Saturday, July 4, 2009

The 41st Annual Northern Ute July 4th Powow

Yesterday, we packed the whole family into two vans and a small automobile and drove to Roosevelt, UT, where we met my sister-in-law's family at the Frontier Inn. There, we had a large room in the restaurant all to ourselves, where we all sat at tables that had been arranged together in a large "U" shape. We were served by a single waitress, so it took a LONG time for all our orders to be taken, much less served. But it didn't matter. The point of our being there was to talk and laugh and take pictures and share stories and jokes and hug and relax and get to know each other as a family.

This restaurant was the place where my little brother Joe and his wife Becky met on their first date, and they told us the story (again) of how they first met and courted. They advised us on the best dishes, so Göran and I made a point of trying the scones with honey butter, and ordering an extra cup of gravy to have with the fries.

Göran and I have been staying with Becky and Joe, and they have been the most gracious, loving hosts imaginable. Among other things, Becky and Joe have been among the most solid, outspoken supporters of our right to be (and stay) married, and they have shown it through words of support and comfort before, during and after Prop 8. But they have also shown it through special kindness and consideration before and during our visit. Becky has found gentle ways to talk to members of her family about us as a couple, and she has demonstrated through word and deed that it really is all about love.

We have also been enthusiastically and lovingly received by Becky's family. They are strong believers in hugging, and so are we. So when the two families collided yesterday at the Frontier Inn, it started as a veritable hug fest. And everyone in her family is so gentle, and loving. They are so humble and considerate, but not shy at all, and so the immediate result is you feel as if you have known and loved them your whole life.

After spending a LONG time at the restaurant, the young kids were starting to go bonkers, so we all processed to a nearby park where they "unwound" a bit running around and playing on the slides and swings. (My little nephew Gaby waged war against his "arch enemies," the puff balls floating around in the air from the nearby cottonwood trees..!) Eventually, we made our way to Ft. Duchesne where the Powow was already in progress.

When we arrived I was surprised to see that the set-up was already very familiar to me. I have studied (and teach) Lakota history and religion, and I noted that the large, circular bower built around the arena, covered with tree branches to provide shade, the pole at the center of the arena and an announcer's booth opposite the arena entrance looked very similar to the kind of arrangement you would find at a traditional Lakota Sun Dance. Inside the bower there were bleacher-like benches along the outside edge, and countless very comfy fold out chairs (sort of fabric captain's chairs that are quite nice to sit in).

When we arrived, there was no dancing going on. People were sitting in the bower, enjoying the shade and the slight breeze and listening to recordings of singing and drumming. Others were wandering around, checking out the legion of vendors arranged in circular fashion around the bower. There were large numbers of cars parked; we also saw campers, tents, and even some hand-made mini bowers where people were clearly spending the night in order to be present at the Powow through the entire weekend-long duration.

Becky's family had reserved some benches for everybody, and encouraged us to check out the vendors while we were waiting for the dancing to start again around 7 p.m. Each adult was in charge of a kid, so I followed my little nephew Nicholas around while he examined hand-made wooden toys and rattles at various vendors booths. I promised him I would buy him one nice souvenir, and he opted, eventually, for a plastic squirt gun. (Oh well. You can bring a kid to culture, but you can't make him drink!) I bought myself a little gourd rattle carved and painted to look like an owl. I also eventually bought some lemonade and a "Navajo taco" (fry bread with beans, tomatos, and cheese on top). I also saw a booth where a woman was giving out free samples of pine nuts, which I recognized from my limited knowledge of Ute history to be a traditional Ute food. So I bought a couple of bags to share with the family.

