Saturday, January 19, 2008

Indian Powwow

On New Year’s Day, 2008, I joined hundreds of Native Americans at the Rillito Race Track in Tucson, to usher in the new year with a Powwow. Several dozen tribes of “Indians” (as they call themselves) were represented, most from the southwestern U.S. but many from Mexico and some from Central and South America.

There was a fancy dance competition extending over several days. “Fancy” is when the performers are dressed in brightly colored regalia including feathers, furs, masks, shells and bells. It is pretty spectacular. Music is mostly tom-tom but sometimes flute and chanting as well.

There were also some serious “ceremonial” dances designed to help the New Year find its feet, I guess, and I was not allowed to photograph those. I’m afraid I did not understand the cultural significance of these dances but admired them nevertheless. They were just as complex as the fancy dancing but less flamboyant and conducted almost naked, which had to be chilly.

I noticed that it was usually the older men who were the expert dancers. Their skill stood out dramatically from the others. They lifted their legs high and stomped the earth like they really meant it. But there were a few young people who were also extremely talented and I was pleased to see that the culture is being effectively transmitted.

There were several tent stalls selling fantastically beautiful jewelry. The silver work is extremely fine. I had to tie my wife down with ropes. There was one Dineh (Navajo) craftsman whose work could be in a museum. I think coral and turquoise are colors that really look wonderful together. The prices were not cheap, it seemed to me: small earrings for $200 and bracelets up to $600. But according to my wife, these were very reasonable prices for fine jewelry such as this was. While I would have liked to have seen some bargains, I’m glad that the crafts people are getting paid what they are worth. They did manage to pry a few bucks out of us.

Other stalls sold Indian blankets, tom-toms, clothing, pillows, toys, knick-knacks, cosmetics and medicines. I especially appreciated the hand-held tom-toms, some of which have a deep, resonant tone with complex overtones. I should have bought one, as they good looking and under $100, but what would I do with it? I listened in on a conversation with an older Indian who was considering buying one. He inquired about the hide, whether it was deer or elk, and how it was scraped and stretched. He listened to the sound and I noticed that after striking the drum he very gently touched his fingernail to the underside of the skin to produce a variety of sounds. Who knew? He didn’t buy at that time though.

We walked around for half a day and enjoyed the sights and sounds. There were quite a few white folks there although mostly Indians. The festival actually went on for ten days with dancing, singing and crafts competition. My feeling was that I had participated in an authentic Indian celebration, not a show-biz representation of an Indian celebration, so I was glad to have experienced the real thing. At the same time, I’m sure with more organization, marketing savvy, and showmanship, this event could be a huge tourist draw for a much wider segment of society, a big money-maker. But then it wouldn’t be real.

(It's a shame I don't understand the dances, but even I could see that this fellow represented death, or ancestors, or possibly even the just-past year, now dead. Notice the skull at the center of the headdress. His white painted face suggests a ghost, and his costume, with the white fringes suggests a skelton. Notice how extremely light he is on his feet, almost floating above the ground, like a ghost. The shell-rattles around his ankles punctuated his every step. The incessant tom-toms put you into a kind of trance until you start to half-believe you are watching a ghost! It was a fantastic performance.)

Here are a few other scenes from the Festival:
This woman was weaving a pattern so fine, I couldn't even see the threads when I looked right over her shoulder!

A very nice tattoo. Looks Mayan to me.

My wife resisting the urge to purchase a leather shawl.

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