Native dancer shares Pokagon heritage with pupils

Published 9:03 am Saturday, November 27, 2004

By By MARCIA STEFFENS / Niles Daily Star
EDWARDSBURG - As her moccasined feet lifted off the floor, Raechel Topash Tone turned and twirled to the music of drum music, as she presented Native American traditions to students at Edwardsburg Primary School Friday.
Her Native American ancestry comes from her father Tom Topash, though her mother Cheryl (Walshleger) Topash of Dowagiac, quickly learned the crafts and helped her daughter with making her native outfit, complete with exquisite bead work.
Tom, who retired two years ago, was a principal and also taught in Berrien Springs and Niles, at Eastside and Ring Larder.
Since so many children asked Raechel what it was like, "back in the old days," to live in a wigwam, she now brings to her talks an old black and white photograph of her great-great-great-grandmother.
She explains to the students that the generations of her relatives, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, in this Southwestern Michigan area didn't live in teepees, as did the American Indians in the west. Nor did they wear huge headdresses of feathers, which would have gotten caught in the many trees which covered this land.
Turned she showed a few feathers placed in her hair, along with a bit of fur. She wears otter, as this animal was her childhood symbol, as she loved to play in water. When she was about 12, she received a new very long name, which means "light of day woman," due to her sunny personality.
Her family name, of the Bear Clan, uses a mirror image of an oak leaf, which was shown on her shawl. Her brother's childhood name changed from "turtle boy" to deer, when her lost his slow ways.
The children especially enjoyed feeling a strip of otter, which she passed around the classroom, along with a beaded barrette.
She didn't pass the Black Ash basket made by her late aunt, Angie Topash of Dowagiac, though, but she explained how the strips would be soaked in water and bent, sometimes colored with natural dyes.
Holding her shawl, the symbol of comfort and a mother, "the caretakers of the earth," Raechel said her dance is more "flashy and showy" than many others. To the students, the dance "cements in their mind" her talk and gives the youth a "future reference" when they are studying about Native Americans.
Besides these school presentations, also given to scout troops and at churches, Rachel attends area Pow Pows, where they participate in actual dance competitions.
Raechel's friend and former high school classmate, Stephanie Burkett, a first grade teacher at Edwardsburg Elementary, brought Raechel out of semi-retirement, since the birth of her children, Gabriel, four and a half and Lillian, two and a half.
She had been educating groups on native crafts and traditions with her father since she was about six-years-old when they began living a traditional life.
The major difference from her non-Native American friends, was her "closeness to nature." She explained "you find your spirit in the earth." For example, when she sees a hawk in flight, to her it is "a spirit carrier - it's part of my life."
Formerly of Berrien Springs, where her mother is a first grade teacher, Raechel and her husband Joseph Tone now live Marcellus, where she is a Mary Kay consultant.
Her sister Chenoa works for Disney in California and another, Andrea, teaches Spanish at the University of Notre Dame. Her brother Michael is studying at Michigan State University.
Like other Americans, this Native American family will be celebrating Thanksgiving with the traditional turkey with all the trimmings, "but with a little more smugness," she added.