The first powwow in the city of Ventura was set to coincide with tribal elder Ed Tepper’s 90th birthday; sadly, after Tepper’s passing last Monday, the springtime powwow must now serve partly as memorial to the Lakota Sioux native.
Tepper was well known within the tribal community and beyond for his lifelong attempts to preserve native culture in the area. Before retirement, Tepper worked as an engineer at Lockheed Martin, where his coworkers would often pass along tribal antiques and relics that were floating around in their families. Serving as something of a consultant for Hollywood depictions of Native Americans, Tepper was often on the receiving end of genuine tribal artifacts after production. All this, coupled with a collection of heirlooms from his mother, enabled him to literally fill a museum with his “life collection.”
Since that museum, located in a store front on Main Street in Ventura, was forced to close last year due to lack of funds, reopening the landmark has become a primary focus for the Brokenrope Foundation, a nonprofit intertribal corporation serving Native Americans. Founding member Carol Anderson reports that the foundation is in the process of signing a lease on a storefront about five doors down from the original location.
“The best way we can honor [Tepper] is to keep his collection available for everyone to learn from, to share. We’ll hold it in trust for him, and we’ll make sure that everyone has access to it,” says Anderson, adding that the collection contains “pottery from 1100 from the Southwest, items from almost everyone of the nine recognized areas, beautiful Apache wedding [regalia], war clubs. He has a good representation of different things throughout the Americas.”
Tepper was the go-to guy for locals, schoolchildren and academics interested in learning about the area’s heritage. Anderson also recalls Tepper’s knack for storytelling. “You’d be sitting there and you’d realize he’d just told you a story! He was just very natural, very engaging, and had a lot of really good information.”
Although next weekend’s festivities will form the first powwow in the city of Ventura proper, the county has always been a vibrant segment of the countrywide powwow circuit. The Native American gathering is traditionally a several-day event, according to Anderson, and is centered around “meeting new friends, seeing old friends, everybody getting together and catching up with everybody and celebrating. It’s out of the Plains Indian tradition. We have a very traditional powwow in the fact that we have the dances and the ceremonies. It’s an experience like what they were doing in the 1700s and 1800s.”
The two-day event — happening Saturday, April 8, and Sunday, April 9 – is a modern compromise in one way: it will end at 6 p.m. on Saturday, and at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. “They can go on all night, let me tell you,” recalls Anderson. “It’s kind of sad that we have to break on Saturday night — that’s usually when things get going! There’s a lot of spirit and a lot of fun.”
This particular powwow is intertribal and open to everyone. Although the event will unquestionably be dampened by Tepper’s absence, the overriding theme is that of celebration — of accomplishment, of age. Current ceremonies represent the dual identity of modern Native Americans: Where warriors would once have been honored, soldiers are similarly recognized in a warrior dance where a red shawl is worn — a shawl which would historically have displayed war honors, and which now may boast medals, honors, and references to army units. “They know they’re fighting for their particular nation, whether it’s Navajo, Apache, Cherokee, but they’re also fighting for America because that’s their country, too,” notes Anderson. This is also a time in the powwow to honor the fallen; next weekend’s event will make mention of one of the Lakota Army rangers who gave his life in Iraq.
But the event is also a celebration of youth. “We have not a break from tradition but a little extension of that honoring,” says Joe Asevedo, Cultural Affairs Attache for Brokenrope, “in honoring the youth … Most powwows have a head woman and a head man and a head youth dancer. We decided to have two [male] youth dancers, and two youth female dancers.”
One of the female dancers will also be presented in a ceremony that is to Native American society what a debutante ball might be to America’s Southern culture. The presentation features gift-giving, a dinner hosted by the woman’s parents and a discussion of the woman’s plans, “basically letting everyone know that she’s becoming a woman,” says Anderson, who notes that the Plains Indians traditionally have “a matrilineal society, and basically women are in charge. The men were to take care of the village, protect the village, take care of everybody.” To that end, “there was nobody in the tribe who was left to fend for themselves, go hungry, and that’s basically what the Brokenrope Foundation is about: we want to make sure everybody has access.”
This youth, cultural, and memorial gathering happens at a time when Brokenrope Foundation, the organizing body, officially sets its roots in the community; having been incorporated for two years, the foundation will be setting up a permanent office in the next couple of weeks. “Ventura was talking about one of their primary goals to the general plan,” says Asevedo, “and one of their primary goals is to keep Ventura a vibrant cultural community and, because of that, we’re right in with our culture, trying to let them see how truly vibrant and cultural this community can be.”
In this way, Anderson says, “Ventura has just been absolutely wonderful in helping us get [the powwow] together.” The mentionable bump in the road was that the planned powwow location in Oxnard did not allow for vendors or overnight stay, but the new location, Arroyo Verde Park, is ideal, according to Anderson.
In addition to shifting the focus of the powwow, the Brokenrope Foundation has also postponed a film screening out of respect for Tepper’s passing. Trespass, a documentary about nuclear testing in the western Shoshone tribal lands and waste disposal on the sacred Yucca mountain, also addresses water pollution and generations of birth defects as a result of uranium mining in the area. The foundation plans to screen this informative film later on as part of an ongoing film festival.
As well as being honored with the other soldiers, World War II veteran Ed Tepper will be represented throughout the ceremony, with one of his family members carrying the eagle staff he would have carried.
“On April the 9th, we would’ve been celebrating his 90th birthday,” Asevedo remarks. “The way it turned out, we have a drum group coming from South Dakota, the Strong Heart Warrior Society, so they’ll be bringing a departure song with them.”
The opening of the powwow is marked by the gourd dance, and a grand entry of dancers is scheduled for 1 p.m. As Anderson explains, “This powwow is going to be a learning powwow so people understand what we’re doing, what the traditions are and why we want to keep them alive.”