Celebrating American Indian culture at Livermore’s Bankhead
By Lou Fancher
For nearly four decades, the nobility and immediacy of American Indians have been central in the the life and lessons of Mary Puthoff.
“Everybody thinks we’re dead and gone,” says the longtime Livermore resident and educator. “People still think Indians are mascots for sports teams, or crazy Halloween outfits, which are cultural appropriation that dehumanize Native Americans. It leads to Indian children having low self-esteem.”
Puthoff for 39 years has led Livermore’s Native American Center, the efforts of which work most directly through the American Indian Education Program offered in the Livermore Valley Unified School District. The Title VII federal program brings educational, cultural and scholarship opportunities to American Indian students.
The center is open to the public and features classes and workshops, a library and a collection of Indian artifacts and crafts. Student outreach activities include visits to powwows and historic sites. A Native American Dance Group led by Puthoff performs traditional dances at schools and community events like the second annual Native American Day Celebration Sept. 22 at Bankhead Theater Plaza.
Sponsored by the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center and Western States Arts Federation and organized in collaboration with Puthoff, the event offers irrefutable evidence that Native Americans are alive and thriving.
The two-hour celebration will feature a 20-foot Lakota teepee, dance performances, drumming demonstrations and craft projects. Materials will be supplied to make cornhusk dolls, dream catchers and beaded chains. A display of artifacts will include American Indian foods such as potatoes and corn.
“The Indian idea is that if you take anything from the land, you use all of it,” says Puthoff, referring to the historical basis for the making of corn husk dolls. “With animals used for food, the hide and everything is put to use. With plants, you only take part of it so it can continue to grow. You make sure you’re not wasteful: you eat the corn and use the husks for craft.”
Puthoff says that because American Indians knew Earth is round, unlike Europeans, they have long believed in the circularity of everything.
“The Earth is our home, and we’re not treating it well. White men have lived here (in North America) for less than 500 years, and Earth is dying. Indians lived here for thousands of years and didn’t destroy anything,” Puthoff says. “The standoff at Standing Rock was the first time some people saw there are Indians trying to befriend the land and fight off evil forces. It let people know that Indians are still here today.”
Rather than dispute the details or over-focus on negatives, Puthoff chooses to spread the word about the wonders of American Indian history.
“We’ve expanded the program to Dublin, Castro Valley and Pleasanton. We have about 400 students involved overall.”
Involvement includes $500 scholarships given each year to five students, most often applied to college or university tuition or vocational training.
“We look to see if they need the help because they are low-income. We use as criteria whether or not the support will help their education or job skills.”
As a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, Puthoff prefers the word, “Lakota.” The word “sioux” is a term given by white settlers to the tribe. “It means ‘snake’ and has a negative connotation,” she explains. “Lakota means ‘friend’ or ‘ally’ and is an Indian term.”
Her favorite lesson for students is a simple one: “I love bringing to children the idea that you cannot buy the land. This is what caused the trouble with Europeans when they came in and stole the land. To Indians, land is like the air you breathe: you can’t buy it.”
At powwows she attends with students, she joins the competitive Golden Age dance group (all older than 65) and wears homemade, traditional outfits.
“It’s a wonderful way to live your life because you have a big family to associate with. We have kids from over 100 different tribes, just in Livermore.”
This year, LVPAC steps up its involvement In Native American Day with an evening performance at Bankhead Theater and student workshops led by American Indian flutist R. Carlos Nakai. Following the pioneering wood flutist’s performance Sept. 21 with guitarist William Eaton and drummer Will Clipman, Nakai will visit Livermore school district students in grades four through 12.
LVPAC Education Programs Manager Kiran Guleria says the annual celebration of Native American Day was initiated in recognition of the increasing cultural diversity of the Tri-Valley region.
“The goal (is) to build cultural education and awareness through free programs in the community. The California Department of Education has recognized September as Native American Awareness month so this particular event was timed to honor the day with the local community.”
Livermore Mayor John Marchand this year will present a proclamation recognizing the event and Livermore’s American Indian tribes that include primarily Ohlone, Miwok and Yokuts.