Native Customs Gatherings: Visitors to the Southwest can get acquainted with American Indians at powwows, fairs and dances.


Neatly lettered signs along the highways that sweep through the Southwest announce the boundaries of 50 Indian reservations, each a distinct and thriving nation within a larger nation. Other signs advertise Indian-run casinos, galleries overflowing with Indian artwork and cafes selling Indian food. At highway rest areas, quiet children sell cedar-bead necklaces at homemade stands.

Many Native Americans in the Southwest still live in their sacred homelands, though their cultures continue to change and adapt. Yet, to non-Indians, citizens of these reservations remain largely a mystery, a people shrouded in centuries-old stereotypes and misconceptions.

The best way for a non-Indian traveler to reach past the old romanticism and the new gloss of franchise culture to the heart of what it means to be an American Indian is to venture into gatherings of native people.

At these public occasions -- powwows, fairs and dances -- nearly all Southwestern tribes welcome outsiders. It is said that the power of dances and prayers increases with the numbers of people of good heart attending. Conversations start easily -- over food, crafts or kids. Prepare to be teased and joshed, too, for Indian people do not live up to their stoic stereotype. They don't worry about being politically correct either; nearly everyone uses the old term "Indian" without apology.

Whatever the event, the People (as the members of nearly every tribe call themselves) treasure what they describe to outsiders as "Indian doings." Pride in ethnicity and a sense of connection to ancestors make these the grand events of Indian country.

Powwows often are the easiest entry point for outsiders. Flamboyant and seductive, the powwow is an intertribal melting pot. A Plains Indian tradition, these celebrations of dance, song, costume, family, military service, patriotism and community now occur wherever American Indians live; these celebrations are crucial for urban Indians far from their own tribal traditions but in need of some way to nourish their ethnicity.

In the Southwest, powwows often occur in conjunction with more traditional gatherings, like the June Ute Mountain Bear Dance in Towaoc, Colo., or the initiation into adulthood of young Mescalero Apache women at their July 4 Rodeo in Mescalero, N.M.

At powwows, family pride spills over into stories. At one dance, Mike Santistevan, a young Southern Ute, showed me his heirloom beaded belt, worn by Chief Antonio Buck in a Sun Dance almost a century ago.

Be inconspicuous, dress modestly, but sit as close as you can to the dancers and the drum groups, close enough to feel the swish of the fringes and the rhythm of the drum. That drumbeat is the heartbeat of the Earth, transporting dancers and watchers into a realm of joy, uniting them with the powers of land and animal and spirit.

Watch the dancers' Grand Entry from high seats in an indoor arena or in the makeshift stands at an outdoor powwow, beginning with flags, an honor guard and powwow "princesses," a competitive honor for young women. Dancers move to the elemental thrum of the bass drum struck in unison by the drum group, who also sing in falsetto chorus.

The men dancers lead, their attire matching their specialty: buckskins and beads of traditional dancers, bustles and roached hair of fancy dancers and acrylic-dyed yarn fringes of gyrating grass dancers.

Women come next; some wearing traditional costumes with extraordinary beadwork. These women dance with great dignity, while others take flight as fancy dancers with shawls swirling and still others move with the sensuous tinkle of jingle dancers, wearing rows of metal cones shaped from the lids of chewing tobacco cans.

Dancers may compete for prize money, but most come for the camaraderie and sense of spiritual elation. This becomes apparent when thousands of Indian people from around the country fill the huge basketball arena at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque at the annual Gathering of Nations Powwow in April -- one of several powwows claiming to be the biggest of all.

Combination festival

In the Southwest, many tribes -- especially the more dispersed peoples like Navajo, Ute and Apache -- have incorporated

powwows into their annual tribal fair, a combination of carnival midway, tribal dance, entertainment, rodeo and harvest festival.

Fairs typically happen in spring or fall. More tribally specific than powwows, they provide another entry point for non-Indians visiting Indian country.

Biggest by far is the Navajo Nation Fair, held each September in Window Rock, Ariz. It attracts 200,000 people, some 85 percent of them Navajo. Leo Watchman Jr., manager of the 1996 fair, sums up the spirit of the event as, "crowds and smiles."

"The fair is a chance to see Navajo people at their best," says Jonathan Dover, a Navajo security officer along the midway. The same could be said for each tribe and its fair.

Last September, the Navajo Nation Fair marked its 50th anniversary, beginning with a parade. Thousands of people lined the route -- one of the world's largest gatherings of American Indian people and "very much for tourists," Watchman says.

Each of the fair events has a distinctly Navajo twist. The Miss Navajo Nation contest, which runs throughout the fair, includes standard Miss America-style categories like evening gowns and knowledge of current events. The four contestants for Miss Navajo Nation 1996 also were judged on frybread making and sheep butchering.

The fair's climax, the Night Performance on the last evening, "is the place to start sharing different cultural perspectives," according to Mae Myron, one of the performance's organizers. Apache Mountain Spirit dancers, the Gaan, energize the arena, leaping dramatically before huge bonfires. Pueblo dancers, Aztec dancers from Los Angeles and Los Voladores -- fliers from Mexico who twirl from the top of a high pole -- come to join the

troupes of traditional Navajo dancers.

