Authentic Details Makes the Performance

I am a stickler for details. For example, after watching a wonderful native dance performance that was open to the public, I was able to talk to one of the performers about her costume. She allowed me to photograph this gem so I could study it for carefully on my own time. It was the most beautiful thin brown suede, actually more of a tawny color. There was fringe around the hem and a beaded belt around her waist. It had been made decades ago by a tribal member and ancestor. She always liked to wear something authentic in every performance, preferably a relic from her past. We used to call this type of outfit “buckskin,” but it was more supple and delicate. The neckline was also beaded and made to look like a lavish necklace. She wore earrings, a head band, moccasin shoes and a bracelet that was silver and turquoise in the style of her tribe. Each one has a different kind of emblem or pattern. It depends on the way the stones are grouped and whether or not there is a large one in the center. I found it all breathtakingly beautiful. I have so much to learn about Native American culture and when I get to experience something like a dance in person, I feel very privileged.

Interestingly, the dancer wore makeup, including some very natural looking false eyelashes. I found this very modern. Her sister had done the application and took the requisite time to attach the most natural looking individual lashes one by one. She used the kind of skill required in beading. The dancer said that a professional photographer was coming to document the dance event for National Geographic. Therefore, she wanted to look her best and to have some definition to her face so all attention would not be on the costume. It certainly worked. Her eyes were deep, dark, and sparking. She was beautiful anyway, but the lashes added something special to her appearance. It was so striking that I wanted to try it out myself. I mentioned this and to my surprise, the dancer’s sister volunteered to make me over. Of course, I said yes.

I loved the results and never expected to look so good yet so natural. The lashes were not just the ordinary kind you find in the drugstore or cosmetics supply shop. They were cut by hand to match the shape of my eyes. If you do not trim store-bought false eyelashes, they will stick out too far, thus drawing attention to the flaw. I wanted to see the photographs of the dancer when they were in print, but in the meantime, I had my own. I tried not to be too intrusive, but I was determined to capture this lovely woman in action. The costume was handmade and unique, like none I had seen before. I could look at it for hours. It draped so beautifully over her body as it was not as thick as suede often is.

Nature isn’t your Toilet

There is an unnamed reservation in the southwest of the United States where campers are often found, and most not legitimately. Hikers love trails that have spontaneously emerged. They were not placed there for their use, however. There is no barbed wire around the land, no walls to keep people out. Perhaps there should be.

Native Americans love their land and honor it with respect and appreciation. It yields crops or is used for cattle grazing. It is the foundation of homes, schools, and other utilitarian buildings. It is home and it is to be loved. Woe to those who trespass and despoil its beauty. But they come anyway.

This is what indeed happens too often enough. No one invited these visitors, but they have been spied roaming about, looking for who knows what. Did mother never tell her son that nature isn’t your toilet? Did dad never teach the lad how to put out a fire? More than one hiker has left molten ashes and more than one camper has sparked a wildfire.

Not all reservations have forests that are in peril. Many are desert areas. It doesn’t matter. There is still a lack of attention to the environs and less than a smattering of respect. The denizens recount stories out of frustration and anger. Rightfully so.

In that there are no stated campgrounds on reservations, there are no portable or stable toilets to service trespassers. They come anyway and make do. They leave banana peels and coffee grounds strewn about the earthen premises and they lay waste to fresh creeks. They somehow find themselves in every nook and cranny of Native American civilization, looking for relics, seeking insight into private lives. It would be different if designated areas were used.

Now, it isn’t that hordes are seen all at one time. It is not a matter of masses covering the land. They trickle in, one or two people at a time, backpacks and gear in tow. They set up tents, light their fires, and cook their meals. They are relaxed, mellow, and in bliss. This is the great outdoors after all, and why they probably came. Thank God, they don’t hunt, as many do in more northern realms of the country. They seem like a harmless bunch, strumming their guitars and singing their lively songs. They are nice enough, just oblivious; and no one invited them.

To enter a Native American reservation is a privilege accorded to guests. They may come to visit a friend, help a neighbor, witness a ceremony, or buy hand-made wares. In these cases they are welcome. They come out of curiosity, respect for the culture, and a desire to keep the status quo. If only the hikers and campers were of this mind.

It may come, in some areas, down to written and posted rules of the land if things get any worse. Maybe Smokey the Bear needs to pay a visit and give public lectures. He has certainly seen some awful sights. A fire of any size or dimension is a threat. Have people not heard of putting dirt on embers? Have they not heard of dousing flames with water? Have they not been told about litter and trash?

