we truly have a better appreciation for the songs and dances.

And for the first time everyone's at home. Everyone's open to see what's out there. And so with the click of a finger, you can watch a video from a dancer up in Canada or a dancer over in New York or a singer that lives in California or somebody that lives right here in South Dakota. And you don't have to travel to the powwow or go to a local powwow to experience that. I think far too long we think of things ... A lot of times I talk to a lot of people and they say they aren't comfortable going to a powwow because they think of it like going to another church. And I think in reality that's human nature to think of things as you don't understand what it is, so maybe I don't belong. But when we break down that barrier and realize powwows are a social event and in actuality they're actually closer to going to a sporting event than it is a church because the dancers are competing. The singers are competing or they're getting paid for what they do, just to provide a place of fun and enjoyment, a family celebration.

So for the first time people are having this access and it is opening up their minds and their hearts. And they're saying, "Wow, why didn't I ever go to a powwow before? Or why didn't I get to experience these things?" Facebook could be such a place of hate and negativity, but for the first time, this site, because of the COVID-19, people are stuck at home and so they're excited to have a site where they can go through and it's 95% positive. All the comments, every message we've been getting from people all over the world have been positive feedback that we have a place where people could come and view the songs and dances, the art, and it's a beautiful thing.

Lori Walsh: You mentioned dances that are appropriate for this time and talk a little bit about songs that are appropriate for this time. And I'm hoping that I might entice you to sing for us, but something that says to ... What are the choices that you make right now as far as what you share that could sustain people, that could give people a message that you think they need to hear right now?

Whitney Rencountre: Yeah. So I think what is happening right now, obviously in our lifetime we've never experienced anything like it other than the Spanish flu or the Black Plague in Europe long ago. These are things that just come about that we have no recollection of why. We don't understand. But nonetheless, our daily lives, our daily routines are all interrupted. We can't spend time and hug our friends and our families, all the things that we love and we miss. We have to take a step back. So I think these songs and these dances that are being shared on this page, many of them are done in a way to encourage people, to encourage people through challenges and to inspire people to live life simply.

I just think so often and so much that we make things complicated. We make things complicated because of our race or because of our economic status or where we live, so on and so forth. But when we open our minds to understand that there's good and bad in every culture, in every community, and so when we think of things that way, instead, we know who is someone that is important to listen to or someone who gets our attention and what they say really hits home. It doesn't matter where they come from, their background. I just think Creator put good people in every corner of this world, every religion, every race, every culture.

And so when we hear these songs and we see these dancers, if you see some of the videos on this Social Distance Powwow page, you see little kids out there dancing and their grandparents getting them ready or you see a song or you see somebody talking about encouraging the first responders, a lot of Indigenous first responders across North America are coming on this page and posting a picture of themselves before they're going to work and it gives us the ability to stay connected. So I think just understanding and learning about these songs and dances is an important time for this.

Lori Walsh: Will you sing for us today and encourage us today?

Whitney Rencountre: Sure. I can, yeah. So myself, I grew up, my grandfather, the late Whitney Rencountre the First, he was a veteran of the Korean War and he was in the Army. But he also taught me how to sing and how to dance at powwows. It was a passion of his and he used to make regalia. He used to invite younger singers to come sing with us and he encouraged others. If a dancer did not have the regalia to dance, he would make them regalia and give it to them. And those are things I always remember is his generosity and his compassion and willingness to help other people in need. And that really hits home with me today. And so what I will share with you today is a round dance song, an encouragement song to help us forget about what's going on today and to remember instead of the positive things that's going on today.

And this song in our language, I learned this from the Porcupine Singers. I had a professor at Black Hills State University. Oddly enough, he's from Austria, but he lived here in South Dakota and he was adopted into the Porcupine Singers Drum Group from the Oglala Sioux tribe, and Dr. Ronnie Theisz taught this song to me. But it talks about when we join hands with our friends, we feel good and it brings that happiness, brings that good feeling. And so that's what this song means in our language. But I'm going to sing it in our language.


So that song is a round dance song and usually everyone gets in a circle and joins hand in hand and dances around in a circle. Especially when you make new friends and you have guests, that's when that song is brought out to celebrate, commemorate that occasion. So just thought I would share that to hopefully uplift our viewers today.

Lori Walsh: Oh, thank you so much, Whitney Rencountre. And another thing I just love about you is that you never say no when I ask you to do that.

You always say, "Okay. Okay, well ..."

Whitney Rencountre: My grandfather, that's what he taught me and a lot of the older singers, that's what they say. When you're called upon as a singer, always honor the request as best as you can.

Lori Walsh: Oh, all right. So Social Distancing Powwow or Social Distance Powwow Facebook group, before we let you go, in our remaining 30 seconds, how do you want to encourage people who haven't participated to show up online and to be part of that global encouragement right now?

Whitney Rencountre: Yeah. Go onto the page and everyone has a different role. Sometimes you can on-look, you can just take a look and learn from people that are on there. But we encourage you to go on and we promise you that it's a positive place. I think it's important for this times because it's opening a lot of minds and hearts. And people from all over the world are reaching out to us wanting to tell the story of this Social Distance Powwow page, and we're happy to share the message that essentially keeping it simple in this world and we all need each other to survive. So thank you. I thank you for having me on there, Lori, to share the story.

Lori Walsh: Thanks, Whitney. We'll see you next time. Be well.

Whitney Rencountre: You too. Stay healthy.

Visit the Social Distance Powwow Facebook Group here.