TOGUS — Amidst and the drumbeat and dancing, Keith Richards found a family. It came with all the subtlety of a 6-by-6 beam smashing against his head.

“I really can’t describe the feeling,” Richards said of his first American Indian powwow. “It was a weight being lifted off my shoulder.”

Several years removed from the experience the 50-year-old Garland man now moves about in a motorized chair because of deteriorating health, but he continues to make as many powwows in northern New England as he can. This weekend’s ceremonies at VA Maine Healthcare System-Togus, held for decades to honor veterans and their families, is a must for Richards, who served in the Army for two years in the early 1980s.

“It’s like being around family,” Richards said. “This is my adopted family.”

The powwow, which started Friday and wrapped and Sunday, attracted dozens of people, with and without American Indian heritage, to dance and sing in honor of those who have served in the U.S. armed forces. The event was free, but donations were collected to benefit veterans at Togus.

“It’s a means of paying respect to all my brothers and sisters who served their country,” said Steven Hatch of Peru, who served in the Air Force from 1976 to 1990, when he was discharged because of a back injury. The condition has steadily gotten worse, he said.

“I’ve lived with it since 1988,” he said. “It’s just one of the things you get accustomed to.

“I’ve always said pain is in your mind,” Hatch cracked. “Fortunately I have no mind.”

Both Hatch, and his wife, Justina Hatch, grew up in families that didn’t talk much about their heritage, which is Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Cherokee.

“Back in the 1960s you just didn’t do that,” Justina Hatch said.

Looking back, though, Steven Hatch sees his natural talents and interests, like his passion and skill for hunting, were a product of his forefathers.

“You can’t really learn it,” Hatch said. “People can show you how, but unless you have it in you it’s never really 100 percent.”

Richards, too, has American Indian heritage that he knew little of until his awakening at a powwow. He has since been trained in the customs and traditions. Richards describes it as being accepted into the community.

“When I asked questions they answered them,” Richards said. “A number of people took me under their wing. I’ve learned a lot but I’ve got a lot more to learn. Just like everybody else.”

Richards said his beliefs are a way of life.

“It teaches you to appreciate what you have,” Richards said. “Every day is a beautiful day when you wake up on the right side of the grass.”

The appreciation taught in native cultures extends to those who fight for the United States, Steven Hatch said.

“There’s total respect in the culture,” he said. “They don’t have to be native.”

“It’s everybody that has served the country,” Justina Hatch said.

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]


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