Taking Steps To Celebrate Another Culture

Posted: June 11, 1989

The mystical chants of the Iroquois and Lakota Indians can be heard coming out of the North Wales scout building on Sunday nights.

Inside, young people are dancing in beautifully colored Native American outfits while men sit around a big drum pounding and chanting to entice the dancers into their movements.

The men and young people have no Native American blood but are the members and advisers of Explorers Post 695, a group that travels the East Coast participating in powwows and performing for Boy Scouts, YMCAs and churches.

They are interested in the Indian culture, but they really do it for fun.

"When the drum starts and the singing starts you just become filled with something that defies words. You step back in history and just become part of the experience," said Alan Edwards, who has been involved in Native American groups on and off for more than 30 years and founded the North Wales dance group.

The group makes its own outfits and other props needed to look like authentic Native Americans. It practices at the scout building every Sunday night.

Bob Patyak, an adult adviser, gathers information about Native Americans for the group. Partly as president of the Pennsylvania Indian Hobbyist Association, he has been involved in Native American dance groups for more than 30 years.

No matter how much he studies Native Americans, he said, the group never will be able to understand what Native Americans feel when they dance.

"There is a boundary and you cannot cross over," Patyak said. "We have not lived their lives and have not had the same experiences."

The group began in 1985 when Edwards' Cub Scout pack performed a Native American pageant for parents.

Edwards said the boys and their parents enjoyed themselves so much that they wanted to continue dancing. They began to perform for other Cub Scout packs in the area.

News spread about their dancing, and later that year, they were asked to share their dancing with Boy Scouts from around the country at the National Boy Scout Jamboree in Virginia.

Patyak saw the performance and invited them to join the Pennsylvania Indian Hobbyist Association. The group also decided to switch from a Cub Scout pack to an Explorers Post to allow the girls dancing in the group official membership.

"That invitation was the real birth of the group and they really buckled down and took the thing very serious," Edwards said of the jamboree.

Edwards said that over the years members have spoken to Native Americans on reservations and at powwows.

He said most Native Americans do not mind the group taking an interest in their culture, but they don't want the group to perform without studying and respecting that culture.

"They are looking for any discrepancies and errors," Edwards said. "One wrong move and they feel you are joking and poking fun at them."

Marie Edwards, wife of Alan Edwards, said she and other mothers who had sons involved in the group began to make more authentic outfits rather than order them from factories.

Patyak said the group learned about Native American culture not only from reading books, but also by the visits to the reservations, where the young people dance.

At the powwows, they engage in contests and events, learning new songs and picking up dance steps along the way.

"The music is not written down," Patyak said. "It is orally learned. We take a tape recorder to the powwows, tape the songs and learn them by playing them back and practicing them when they get home."

Most of the songs, he said, have no meaning behind them and are done just for the fun of it. Some of the songs include updated lyrics dealing with such issues as the American flag or war veterans.

But, he said, the songs are done in the traditional manner of the Lakota

from the Northern Plains and the Iroquois from upstate New York. Edwards said Native Americans will not share the more sacred dances and steps with them.

Jeri Patyak, who has been dancing since she met her husband 26 years ago, said the dances are taught to the young people by taking the dance, breaking it down and connecting it to a more contemporary dance step, such as the Charleston.

She said the group is passing on an important tradition: "We're part of living history."

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