The spirits of warriors

By Ed Brock

Stooping to sight the trail of his enemy, 15-year-old Jake Chappell dances the ancient dance of his ancestors.

Chappell, of McDonough, is a member of the Medicine Boyz Drum & Dance Troup who along with other members of the troup performed for a crowd of soldiers and civilians at Army Garrison Fort McPherson Friday in a celebration of Native American month. He is part Comanche and has been dancing since he was 4 years old.

"It's fun. You can feel it, it's like, spiritual," Chappell said.

Native American month is one of the Army's regular celebrations of the diverse ethnic groups that make up its ranks. Along with the dancing by the Medicine Boyz, the crowd that gathered in Jacobs Park got a taste of Native American foods like fried bread and buffalo stew. They also learned a little about the history of Native Americans in the military who have given their lives in combat from World War II to Iraq where 23-year-old Spc. Lori Piestewa, a Hopi Indian, died in an ambush near Nasiriyah.

The members of the Medicine Boyz represent several Native American nations, including Cherokee, Comanche, Apache and Lakota Sioux, and they have traveled around the United States, having been most recently in Mobile, Ala.

On Friday they performed the Buffalo Dance, Men's and Women's Traditional Dances, the Grass Dance, the Straight Dance and, along with members of the audience, the Round Dance. They came bedecked traditional regalia from headpieces to moccasins.

Eagle feathers are a precious part of the regalia worn by Chappell and the other dancers. Only people with a special permit can own them, Medicine Boyz member R.C. Mowatt told the crowd when describing the dance being performed, and the dancers are taught about the spirit of the eagle.

"Each time an eagle feather has touched the Earth we believe one of our veterans has passed into the spirit world," Mowatt said.

Chappell said Mowatt gave him the eagle feathers that adorn his bustle, a piece of the regalia that hangs from the lower back. It took him a month to make the bustle, Chappell said.

His favorite dance is the Men's Traditional, Chappell said. In the old days the dances were performed after a great hunt or battle.

"We would tell everybody what we did in battle without saying a word," Chappell said.

Chappell's 7-year-old brother Evih Ward is the grandson of another, more modern Native American warrior, said the boy's mother Cheryl Hopkins. The grandfather, Forest Kassanavoid, was a Comanche Code Talker during World War II.

The Comanche Code Talkers were used to pass radio messages in their native tongue that could not be translated by enemy eavesdroppers.

Hopkins said her own interest in dancing and powwows started 12 or 15 years ago when she became involved in a battle to preserve some Native American burial grounds in Georgia. Though her tribe doesn't traditionally hold powwows, at that time the practice was becoming more popular and she met some people involved in powwow groups during her campaign to save the burial sites.

"It was just natural and it felt good and it was a way for me to get involved in my culture that has been suppressed," Hopkins said. "I always give my children the choice to dance or not dance."

Chappell and Ward have embraced the tradition and Hopkins 3-year-old daughter Isabella Diaz joined her mother for a dance or two on Friday.

Friday's event was very enlightening, said Marion Monroe of College Park who works at Fort McPherson.

I think all our children need to be aware of their heritage," Monroe said, adding that most Americans are a mixture of ethnic backgrounds. "We need to be proud of that."