A tribal fair may seem like just another state fair, albeit one attended mostly by Indian people. But whatever their ethnicity, fair-goers comfortable with "crowds and smiles" share common ground, and this breaks down barriers, creating a way in for travelers.

Historic dances

Closer to the heart of Indian Country are the sacred dances. Many tribes perform ancient rituals in private. Others, like the Yaqui of southern Arizona, dance publicly as deer dancers, Pascolas -- the "ritual hosts" of the fiesta -- and the Mexican-influenced matachini, but demand great respect from outsiders, almost always prohibiting photography.

Pueblo people still dance in village plazas as they have since Pueblo people were known as the Anasazi, dancing in prehistoric cliff dwellings. Today, 30 Pueblo communities are scattered between Taos, N.M., and northern Arizona's Hopi Mesas.

Around Santa Fe, the Pueblos closest to non-Indian towns took their most sacred dances underground centuries ago, away from the eyes of inadequate understanding. Social dances often remain open; the most predictable ones occur on the Feast Day of the village's patron saint.

Always ask tribal officials before bringing out a camera. Some New Mexico pueblos allow photos for a fee. But so many tourists have defied the decades-old ban on photography at Hopi kachina dances (more properly called kat-sinas), that Hopi people now often close dances to outsiders.

Each village makes its own rules, however, so when you visit the Hopi mesas, inquire at the village Community Development Office. You may come at a lucky moment and be invited to share one of the continent's most profound experiences -- a religious tradition deeply rooted in time and place.

New Mexico's largest pueblo, Zuni, also dances for all humanity -- to restore harmony. Joe Herrera, Cochiti Pueblo artist, sums this up for all Pueblos and all traditional dances: "We do it for the whole universe."

Zuni leaders reluctantly limit non-Indian visitors to dances in order to safeguard religious well-being and privacy -- but always ask, for the rules change.

Towering dancers

I remember my own visit to Zuni for the midwinter house-blessing, the night dance of the towering Shalako katsinas. I walked around the village in frosty darkness, stopping to warm myself by a fire in a generous Zuni's front yard. The stars were brilliant, the air brittle with cold.

In the darkness beyond, two katsinas rustled by, their ruffs of raven feathers stiff beneath domed and beaked heads, the swing of embroidered kilts and the soft clatter of rattles marking their passage. These two War Brothers of the nadir and zenith brandished swords of green yucca leaves, menacing anyone who dared to fall asleep.

The warrior katsinas entered the nearby Shalako house and as the door opened, a shaft of white light leaped out across the packed earthen yard. I glimpsed close-packed Pueblo, Navajo and Anglo bodies -- all dwarfed by the 10-foot Shalako dancing behind them, an immensely powerful and appealing being with wide eyes, buffalo horns and an eagle-feather headdress.

The open door let out a gust of warm, stuffy air laden with the smell of roast mutton, a phrase or two of drumbeat and chant, the clacking of the great Shalako's beak. Then the door closed and the bonfire leaped up to the stars.

Whether witnessing an age-old ceremony unique to one culture, sharing a meal at a tribal fair picnic table, or sitting next to a family watching their young ones dance in an intertribal powwow, I feel pride and warmth coming from Southwest Indian people. They struggle with a myriad of social and economic challenges, but they know who they are, they know where their home is and they feel their link to their past.

They are not the "vanishing people." They are still here -- fierce in their belief that families and land and heritage matter. With an open mind, non-Indians can share their pride, their joy and their power. This gives me hope for our future together in this American land, home to us all.

If you go ... Gallup, N.M.: Twenty-five miles from Window Rock; call Gallup Visitor's Bureau: (800) 242-4282; (505) 863-3841.

Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial: Held annually on the second weekend in August at Red Rock State Park, Gallup; (800) 233-4528; (505) 863-3896.

Gathering of Nations Powwow: April, Albuquerque, N.M.; (505) 836-2810.

Mescalero Apache Girls' Puberty Ceremonial and Rodeo: July 4th weekend, Mescalero, N.M.; (505) 671-4494.

Navajo Nation Fair Office: Box 2370, Window Rock, Ariz. 86515; (520) 871-6478; (520) 871-6729 (fax).

Navajo Nation Inn: The one motel in Window Rock, generally booked a year in advance for fair week. Call anyhow; you might call just after a cancellation. (800) 662-6189 or (520) 871-4108; (520) 871-5466 (fax).

O'odham Tash: In February, on the weekend before Presidents Day, the southern Arizona Pima and Tohono O'odham tribes join forces with the businesses of Casa Grande, Ariz., for a Sonoran Desert Indian Fair and parade; (520) 836-4723.

Pueblo dances: Scheduled throughout the year; consult the schedule of events in New Mexico Magazine or call the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center at (505) 843-7270; the Hopi Cultural Center at (520) 734-2401; and the Zuni Pueblo Department of Commerce at (505) 782-4481.

Ute Mountain Ute Bear Dance and Powwow: Towaoc, Colo., early June; (970) 565-3751.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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