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Austin’s Native American communities honor their heritage—virtually

Aztec dancers perform as part of the virtual grand finale of the Sacred Springs Power on Nov. 21.

Normally, the Sacred Springs Powwow draws a crowd of thousands to San Marcos, where it is hosted each year by the Indigenous Cultures Institute.

But this year's event, like so many others, occurred online. Sixty Native American dancers competed via streamed performances on Saturday, and vendors, singers and storytellers submitted videos for the audience to view at their leisure.

"This is historic," Executive Director Maria Rocha told Austonia. "No other powwow is doing a virtual (event)."

Staying connected

The Indigenous Cultures Institute has transitioned its other programs—from its week-summer camp for indigenous youth to its ongoing campaign to rebury ancestors' remains currently held by the University of Texas at Austin—online since the advent of the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected local Native communities.

"Historically, indigenous practices were illegal," Garza said. "That caused some people to maintain their culture and go underground. And it caused other people to erase it."

Keilani Arch | Sacred Springs Powwow 2020 Dance

Only in the last couple generations have Native American cultural practices reemerged, on a public scale, in the U.S. But there are still challenges.

"Even today, we're told, 'But there aren't any Indians in Texas,'" Garza said.

On the contrary, although there are only three federally recognized tribes in the state, Garza estimates that as many as half of Texas Latinos have Native American heritage.

"Their people, our people, have been in Texas for 14,000 years," she said.

Making people aware of this legacy and maintaining indigenous cultural practices, is a work in progress. For example, the institute continues to push for Native American history to be taught in Texas public schools.

"I think that there has always been an effort to teach (this history), but it hasn't expanded visibly to people," Garza said. "Now we're talking about it because we feel that it has to be a visible part of society."

A moment of opportunity

This work may resonate now more than ever given the pandemic, which has exacerbated inequities and prompted a reckoning about systemic racism and other injustices.

Fewer than 1% of Austin residents identify as Native American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But the population has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

In the last two weeks, the local Native American population saw the highest or second highest rate of positive COVID test results of any race or ethnic group, according to Austin Public Health. It remains close to 15%, compared to the overall positivity rate of 6.5%.

(Austin Public Health)

Garza attributed this to the more collective orientation of Native communities, which includes many intergenerational households.

"When you have a lot of people depending on each other … that creates COVID spread because they can't stay isolated," she said.

There are other factors, as well, including higher rates of poverty and a lower likelihood of having health insurance.

Many Central Texas elders have opted to remain at home, despite COVID symptoms, to avoid dying in a hospital alone, Garza added.

But she is hopeful that the pandemic, along with the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, will help increase Austinites' awareness of Native Americans and the issues they face.

"You see the writings of people who are doing academic writings about systemic injustice, and all of them are using the term people of color," she said. "Because we are not just talking about Black Americans. We are talking about all Americans who are not white."


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