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'Great Diversity Within Diversity'
American Native Heritage Ceremony Invokes Spirit of Healing

By Carla Garnett

Photos by Bill Branson

On the Front Page...

If more people had the agility of body, peacefulness of spirit and enthusiasm of youth that Kevin Locke demonstrated during the recent NIH American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month observance, then perhaps the nation's battles with obesity, stress, hypertension and other health problems might be handily won. Locke, a renowned storyteller and award-winning musician of Lakota and Anishinabe descent who performed the traditional Hoop Dance on Nov. 13 at NIH's third annual celebration of Native American history, said much about a healthy life can be learned from the centuries-old customs of American Indians.


Kevin Locke performs the traditional Hoop Dance.

Locke, who hails from Standing Rock Reservation in Wakpala, S. Dak., also presented a musical slide show, which he accompanied by playing the Northern Plains flute, an instrument indigenous to several Native American peoples.

Frank GrayShield (Washoe) of NHLBI, president of the NIH American Indian/Alaska Native Employee Council (AIANEC), offered welcoming remarks before the White Oak Singers, a four-man Northern Plains-style drum group formed in White Oak, Md., performed the opening Flag Song; the song is used customarily to open American Indian ceremonies, in a manner similar to the U.S. National Anthem.

"Grand Father, thank you for this beautiful day," said Clayton Old Elk (Crow) of the Indian Health Service, who offered the opening and closing invocations in both his first language, Crow, as well as English. "In this season of thanksgiving, we thank you for all the things you have given us and we ask your blessing on this institution that is very important...There are many illnesses across the country, not just among Native Americans and native people, but among all people; find the cures and the resources for them to live in a good world and a better way... We ask for blessings for our tribal leaders and our healers."

At left, Clayton Old Elk of IHS addresses the audience; at right, NIH deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington lauds NIH diversity.

Introducing Locke as a cultural ambassador, Rick Harrison of NIDA put the upcoming dance performance in context. "The Hoop Dance is much more than entertainment," he said. "It represents unity, overcoming struggle, growth and world vision."

A former schoolteacher who has traveled to more than 80 countries, educating people about the traditions of his ancestry, Locke said, "I really believe that all peoples have wonderful gifts, wonderful contributions to make towards the emerging global civilization."

He said the citizens who live in the small region of Wakpala suffer from "runaway diabetes" and a number of other health problems, many of which can be attributed to what he labeled "social decay." Wakpala has an unemployment rate of about 80 percent.

The White Oak Singers provide rhythms and music in the Northern Plains drum style.

"What can we do to restore the balance?" he wondered aloud, explaining that back home, prayers in the local language often describe living a good, healthy life as "walking the red road of life — the road of harmony, balance and healing."

Starting the day with an invocation, Locke added, "is central to any gathering of the indigenous people of this land. It is an acknowledgment, a recognition of the need to establish a spiritual foundation and that the only way to build anything else is from that foundation."

With rhythms and music provided by the White Oak Singers, Locke performed a series of dance maneuvers using first a few and then all 28 flexible hoops, which are colored red, black, yellow and white to represent different peoples of the world. Constantly in motion — sometimes on only one foot — he used his limbs and the rings to form such various shapes as flowers, wings, trees and a globe. As each shape developed, the audience applauded and cheered.

Hoop Dancer Kevin Locke uses his limbs and the rings to form wings and a globe.

"Heritage includes many things we pass along from one generation to another," pointed out NIH deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington, speaking on behalf of NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni. "We also call it culture, and that in turn may include language, the foods we eat, the way we worship, ethnicity, rituals, manners, songs and dances."

Kington, whose great great-grandmother was Cherokee and who grew up hearing stories about her passed from generation to generation, pointed out that celebrating the heritage of the many different communities among American Indians and Alaska Natives lets us see "one of the best examples of the notion that there is often great diversity within diversity."

In addition to the previously named elements of heritage that are shared across cultures, he said, another important component should be added, one that makes the others possible — health.

"Without good health we have no heritage," he said, explaining that illness can cripple "the means of passing on our heritage, our physical bodies."

Locke is also an award-winning flutist.

Kington noted two equally important reasons that NIH supports heritage observances: to recognize the contributions of American Indian and Alaska Native NIH'ers and to acknowledge the agency's tremendous commitment to finding cures and treatments for the many ailments disproportionately affecting those populations. Among such efforts are NIDDK's Diabetes Prevention Program with Pima, Zuni and Navaho participants; NHLBI's Strong Heart Study with 13 tribes in Arizona, Oklahoma and North and South Dakota; NEI's research on the genetics of corneal eye disease in Alaska Natives; and the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities' projects to increase the number of American Indians and Alaska Natives pursuing careers in medical research.

"Just as the NIH is proud of you and your contributions as individual men and women," Kington told the Natcher audience, "we are also proud of progress we are making in improving the health and thus the heritage of American Indians and Alaska Natives."

During a reception following the program, Locke greeted well-wishers and signed posters and programs.

During a reception following the program, Locke greeted well-wishers and signed posters and programs. The annual observance was organized by AIANEC and sponsored by the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management and 18 NIH institutes and centers.

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