Dancing Native

It’s State Fair time again!

This past Saturday, Jim and I made our first trip to the Fair.  Last year I

Homie Dancer

wandered on about the Fair  (see “Fair Wanderings” 9-15-10 if you’d like a larger glimpse of the New Mexico State Fair).  This year, I want to focus in on a particular event I enjoyed a great deal.

As most of you probably already know, New Mexico is a state that encompasses many living cultures.  In addition to the Anglo and the Spanish, numerous American Indian tribes make their homes within the state’s extensive borders.  The State Fair acknowledges these nations in several ways.  The two most obvious are the Indian Arts building and the Indian Village.

You enter the Indian village through an elaborate entry framed by two pillars of rough stone slab Chacoan-style masonry.  (The residents of Chaco Canyon were Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloan people.)    Past these pillars are a number of structures reflecting the varied cultural types.   A very large tepee and a Navajo hogan balance each other on one end of the central plaza.  The edges of the area are framed with structures reminiscent of the adobe homes of the various pueblo peoples.

The term “village” may mislead first-timers into thinking they’re going to see one of those recreationist sites beloved of tourism departments.  The State Fair’s Indian Village is no such thing.  Rather than preserving cultures gone by, it is a showcase for living and breathing societies.

Nowhere else is this more apparent than the central dance ground, where every day different tribes take center stage to show their dances to any and all, usually to the accompaniment of live music and singing.  Many of these dances have traditional roots, but they have evolved over time and so keep pace with their people’s cultural worlds.

Last Saturday, just by chance, Jim and I wandered in when  Native Wisdom (a Powwow Dance Group) were in the middle of its performance.  A handsome young man in a costume well-ornamented with feathers was just finishing his piece and the M.C. (Chucki Begay) was starting to introduce  a mature woman who was going to demonstrate two versions of a woman’s dance.

Mr. Begay didn’t just name the dance and leave those of us from outside his culture to wonder what was going on.  He explained the significance of the costume the woman – his wife, as he let us know three or four times with evident pride – was wearing, explaining that the large white pendants were elk teeth, telling us the necklace she wore had come to be known as a woman’s breastplate, and other such interesting details.

Well, we’d come in to browse the booths that lined the dance ground, but I made a beeline to where I could see the dance and quite happily settled in to watch.  By the standards of European dance traditions, American Indian dances can seem very staid.  However, their measured steps hold a dignity that often gets lost when dance has turned into nothing more than acrobatics or mating rituals set to elaborate music.

The music for this performance was supplied by Chucki Begay singing, accompanying himself with measured beats on a drum.  I watched,  delighted and transfixed, as both the  “Woman’s Standing” dance, then its later form, the  “Woman’s Walking” dance, unfolded .  When the performance was ended, a young man came out to do the “Grass Stomping Dance.”   This is a dance that, with almost post-modernistic sensibility, recalls the labor involved in the preparation of a dance ground.  Again, the dancer’s movements were minimalistic but eloquent.  I could easily see which motions were stomping down the tall grass and which indicated the more demanding job of flattening gopher tunnels.

After this,  Native Wisdom announced they were going to do a two-step dance.  Traditionally, this is a dance where the woman invites the man to join her.  If he refuses, he has to pay a forfeit.  With a lot of teasing reminders to the ladies that this was their chance, Native Wisdom invited members of the audience to take part.   I thought about asking Jim to dance, but he’s pretty shy about such.   Since he’d already paid for the parking, I thought he was out enough in the way of forfeits.   I also wasn’t sure whether my lack of knowledge of the steps would be disrespectful.

However, several people from the audience did take up the invitation.  Some of these were Native Americans, but many were not.  My favorite was the very, very tall, thin cowboy who solemnly escorted his very tiny – maybe three-year-old daughter – around the circle to a measured two-step beat.

The final part of the performance was a “Friendship Circle” dance.  Again, members of the audience were invited to take part.  This time, more people came out.  Two little girls – about six or eight years-old – hurried out to stand next to the beautiful young woman dancer.  Their gazes wide and adoring, they each took one of her hands.    Others, young and old, of all  races, came out to join the circle.

Then, when the space was almost filled, a young Native American boy in his late teens or early twenties, bare to the waist, clad in classic urban “homie” garb, including precariously drooping trousers and pork-pie hat, came vaulting out.  His naked upper body was liberally tattooed.  In every way, he was the antithesis of the elaborately costumed dancers.

How would Chucki Begay and Native Wisdom take this?   I held my breath.  Then Chucki Begay laughed loudly and said, “That’s right, Homie.  Come on and dance.”  When the circle came around to our side, I saw that the largest of the young man’s tattoos proudly announced “Native” across his lower back.

I found myself grinning ear to ear…  This was exactly what the Indian Village should be: a living, breathing place, reflecting New Mexico’s living breathing cultures, proof that change is no reflection of lack of pride in where you come from.

It’s a good thing to remember…  Maybe next year, I’ll get out there and join the dance.

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7 Responses to “Dancing Native”

  1. Dominique Says:

    I think without even meaning to, you gave away a lot about yourself in this blog Jane, a small window into your soul if you will 🙂

  2. Ann M Nalley Says:

    This reminded me so much of the Unity Dance in CHANGER’S DAUGHTER! Chuki Begay and Native Wisdom had the great insight to realize that when someone reaches out to us in a gesture of friendship, one does not judge by appearance, but accepts the outstretched hand! It made me smile inside and outwardly to read this! Thank you for your vivid description of the Indian Village and the dances/dancers. I felt as if I was there watching myself. I assume Jim took the photo? Great shot!

    • janelindskold Says:

      Wow! You must be a long-time fan to know “Changer’s Daughter” as the title for the book published as Legends Walking.

      Neat!

      I haven’t re-read Legends Walking for a long time, but I think the Harmony Dance happens in Changer…

      It’s pretty weird when you haven’t read one of your own books for so long that you can’t remember the details anymore.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Oh! And, yes, Jim did get that picture. I was amazed he could get a clear shot with everyone in motion. I’ll make sure he hears your compliment.

  3. heteromeles Says:

    Sure that last dancer wasn’t a Koshare in “disguise?”

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