When the festivities eventually began, it was quite moving. The announcers spoke with an appropriate mix of gravitas and humor. The dancers too gathered and comported themselves with dignity that was inspiring. What was more inspiring was the great diversity of participants: men and women, elders, youth, and even very young children, people of all skin tones, and abilities. There was even a dancer in a wheel chair. It was also deeply moving to observe, as I saw some of the dancers up close, that many of them had clearly fashioned their own costumes, sometimes using very creative materials (such as re-shaping tin cans to create jingles, or sewing CD's onto the costume for decoration). Individuals had had to invest large amounts of time, energy, and creativity, and presented themselves with pride and love that was tangible to observers. I remembered one comment of one of the announcers made about "The way you enter the arena says much about the way you go through life!" I have since gotten teary several times just remembering it!

The dancers all processed into the arena in order as the announcers presented them. There were representatives from different tribes all across "Indian country," including Lakota and Ojibway people from our own part of the country. Göran was excited to see representatives from the Blackfoot Confederacy, since he now knows (having only recently made contact with his biological family) that he has some Blackfoot ancestry. After all the dancers had entered the arena, an opening prayer to the creator was offered in Ute.

Then, as the dancing began again, to my great surprise Becky's sister and mom looked at me and said, "Now you go dance!" I thought they were joking, but they weren't. Becky's mom and brother and some of her nephews and nieces got up and entered the arena, and waved to us to join them. So Göran and I got up and did just that. No special dance moves were expected of us (fortunately)! We simply walked and bobbed to the rhythm of the drums, clockwise around the pole. That too was both incredibly fun and deeply moving. (I later learned that this was an "all tribes" dance. All were welcome!)

There's much more I could say about the Powow -- about the respect I saw shown for elders, and the great love and hopefulness with which youth were regarded. Or about the comment made by a visiting elder about the "trail of tears" that every Indian people in America has experienced, and the importance of surviving and remembering. (Remembering is such an important spiritual practice!) The feeling was incredible, something I hope to experience again by attending other Powows in the future.

But one thing in particular struck me, that had to do with the nature and timing of this particular Powow, held on the 4th of July. There were special ceremonies to honor all those Native Americans who had died in the service, in wars fought on behalf of the United States of America. And there were numerous comments made, expressing gratitude for this "great country that we live in," and the "freedom that we have today because of this great country," because of the "great sacrifices" that have been made by those who died to preserve this nation. And I couldn't help but think of all the terrible things that Native peoples have suffered at the hands of America; of the stealing of lands, the breaking of treaties, the massacres and mass murders, the concentration-camp-like confinements on small reservations, the suppression of Native religion, and efforts to obliterate Native identity and memory. But these commemorations of American freedom, and gratitude for freedoms they have now that they until quite recently did not enjoy were genuine and sincere and hopeful. Now that is enough to make anyone, even the most hard-hearted, weep.

I feel such incredible gratitude for the generosity and the love that was extended to us. But more importantly, I am grateful for the example that was shown us.

4 comments:

Kayla said...

You have awesome pictures... Do you have any more from this pow wow? My aunt dances there and I couldn't go... wish I could've seen her dance.. Nice post!

J G-W said...

Hello Kayla!

Yes, we have plenty more pictures! (I should say, my husband has plenty more pictures! He's the shutterbug in the family.)

The ones I posted on this blog were the best of my photos. But I'm happy to send some more. Feel free to contact me through the email address posted on my profile, and I'll be happy to email you the best of the rest.

Teri said...

Hello-

I just wanted to say how lovely your post was. I am from Ft Duchesne and have missed going to our celebrations in July. Thank you for giving me a piece of home, until i get to make it back for a visit.
I'm glad you were able to take something from our heritage with you. Thats what being a part of this worls is all about.

J G-W said...

Teri - this was one of the most memorable experiences I've ever had.

I've since learned a little bit more about 4th of July Powwows... I guess it goes back to when Native peoples were not allowed to practice traditional dances and rituals openly. The only way American officials would tolerate Indian dancing was if it was done in commemoration of U.S. holidays. That's a little depressing when you think about it...

Still, the spirit at this event was incredible, and I was so grateful for the welcoming manner in which we were received as guests. We definitely hope to plan the timing of our next trip to Utah so that we can experience it again.