Mother Nature cringes when these impingers of privacy appear. She recoils and retaliates, sometimes with a hard and heavy rain. She wants to discourage a long stay of any kind. If she gets particularly angry, there is wind and hail. This will shoo out the hardiest of souls. She knows her earth is not a toilet.

So here are some rules that she has devised and of which Smokey has approved and so should the visitors:

  • Take your litter with you and clean up the land
  • Use a camping toilet with disposable innards. Never leave a modicum of evidence.
  • Do not feed the animals and make them sick or threaten them in any way unless you are provoked
  • Do not spy on residents or attempt to peer into their homes
  • Respect nature and do not harm the plants, or flora as the biologists say
  • Do not set traps of any sort; the victim could be your friend
  • Stir embers in dirt and touch the surface to make sure it is cold
  • Leave with whatever you have brought
  • Better yet, don’t come unless sanctioned by the tribe
  • Respect the area at all times
  • Do not trespass or enter marked roads that are “private”
  • Understand what you are doing and think twice about doing it

Experiencing Native American Culture Today

There are many ways that you can immerse yourself in Native American culture today. From festivals to travelling to Native American locales, it all depends on what you are interested in. You do need to be careful though, because there are many places who claim to be part of the Native American experience who actually have no ties to this culture at all. So where does one go to experience authentic Native American culture today?

It really depends on what you are interested in. Are you drawn to a certain tribe and their practices? Or are you a lover of the Arts? Or maybe you want to experience the food and dress of Native Americans. There are many tribes and Native American alliances now who offer a taste of their culture through public gatherings or Pow wow’s.

Originally a Pow wow was meant for the gathering of Native American tribes to share news, dancing, singing and visiting each other. Today some of these Pow wows are put on for the public to experience the rich culture of Native Americans as well as to raise awareness of their culture.

One area of Native American culture that I have always been fascinated with are the songs and dances. The dances done have specific meanings to each tribe. Some are social dances, some are war dances and some are spiritual dances. It is usually the social dances that we are allowed to view in these public gatherings. Singers are the most important part of these dances though, because they tell the story of the dance. It is through song and dance that Native Americans have saved, shared and taught each generation their lessons and stories. The dances are also full of energy and the vibrant colours of the costumes worn for each dance.

It is said that, when various tribes gathered together, the words of the songs were changed to “vocables”, or sounds instead of words, so that those of each tribe could understand and join in. However, the meaning of each song is still special to those who know them. Many of the old songs have been revised in the present, as a reminder of their heritage and where they have come from.

There are also new programs out now where you can volunteer to do work on a Native American reservation, where you can learn about their past and present. One such place is the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota.

Another way to experience Native American culture is by visiting areas that were once steeped in their way of life. For example, Taos Pueblo in New Mexico is a 13th century settlement of adobe dwellings that is a “living community”, meaning a place where one can go to experience the day to day life of a Native American community. They offer guided tours, places to buy Native American crafts, and fry bread eating.

In Denver Colorado there is a Native American restaurant where you can enjoy some of the rich foods of their culture. The restaurant tries to blend old recipes with the modern age. One favourite there is the Indian Taco that uses shredded bison meat in the recipe.

Santa Fe, New Mexico is another area that is rich in Native American culture and you often need to take more than one trip to experience all that it has to offer. The Canyon Road gallery hosts a variety of Native arts. They also have one of the largest Native American venues for Native American artists to show their creations.

The Gathering of Nations, which takes place in New Mexico, is the worlds largest gathering of Native American cultures in one area. About 700 tribes come together for this massive event and there is so much that one can experience of this culture.

Phoenix, Arizona is home to nearly 45,000 indigenous people and 22 tribes. It also houses the Heard Museum, which is one of the best for enjoying Native American culture.

These are but a few of the many places one can go to get a real feel for Native American culture.



Outdoor Film Screenings

Some people wrongly think Native American reservations are modest places with lean-tos or hogans strewn about a barren land. They imagine idlers leaning against a broken fence, empty bottle in hand. They have seen something on the news perhaps and have taken one erroneous example to be the norm. These false media reservations have a reputation for poverty and a lack of services. Electricity, however, is not one of them. It is well supplied in all territories. It is just like any other place called home.

