- Associated Press - Monday, December 7, 2015

NOBLE, La. (AP) - Rachel Ellen Sage Blanford, 13, was bullied in school. Like many teens, she said the cruelty of her classmates made her feel depressed and “like it was not worth it to be alive.”

Rachel, who has Creek Indian ancestry, discovered a life-saving outlet in fancy shawl dancing. She shared her dancing and her story at a recent Choctaw-Apache Veterans Day pow wow near Noble in early November.

When she’s dancing in a pow-wow circle, her heart pounding with the drumbeat, her steps connecting with the earth and her shawl flowing around her shoulder like wings, Rachel said she can be herself without fear or ridicule.

“I can dance better than I can walk,” Rachel said. “This is what reminds me it’s worth it.”

Studies from the University of Arizona’s Center for American Indian Resilience show Native American youth with strong roots in their cultures have more resilience- the ability to “bounce back” following traumatic of stressful life events.

Jinger Sepulvado, 18, said she had been dancing at pow-wows since she was about four years old. She dances for her ancestors and her loved ones and to help keep the culture of the Choctaw-Apache tribe alive.

“(I dance) to honor all my family and all my ancestors,” Sepulvado said. “I feel very spiritual and enlightened, and I feel like I’m honoring my people.”

Thea Carheel, an 11-year-old member of the Choctaw-Apache tribe, said dancing made her a better person by giving her an outlet for her anger and to help her cope with the loss of loved ones. She dedicated her dancing at the Veterans Pow Wow in Noble to her best friend.

“My best friend died. When I’m out there, I dance for her,” Thea said. “I used to be mean, but every time I come out here I feel proud. I love doing this. It makes me feel important.”

Doug Blanford, Rachel’s father, said dancing helped Rachel cope with his divorce from her mother as well as gave her a place to belong.

“I Have seen the freedom she gets from dancing fancy shawl in the arena,” Blanford said. “That circle is a haven, a shelter, a safe place where she can be herself. That circle helps remind her to be grounded and that she is a blessing.”

Dancing also helped his oldest daughter, Blanford said. At an early age, Mary Kathryn Faustina, now 14, was diagnosed with autism spectrum with pervasive development disorders. Blanford enrolled her in a school designed to help her with her specific challenges and started her into speech therapy. But it wasn’t until Mary Kathryn started jingle dress dancing, at age 5, that Blanford said he noticed a real change.

“A woman a long time ago told us about the power of the jingle dress,” Blanford, also a Christian, said. “We got permission from a woman from the Ojibwe tribe to put her in the dress. That’s when we started seeing huge gains in her development.”

The jingle dress dance originated with the Ojibwe tribe - whose members first settled in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and Ontario - as a medicine dance of prayer and healing. Dancers wear dresses lined with rows of metal cones, originally made from the lids of snuff cans, that sound like falling rain or wind chimes while they dance.

A full jingle dress has 365 cones. Traditionally, the maker of a jingle dress would add one cone, as well as one prayer for the dancer, to the outfit every day for a year. A jingle dress dancer is surrounded by these prayers while she dances, so she can experience her own healing while also being strong enough to lift the pain from others in the pow-wow circle up to the Creator spirit.

Blanford said shortly after Mary Kathryn started jingle dress dancing, she asked to be a princess. Princesses represent their tribes and cities at pow-wows and other cultural events. They have to speak about who they are and what they represent.

Blanford supported his daughter’s dreams despite what he had been told by her specialist, who said Mary Kathryn might not ever be able to be as independent or social as other young adults because of her disability.

“You had a little girl who wasn’t really able to speak. She could speak in words, not full sentences,” Blanford said. “When she put that dress on, it was almost like a superhero thing for her. She would engage in pow-wow circles herself, without having to encourage her.”

While group situations outside pow-wow can still prove challenging for Mary Kathryn, Blanford said the eighth grader is reading at the sixth grade level - huge academic gains from where she started - and is an A-B student who is involved with several clubs at her school.

“The jingle dress showed her that she could do it,” Blanford said. “The dress was the trigger for her to realize her potential.”

Mary Kathryn agreed.

“It let me connect with others,” she said.

Pow-wows are open to dancers from any tribe, as well as the general public. Many tribes in Louisiana hold an annual pow-wow, with smaller pow-wows to commemorate special events such as the Veterans Day pow-wow where the sisters recently danced. Dancers often make intertribal friendships during pow wows, and pow wow grounds also provide a meeting place to connect tribal members with extended family members.

Jayden Wilson, an 11-year-old fancy dancer, said he always meets new people at every pow wow he attends. He’s constantly meeting new members of his family as well. Jayden dances for his family and also for fun. His 8-year-old sister, Mademy, dances as well.

For the siblings’ mother, Candice Wilson, her children’s dancing also helps keep the culture alive.

“They say if you know where you come from, you know where you’re going,” Wilson said. “We keep it close to our hearts. To keep passing the culture down is very important, or otherwise it gets lost.”

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Information from: The Times, http://www.shreveporttimes.com

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