The ride down Route 14 from Elmira NY to Williamsport, PA on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend was glorious. About ten miles away from my destination, the Little League Museum, I saw a sign: Pow Wow Reenactment. I was running early. I was intrigued. So I navigated my bike down a wooded road to a clearing with dozen tents with folks selling food and memorabilia and a field beyond marked with a large circle. Three men led a parade. One carried an American flag, another a Native American talisman, and a third the POW flag. They proceeded around the circle at a deliberate pace followed by people in various forms of Native American and military dress. Two drum circles, one of men, another of women, alternating setting the cadence. Sometimes the women would chant.
The parade stopped and the leader spoke of military valor. A woman in Native American dress recited Johnny Cash’s “Ragged Old Flag”. They executed a sanctioned flag burning to honor lost veterans. A small group of Revolutionary War era enactors observed form their outpost in the woods. The mash-up of American military and Native American themes confused me.
I approached one of the vendors and asked for explanation of the proceedings. Sandra Lee Foley Hitchcock explained: “There is nothing inconsistent with honoring the Native American and U.S. military traditions. Native Americans have fought as part of the U.S military for years. That makes it part of our tradition.”
Sandra is a Cayuga Indian from Big Flats, New York who makes beautiful leather objects to sell at fairs. We realized that I had ridden past her house on my journey. “We have two acres. We have to own them in order to live off the land, but really, who can own land? It’s a concept that creates so much trouble, yet we do it. We don’t mow our lawn or tend it; we let nature have its way. We have birds and bees and honey and sometimes a mountain lion.”
I ask Sandra how she rationalizes celebrating Memorial Day against what happened to Native Americans in this country. “The way we deal with the genocide is to forgive. The Creator told us to forgive and whoever forgives most gets the most. We acknowledge that we live under the American flag and we honor that flag. Our traditions are not mixed with your traditions. We absorb them both. Our grief is that so many other people deny our culture.
“We honor the seven generations who have come before us. We live to prepare for the next seven generations forward.”
Sandra answered my question, ‘How will we live tomorrow?’ without me asking.
Sandra wanted to give me something for my journey. I pointed to panniers and explained that I’m travelling light. She didn’t heed me. Instead, she selected a small leather pouch with a hummingbird clasp, attached it to a leather cord and put fresh sage inside. “Put this around your neck. It will protect you.” I have worn it every day since. I like having Sandra close to my heart.