When Doug Worrell worked in the medical field, continued education courses were a recurrent obligation.
“There was this cultural sensitivity class employees were asked to attend,” he recalls. “One thing that always stuck with me is that to white people, direct lineage is ‘family.’ But in Native culture, when they say ‘family,’ it extends much farther than that.”
Worrell has come to personally understand what family—in the tribal sense—truly is. For more than a decade, he’s traveled Montana (and beyond), visiting powwows and photographing dancers in their regalia. He doesn’t sell these images; he gives them to the dancers, almost always for free. Worrell says it’s a way to give back to the tribes, all of whom have been gracious to him.
“Native American culture is so giving,” he explains, citing several examples.
For one, “giveaways” are a powwow tradition, a special event in which blankets and other goods are distributed in honor of a person or occasion. Often, a prominent member of the tribe will host a free feed, where all are invited to share in a meal together. Hospitality abounds in a variety of ways, and for Worrell, one of the most meaningful gestures has been the sharing of customs and etiquette.
“There are some ceremonies that aren’t to be photographed. You have to know when to put down the camera,” explains Worrell.
The transferring of a headdress is one such ceremony that is to be treated with reverence. Another is an honor dance, in which dancers circle a photo of a recently deceased tribe member. Sometimes family members hold the image of the deceased. For obvious reasons, it would be unethical to snap photos.
It might be less obvious to a newcomer why not to photograph an eagle feather that has fallen off a dancer’s regalia. Eagles are considered sacred, and in fact, tribal members are the only people in the country allowed to legally obtain eagle feathers. If one touches the ground at a powwow, everything stops. The drums fall silent, the dancers are still, and the arena director must find an elder to determine the most respectful course of action to take with the feather. The spiritual nature of such an occurrence deserves respect.
“It’s an aspect you have to learn,” says Worrell, adding that there are many who will gladly explain to you their traditions. “Once they get to know you, you’re treated like one of the family.”
Worrell’s grandson is part Native American— good incentive to explore tribal culture—but he believes it’s valuable for all non-Natives to get a sense of contemporary Native communities. Often non-Natives romanticize Native culture, as if it’s something that was instead of something that is.
“Visit Native Americans and see what they’re truly about,” says Worrell.
You can visit Worrell in Room 207 at the Holiday Inn during the WHA Footprints on the Trail Art Show, March 20-24.