February 21st, 2016 Last Updated on: August 14th, 2016
From champion dancer, Politician and pow-wow MC, Tommy Christian from Poplar MT shared some of his experiences in Indian country. Well respected in all three areas Tommy has remained grounded, humble and gained vast amounts of knowledge from teachings of the elders in his area.
“There is a story that I will share with you, the name that they call us in reference to Indians. A lot of people believe historically, and it is written in the books that Columbus was voyaging to India and he landed on these Islands in the south east portion of United States, he thought that he was in India so he referenced us as Indians. That is not the truth, the truth is in the relationship that Columbus experienced and witnessed. That the relationship with First Nations people had with the earth and all of God’s creations. It is journalized that when he was leaving America he stated ‘Indios’. If you translate Indios in the Italian Language, it literally means in English ‘of God’. Columbus reference was these people are of God because of how we co-existed with all of Gods creations, so that’s where that term comes from.” Christian said.
Christian has been dancing men’s northern traditional since 1983, and has travelled over Indian Country, adding “I’ve been everywhere.” He recalls the most memorable pow-wow that he danced at was in 1996 where he won the World Championship in the Northern Men’s Traditional category at Schemitzen Pow-wow in Connecticut MS. “I wanted to win the World Championship, it was the epitome of what I was inspiring to at that time. Traditional dance was an art to be able to express myself, so after I won, that is when I quit dancing professionally and went back to work.”
A few weeks prior to Schemitzen, Christian danced at the grandfathers of all pow-wows, United Tribes at Bismarck, ND, where he won 1st Place in men’s traditional. “Although Bismarck has a warm spot in my heart, Schemitzen was definitely a significant milestone that I achieved.”
When asked how did he prepare mentally, physically, and spiritually for pow-wow, Christian replied, “A lot of times that is taken for granted. I used to be a social worker for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I did that for five years. One day I just chose to walk away from my job and they asked me why am I leaving, where are you going? I said, I m going to pow-wow. The reason I left social services profession, because I could no longer participate in a system that victimizes the victim. So I walked away from that, I would be more effective from a traditional perspective in regards to what I was pursuing, and that was a healthy lifestyle. I don’t drink or do drugs but at the same time I m not wishing to impose or infringe on anyone else’s right to exist and their choices, but at the same time I wish to model a behaviour. I m not a role model but I do model a behaviour based on the teachings of my elders.”
He added that the preparation, the mind set all of these things is very important, mentally, spiritually, physically, and maintaining that circle you touch base in every one of those aspects. Christian maintained his spirituality by attending ceremonies, maintained his physicality by running everyday, three miles in the morning and three miles in the afternoon. “I was a professional dancer and I wanted to give it my most.” He emotionally addressed these issues based on his own personal life, “So that is the way I approached it with everything I had emotionally, with this profession of pow wow dancing. Mentally I had to learn the songs. I had to discipline myself and respecting who and what I am. For the sake of expressing one’s self from the inside out, not the outside in.”
When Christian adorned himself with his finest regalia he said, “I wasn’t doing it for show. I was doing it for the process of continuing this journey that I am on, this red road of healing. I strongly believe and I was taught that we as First Nation people heal from the inside out. So that is what I was doing.”
Everything on Christian’s regalia has a meaning from the feathers to the designs, he was taught by old people to tell a story, all which prepared him to enter the dance floor. His style of dance is old-style northern traditional. He credits his family for all the support that keeps him strong mentally, spiritually and emotionally.
When the sound of the drum starts and the singers start singing, it draws the dancers to the floor. Christian replied, “When dancing on the floor, one needs to experience it, and I ll try to convey it as much as I can. It wasn’t so much what the people saw, it was what they felt,” adding, “the drum, you feel it and it does something to you, as an individual we refer to it as medicine. It makes people get out of bed if they are sick, and they will come to the pow-wow, people tap their feet to the beat of the drum, they don’t understand why, that is medicine.”
One of the many teachings he was told, when he went to a pow wow he went there to dance and to share of himself, through form of expression that we call pow-wow with the people. “It wasn’t about me, I showed how I was feeling and I was trying to share that through pow-wow dance.” He used to be introverted and quite shy, but when he went to a pow wow he could go within himself. The drum would just take over, “It would take over your spirit, you connect. From the connections you’d be able to put these movements of discipline, balance and understandings based on your own teachings that people would enjoy that. I always felt that when I seen myself dance I never thought that I was a good dancer, so I had to accept the fact that when I danced, it wasn’t so much what the people saw, it was what they felt. I wasn’t afraid to share this spiritual entity with other people.”
For sixteen years Christian has been a Tribal Leader in Poplar, MT, being a Tribal Executive board member and Legislative member. He has been very open on maintaining alliances with other tribes. He sees things through an Indian perspective, which at times people do not understand. Christian dubs himself Pro-Indian, he has no interest in understanding the Whiteman’s way. “I am not against it, we have to learn to co-exist and at the same time it is my choice. I just choose to be with Indians and that is how I balance this, I stay Indian.”
“I am not racist, I am pro-Indian,” Tommy Christian
Not only has Christian been a champion dancer across Indian Country and politician back in his home state of Montana, he is also one of the finest Pow wow MC’s in Pow-wow country today. Prior to becoming an MC, elders started talking and sharing with him information that he couldn’t related to and couldn’t understand what they were telling him. “One of those individuals, was the better MCs in our area in Popular MT his name was Benjie Greyhawk, he would take me to the side. I was dancing at that time, and he would tell me stuff and I couldn’t understand. I would ask him, Benjie how come you are telling me, he said just listen.” Greyhawk told Christian all these different things about pow -wow, what it entails, what you got to say, what you got to do and all these responsibilities. One day he was at a pow-wow in Poplar, MT, they called him up to pray for all of the people, Christian was quite young at the time, and he went up there and Greyhawk was announcing he asked him “Benjie what do I say?” Greyhawk said ‘just remember what I shared with you.’ Christian did the best he could and got through it, Greyhawk said, “My little brother you did well.” That was beginning of his MCing, which evolved to co-facitilating pow-wows, where he co-MC’d with one of his mentors, Robert Fourstar. Fourstar was the MC that taught Christian, he gave Christian the right to talk in front of all the people and helped him understand the importance of it. Throughout his MC experience, he represents all of his teachers in the professional level, such as Mike Hotaine, Robert Fourstar, Kenny Ryan, Russell Standingrock, Solomon Stone. “There are so many that have influenced me, and in that process they helped me understand.”
That is how it started and when it evolved for Christian, the MC’s helped him understand the manner which he facilitates a pow-wow, through a cultural perspective, based on the respect of the celebration, which truly is a celebration of life. Christian added, “All of the history that’s been shared with me from all the old pow wow announcers, is how I carry myself but at the same time you don’t infringe or impose on anyone else’s right. I never go to a pow wow that I have never been invited to, when I show up to a pow wow to announce you can be assured that I was invited to go to there. I don’t ask to attend a pow wow and if I’m not at a pow-wow, I m golfing.”
Being a First Nation person, Christian said that it is important to understand the definition of what we are as First Nation people. We have to recognize that white privilege is not something we have to follow or we need to follow. “Jews did not become Nazis, they developed their own culture, their own way of doing things and they are accepted. We can do the same thing and I just wanted to share that. Again I was taught not to speak against anybody’s religion and not to speak against anybody s spirituality or value system. I do try and encourage and to understand the diversity that exists,” Christian stated, adding “Children whose uniqueness and diversity should become an enhancement for the sake of there growth which represents our future.’
*Photo of Tommy Christian – by Harry Koyoma, reside in Billings Montana
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