Navajo woman sustains culture through community service
By Coleman Cornelius | Photographs by Mary Neiberg
Several times a year, Jan Iron and her family members visit Northern Colorado schools, museums, and events to share their Native American culture. Iron, a Navajo woman, introduces herself in Diné bizaad, the language of her ancestors. According to Navajo custom, established over a millennium in the Monument Valley region of the Colorado Plateau, she names the four clans from which she descended.
Red House. Water Flows Together. Red Streak into the Water. Red Streak into the Water.
That her introduction takes a full 15 seconds – seven times longer than, “Hi, I’m Jan Iron” – reminds audiences about the longevity of Native Americans in spaces many Anglos now dominate.
The introduction is emblematic: Iron’s efforts as a cultural connector compose an honor song for her people, a tribute to family, history, faith, language, story, and tradition. Through years of community service, Iron has become an unofficial leader in Northern Colorado’s Native American community. She dedicates time to powwow planning, cultural education, gathering holiday gifts for Indian families in need, and supporting Native students attending Colorado State University.
No matter her daily agenda, Iron, a Colorado State alumna and employee, works to celebrate and preserve Native American heritage. She understands the peril of past tense.
“People think of us as a part of history. You know, Native Americans ‘were,’” Iron, who grew up on the Navajo reservation near Shiprock, N.M., said.
“When we visit schools, I ask kids, ‘Who loves hanging out with their friends? Who loves playing football or video games?’ I say, ‘My grandkids love doing the same things you do. We’re part of the community, just like you,’” Iron said. “It’s a way to honor our ancestors and what they went through to survive and pass on traditions. You want to make an impact, especially on kids, and you hope that, as adults, they keep that impression and don’t think about our people in a negative way.”
Her focus on connections is significant for the Native community, as well.
For nearly 27 years, Iron has served as president of the Northern Colorado Intertribal Powwow Association, organizing sponsor of the annual Spring Powwow and Indian Market in Fort Collins. She works with a tightknit group of volunteers and is the driving force behind a public event that last April attracted about 300 Native American dancers and singers and three dozen vendors. The dancers ranged from preschoolers to elders and represented nearly 50 tribes.
The Fort Collins powwow is neither the oldest nor the largest in the state; that distinction belongs to the well-known Denver March Powwow, entering its 45th year. Yet the Northern Colorado event is no less culturally significant, especially in a state where American Indians and Alaska Natives make up 1.6 percent of the total population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The implications of that slim accounting – a grim contrast to centuries preceding the Indian Removal Act, westward expansion, and Manifest Destiny – faded last spring as powwow master of ceremonies Corky Old Horn, of the Crow tribe in Montana, called dancers to the first grand entry.
“It’s a feeling of happiness and gratitude to see the procession of dancers come into the circle. All the different tribes come in together. It’s like we’re all one,” Old Horn, a longtime powwow announcer, said. “Today is going to be a good day.”
As dancers queued, Iron adjusted a beaded crown atop the head of her 14-year-old granddaughter, Amaya Quintana, 2017-2018 princess of the Northern Colorado Intertribal Powwow Association. Iron checked that the teenager had her sacred fan of eagle feathers, beaded purse, and fringed shawl. She wordlessly collected the girl’s cellphone.
To thundering drumbeats and singing, fast-stepping dancers entered the arena and formed interlocking circles. The dancers became a kinetic prayer, a concentrated swirl of jingle dresses and feathered bustles. Their regalia included floral beadwork, elk teeth, feather hackles, otter pelts, flowing ribbons, and headdresses made with deer-tail and porcupine hair.
Iron stood behind Old Horn, watching the grand entry. The theme of last spring’s gathering was “Our Youth, Our Hope, Our Future.” As Iron contemplated the youngest dancers, the tiny tots still honing their hops into powwow footwork, tears welled in her eyes and flowed down her cheeks.
“Our history is so horrible that it’s special, it’s a blessing today, to see our children dancing,” said Iron, whose mother and sisters were forbidden to speak their Native language in boarding school. “They tried everything to change us, to kill us off. So it really means a lot to see the little ones dancing. It’s our responsibility to teach children, so they can carry it on.”
This mission was personal for Iron and her family in April: Her youngest granddaughter, Mistyrose Iron, was welcomed with prayer and ceremony into the powwow dancing circle, opening the door to a lifetime of participation. Not yet 2 years old, the little girl wore a handmade bonnet and dress, grasped her parents’ hands, and toddled in beaded moccasins around the arena followed by elders, well wishers, and maternal grandparents visiting from the Cree Nation of Canada.
For Iron, the initiation represented the mending of a frayed chain, the promise of a cultural future.
“The powwow is for our kids,” she reiterated. “Our ancestors went through so much. The government tried to strip our ways, and somehow we maintained them. This is something the Creator gave our people. The main purpose behind this is so our kids can learn and carry on these ways when we’re gone. As parents, it’s our responsibility to provide opportunities like this.”
Iron, who was co-valedictorian of her high school class, has lived in Fort Collins since 1980, when she and a cousin arrived to attend Colorado State University. The two connected with CSU’s Native American Cultural Center and signed on to make fry bread during the first campus powwow, now in its 37th year and sponsored each fall by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.
Iron, a first-generation college student, graduated in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in social sciences. Through college jobs, she had gained solid office and computer skills; after graduation, she took additional classes in computer programming and database management, leading to her career as an information technology specialist for the Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station on campus.
But as a young working mom in Fort Collins, Iron felt a cultural void. She turned to her husband, Bob Iron, for advice about starting a powwow. He is a disabled combat veteran of the Vietnam War with Pawnee and Crow heritage; he grew up in Oklahoma, dancing, drumming, and singing at powwows.
“I knew it would be important for those of us who live here, not just students who pass through here,” Iron recalled.
As president of the powwow’s sponsoring organization, she and fellow officers have wide-ranging and year-round responsibilities, from soliciting $40,000 in annual sponsorships to ensuring that the volunteer kitchen staff has adequate oil for fry bread.
“Yá’át’ééh abiní,” Iron greeted event volunteers last spring, wishing them good morning as she hurried to oversee dancer registration and organize gifts for special guests.
“She’s done a lot to bring the Native community together. I can’t grasp the magnitude of responsibility she puts on herself,” said Nicole Rockwell, 32, Iron’s oldest daughter, who has received her mother’s attention and support while recently undergoing treatment for breast cancer. “There’s a lot I’ve learned from her. I’m in awe of her patience and open heart.”
From the beginning, Iron has emphasized the intertribal aspect of the spring powwow in Fort Collins. This spirit of inclusion, she said, was inspired by the Council Tree, an enormous Plains cottonwood that stood near Boxelder Creek and the Poudre River, on what is now the city’s far southeast side. In the years before whites fully settled the area, the tree was a landmark and a gathering and trading point for the Arapaho and several other tribes.
The philosophy attracts people like John Emhoolah, 89, a respected Arapaho and Kiowa spiritual elder who co-founded the Denver March Powwow. He is an adviser to the Kiowa Gourd Clan, custodian of the reverential gourd dance that honors warriors and, at many modern powwows, U.S. military veterans. Emhoolah, a Korean War combat veteran and close friend of the Iron family, traveled to Fort Collins from his home in Thornton for the gourd dance and powwow.
“This is very meaningful for me,” he said, “because these songs come from my people.”