Across Cultures

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Student adopted by a Native American tribe after discovering his passion for the culture.

STORY | MIKE DOLZER

PHOTO | HOLLY WARFIELD

As the beat of the Southern drum starts to pulsate, hundreds of people in vibrant outfits boasting feathers and flashy colors break into an upbeat tribal dance. A young boy, viewing this scene from the line, steps into the arena for the first time.

Max Yamane, a senior anthropology major, was culturally adopted into the Lakota tribe, which is mostly located in the Dakotas, at the age of 18. With his cultural adoption came a whole new world of traditional outfits, Native singing and powwows.

Being culturally adopted into a Native family is an uncommon and private process, but Yamane’s journey all started at a Boy Scout meeting when a well-respected Osage man asked if anyone was interested in going to a powwow.

Yamane, who is half Japanese and half Caucasian, says yes.

“I kind of got thrown into the whole shebang,” Yamane says.

Yamane has fond memories of his first powwow in February 2007 at Crossroads Mall in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas. He was decked out in Northern traditional outfit, complete with a bustle of brightly plumed feathers, unbeaded moccasins and a red roach — which Yamane describes as a “mohawk-type thing” — adorned with two eagle feathers.

Despite his authentic garb, he still stood out.

“I felt out of place given I’m not Native,” Yamane says. “It was kind of weird, but the people there made me feel better, made me feel at home.”

At the powwow, he spoke with members of the Navajo, Ponca, Osage, Alabama-Coushatta, Cherokee and Apache tribes to learn as much as he could about Native culture.

“It was something that was very captivating,” Yamane says. “But as I learned the meanings behind the dances and the songs, the more engaged I became.”

When Yamane moved to Virginia to attend JMU, he met Ina, which means ‘mother’ in Lakota, and her biological daughter, Emily. He grew close with the pair very quickly, and Ina offered to culturally adopt Yamane into her family.

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“The adoption for me is very private,” Yamane says. “One day Ina came up to me and says, ‘I’m adopting you as my son,’ and it took off from there.”

Cultural adoption is a personal journey that doesn’t have a specific process. Yamane compares it to a second family in Western society in that they’re treated as family, but they’re not blood relations.

Straddling the line of two cultures has been difficult for Yamane.

“Blood-wise, I don’t consider myself Native American, [but] ethnicity-wise I do, just because I’ve been adopted,” Yamane says. “I have the insider view and all that, but, yeah, there’s been a couple instances where I’ve kinda had an identity crisis like, ‘What am I?’ With my identity, I’m not gonna lie, I still struggle with it.”

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Even though Yamane has hit bumps in his journey, his biological family has supported his cultural adoption. His father was even taken out as a gourd dancer in 2012.

“A gourd dance is a Kiowa warrior-style dance, and you have to be brought out in the proper way,” Yamane says. “He’s an Air Force veteran, so he has that right.”

Yamane’s father has been a large influence on him throughout his life and during his cultural transition into Native American. He dances every time there’s a powwow, even though he has stage-four kidney, lung and bone cancer.

“Whenever I go out into the arena, I think of my dad,” Yamane says. “I think of those people who can’t dance, and hope that I can touch them in some way.”

In the Native culture, actions such as laughter, dancing and singing are good medicine. Yamane himself has had personal experiences with that medicine.

“That good medicine that I was talking about, I truly believe that’s what is happening when I dance,” Yamane says. “I also think about people out there who can’t dance. I kind of ask myself, ‘Who can I touch?’”

The Native culture is central to Yamane’s being, and at times, he’s struggled to connect with it while at JMU.

“It is hard because I get that itch to dance and sing,” Yamane says. “I wish there was a powwow here. At the same time, I’m so busy studying, I don’t get to sing that much. If you ever hear singing around the Quad, that’s just me trying to enjoy my moment of not studying.”

Even when he does get some singing in, he still notes that there’s an overall lack of sensitivity about Native culture in America. Yamane was recently told by someone that he “takes Redskin to a whole ‘nother level.”

“‘Redskin’ is a pretty offensive term, and some people don’t understand why it’s offensive,” Yamane says. “I urge people to ask natives any questions that they have. Don’t necessarily just go with the stereotype. There’s so much more out there to learn, to be exposed to.”

To help spread awareness for Native culture, Yamane performs for music classes at JMU and helped form the Native American Student Union.

“When we’re talking about native cultures, there’s so much diversity, the term Native American doesn’t really give it justice,” Yamane says. “I encourage people to research Native issues, Native rights. Step outside that box.”

While Yamane educates the Harrisonburg community about the Native life, he still brings it all back to dancing.

“My primary reason for dancing is to touch, heal, give that good medicine to those people who need it,” he says.