There are times when you are away from “civilization” or a concentration of humankind. You might be visiting people, on the hunt for resources like gemstones, or in search of scenic beauty to enjoy. In this case, you have to take your electricity with you. It is in the form of one of the best portable generators that can power up most any small appliance such as a coffeemaker, electric toothbrush, TV, or radio. They are often thought of as emergency gear, but they can be just plain utilitarian in a pinch.

Take for example a film showing in the Arizona desert I read about. It is nothing like Burning Man, mind you. Hundreds did not appear. But it got a nice turnout and people really enjoyed the atmosphere of being away from city noise and the hustle and bustle of life.

You can set up equipment on a small flat plain and organize seating in front of a large-scale screen. City parks do this all the time in the summer. They show old movies, kids’ favorites, or anything of public interest. Usually, there is power nearby and a bit of cable is all that is needed to run the system.

Out in the hinterlands, however, it is a different story. You need your trusty generator to operate any kind of projection device, unless you plan on cranking it by hand. Ha ha! Seriously, a generator is a godsend for most camping experiences, so why not for a film showing. While the festival I heard about in Arizona was a big success, others have barely escaped peril. Bears have been known to be enamored with moving pictures and bonfires have gotten out of control. People need facilities for personal use and they can get pretty awful.

The worst thing that can happen, however, is to forget the generator. I know this has happened to some organizers. They plan an event down to the letter, get the space clean and ready, bring in food and entertainment, but forget a key item. No film. Unhappy people. That is what can happen.

It pays to pack the big stuff first to make sure it is in the van. There are few alternatives in the wilds. You have no electricity unless you are close to a residence or two, and that is not likely. The attraction of these film showings is the scenic beauty of the open space. The organizers want ample parking and room for people to congregate and wander. Maybe it is a bit like a mini Burning Man after all. I am sure that film showings using generators have appeared more than once in the Nevada desert.

Generators are pretty handy devices so you want to have plenty of fuel as well. People who don’t write things down forget them. It’s a fact of life. You usually think of everything, you say, so why did this happen? Someone has to take the fall.

Film showings are a unique idea that has permeated the city parks for denizens to enjoy. The selection of just the right movie is key. You have to know the taste and expectations of your audience. You can’t show R-rated films to families, now can you? On the reservation, there should be no insulting westerns. Actually, it is too bad that they have fallen out of favor. Many were quite fun. But we try to avoid being condescending in this PC era, and rightly so. It can be carried a bit too far.

This is just a word of caution for organizers to check the generator—that it still works—and put it where you can see it clearly before departing on your journey. Food and amusement will not fill the bill alone. People want the movie, whatever it may be. It can be a cultural expose of a particular tribe or a general commentary on indigenous peoples. It can cover arts and crafts and highlight artists of renown. It can be social, political, educational, or all rolled into one.

Native American Dance

RT CloudsContemporary dance is eclectic and all-encompassing. You see African jazz to Nave American Hopi rhythms. Choreographers love mixing it up for an exciting display of prowess, with all kinds of cultural undertones. Dancing is an art, indeed, apart from its role in promoting fitness and general good health.

In past centuries, tribal dances were not for mere amusement as they are today in some parts. They were vital parts of certain rites and rituals. As such, they are to be called ceremonial dances. They are recreated at present for historical purposes. Covering various aspects of life, dancing celebrated hunting, harvesting, the need to give thanks, and more.

Most often ritual dances were held in the open air, perhaps around a central fire. They might be accompanied by prayers of victory or thanks. Drums, rattles, bells, and voices gave the steps an impetus and defined the mythological associations. Dancers would perform alone or in groups, and would spend hours rehearsing these dances – there was certainly no need for a home gym system in that time. Healing dances might be private while ceremonial dances would be for public view.

Dancing was a kind of storytelling, and it continues to be to this day. Movement becomes a kind of mime that recreates a time and a place. Stories can be religious or pertain to folklore. They can encompass personified animals. This is a great way to hand down information from generation to generation.

Among the more well-known dances are the Grass Dance of the Pawnee, Arapaho, Sioux, and Omaha, among many other tribes, and the Gourd dance of the Cree. In the former, large feather bustles called crow belts were worn along with a hair headdress. In the later, particular songs were intoned. There is a type of ritual called “fancy dance” created by the Ponca in the 1920’s to preserve their religion and culture at a time when it was threatened by the government. There was a time when ritual dances went “underground” to avoid persecution.

The fancy dance is actually a type of war dance and was popularly performed for visitors to reservations or in Wild West shows. Other tribes like the Kiowa and Comanche followed suit and a public art form was born. There already was the pow wow circuit, but it grew in proportion, giving Indians much-needed revenue during the Great Depression.

Men and women both performed various dances, sometimes in circles. If there were no costumes involved, a sash at least would be worn. Why the government banned these dances is unknown in the 1930’s; but they have survived to this day due to the industriousness of tribal historians. We hope there will be longevity.

If you want to go farther back, you can read about the Hoop dance which used up to 40 hoops to tell a story. Centuries ago, this ceremony was conducted for the purposes of healing, and to achieve balance and harmony in the universe. As a point of fact, the hoop represented the never-ending circle of life. While dancing, the participants used them to create symbols such as butterflies, snakes, turtles, flowers, or eagles. It is wildly popular with tourists who understand its depiction of the seasons, the elements like wind and water, and bodily forms.

Also legendary is the snake dance of the Hopi, which is still held once a year in August. It is derived from an old water ceremony since snakes are the guardians of springs. It has evolved into a rain dance that beseeches ancestors to intervene. One is likely to witness not only snakes, but feathers and rattles used amid constant chanting.

The rain dance is a sister event performed by agricultural peoples, usually in the southwest such as the Hopi and Apache. The spirits are implored to send rain for crops. In the spring, dancers celebrate the planting season at a time when rain is sorely needed. Tribes seem to have their own unique versions and costumes made of animal skins, embroidered aprons, and jewelry of leather and silver. Dance steps entailed zigzag patterns unlike the traditional circular movements.

Elders of every tribe can recount these dances and often show the variety of movements involved. Such a veteran will talk about waiting until dark to begin a ritual that lasted until dawn. Sometimes there was fasting and sometimes a medicine made of plant roots was taken. If you are talking to someone from the upper plains and Rockies, you will hear about the Sun Dance that unites body and spirit. There could be pipe passing, fasting, or ceremonial piercing of the skin. These dances were cultural expressions that entailed personal sacrifice and prayer to benefit the family and the community.

Thus dance is a multi-purpose enterprise with deep roots in the past. They are supernatural, spiritual, but also very real. Lucky are those who witness tribal movements that reveal the inner side of Native American life.

The Native American Diet

Native Americans eat what other Americans do; and as such, they are subject to being overweight like the rest. The scales tell the tale for most everyone these days who eats fast food, processed goods, and too many carbs. Bread, potatoes, sweets—these are the bane of modern man’s existence whatever his race or gender. It seems to plague this group as it does Latinos, and we sadly wonder why. Does it have to do with genetics, one’s pocketbook, or other factors unknown? It wasn’t always this way.

It is hard to have the time in our busy lives to prepare healthy food from raw ingredients, so we do the easy thing and rush out to the nearest McDonald’s. It is quick, easy, and pretty tasty—but, oh, the calories. A burger with all the trimmings can be 1,000 or more. A normal diet is 2,000 a day, so what can we do? We want protein but we need to find it in a better form. Let’s not knock American culture and its indigenous cuisine. But we do have to find alternatives.

Our modern bathroom scales remind us daily of a task that is at hand if we want to abort diabetes and other forms of ill health that will shorten our lives. Native Americans can stick with the best aspects of their diet like corn and grains, but eschew eating carbs too often. They can grill meat and enjoy a marinade, but avoid sauces. It’s the same the world over. We are not in the 19th century any more.

In the days of the old West, fat burning was not an issue. Everyone was running around doing something that took care of excess calories. Native Americans were taking care of their land, growing and irrigating crops, bartering them for other goods, and so on. Agriculture was a way of life. You could control your intake just by consuming what was available, because it was basic and pure. Additives today wreak havoc with our metabolism not to mention all the extras like catchup and mustard. These condiments are full of sugar and calories.

Native Americans in Alaska eat different foods than those residing in the southwest. Of course fish is their staple. Elsewhere, the food is diverse. In the olden days, Indians were sometimes nomadic in order to hunt in new places, but many remained in one place if the crop yields were good. They also had domestic animals, as they do today. If resources were plentiful, the tribe would thrive. There would be enough for all as a rule.

Cooking was simple. Fresh meat was usually unseasoned but tasty enough. It was roasted over a fire or gilled on hot stones. As for fish, you had the option of baking or smoking. There was plenty of corn-on-the-cob and the vegetable was also used as meal. A treat was corn bread made in a clay oven. It appears that most tribes had corn or maize. Others had beans, squash, wild rice, potatoes, peppers, peanuts, pumpkins, sunflowers, and tomatoes.

When the Europeans arrived, their influence was pervasive and soon appeared many new plants and animals such as wheat, sheep, and cows. Lucy tribes had meat-heavy diets and still do. Over the course of centuries there was buffalo, deer, caribou, elk and rabbit. You will also find fish, duck, geese, and turkey. Nothing was to be wasted if it came from the land. Fruits like strawberries, blueberries, and wild plums were often rampant.

Farming tribes like the Navajos were enriched by European additions to the traditional crops. The new food by now is old hat. Lifestyles indeed changed. The buffalo was disappearing, killed off in droves. The Native Americans in these areas had to adapt. Ranches that raise buffalo still exist even if many natural areas have been cleared. Hunting and trapping will never go completely out of style, however rare it may be at present.

The biggest change was moving to reservations from original homelands. The residents had to be resourceful to provide fodder for life. New forms of agriculture had to be devised that suited the land and its climate. Most were able to conquer the elements.

Now if you think of Native American traditional food, and you are not geographically specific, you might come up with wild rice and cranberries (from Northeast woodland tribes), corn cakes, blueberry wojapa pudding (from the Sioux), fry bread, and more. If you were a spy in a reservation home, you might see succotash, bean or fruit salad.

On Native American Smoke Signals

smokesignalWho hasn’t seen an old “western” movie where the Native Americans, then called Indians, used smoke signals to warn the tribe of impending danger or the arrival of enemies. It added a colorful element to the film, but is this tradition true? Let’s find out. Apparently they were common as a form of communication at one time, although not anymore unless for ceremonial purposes as an act of recreating the past. They originally emerged from a type of crafted fire pit, which was the tribe’s version of a wood stove so to speak. Their message was not always dire, but often served to gather tribal members far and wide and to pass on any communal news.

It is a unique activity in the history of America, one that most people take for granted—the stuff of movies and old tales. We have no clue as to where and why for the most part. Lewis and Clark were the first to be confused, writing about how the Indians were setting the plains on fire. Oddly enough, these Native Americans were not the only culture to avail themselves of this fiery practice. In ancient China, soldiers stationed along the famed Great Wall would speak to one another over great distances, especially in regard to enemy attack. It seems like this is the ubiquitous message.

Bad news was not always part of the smoke signal experience for Native American tribes. They would light damp grass to begin the communication process. It could be about a whale washing on shore ready to harvest or a feast about to take place. It might signal a death. In any case, they build the fire in an elevated area to be sure that the smoke arising from the pyre would be clearly seen.

Anthropologists and cultural historians study smoke signals and have deemed it a form of human code, akin to any system where certain meanings are assigned and communicated. Generally, puffs of smoke are created using a moving blanket that manipulates the vapor in certain ways. They must be visible for a least a mile or more during transmission of a message.

Thus, smoke signals are a very early form of communication, although certainly the purpose varies culture to culture. You can make different shapes to denote numbers or words for example. While this could be a one on one form of transmittal, it is usually more widely known to a specific group of senders and receivers. Only the inner circle privy to the system would be able to interpret the specific meaning assigned. In any case, it calls attention to some matter of concern or interest for communal purposes. For example, three puffs of smoke could mean something bad has happened. One might denote all is fine like an “all clear.” Interestingly enough, the Boy Scouts of America have adopted this practice when camping. It is clearly a shout out to a venerable tradition.

The hallmark of a smoke signal is to travel a great distance in open space. It looms on the horizon, meant for special eyes. It is primitive technology to be sure, but it worked for some time going back to the ancient Greeks and Chinese. Surely Native Americans came to its use on their own, but somehow it was part of an innate experience. The key to smoke signals is to keep the message simple. It must be universal or known to everyone in the tribe. It, of course, would not be apparent to enemies or foes. As such, a great deal of cleverness imbues the process as a communication methodology. It also shows the important role of fire in a given culture.

One can create puffs with a blanket as mentioned, or even spirals. It is a sight to behold. Zigzags, parallel lines, and circles are also possible with more adept practitioners. It would certainly take some doing to learn this art today. It is said that different types of wood will create different kinds of fires, thus affecting the smoke signals needed. There is nothing quite like this form of tribal communication, apart from the written or spoken word.

Historians say that tribes would set up stations where fires were built, usually on hilltops. Fire bowls were used for convenience for the easy containment of leaves and branches. They were lined no doubt with rocks and small stones. It seems practical enough but fell out of use long ago with modernization and the arrival of Europeans. It is now part of Native American lore.