Growing up in Cortez, Colorado left me with memories of brilliantly colored dancers, boys at my tender young age of four dancing inside of 30 hoops and the most amazing parade of Indians dancing and drumming on their way to the Montezuma County PowWow and Fair. The Navajos and Utes that rode had horses covered in brilliantly covered yarn, silver and turquoise. They walked so proud. It stuck deep inside me.
I have spent the last ten years learning the Navajo way with a Traditional Medicine Man and his wife and son. They adopted me and call me "renegade white woman who dances on the rocks." I have learned a great deal from these people and am blessed to attend Navajo functions that white folk aren't allowed. I cannot however get used to mutton stew ..
I still love to go the Pow Wows and photograph them like my dad did back in 1956. My mother was Cherokee and my dad was a doctor, the county coroner and a renowned photographer. But the thing he loved the most was to fly his little one man Moony airplane around Indian Country. Every Tuesday he flew to the government health clinics on the Ute and Navajo reservations. His patients paid him in rugs, jewelry and pottery. I got to go on several of these expeditions. As we flew through our shadow hung itself on the side of the Mittens and flew beside us. I could see my braids blowing in the wind. This area of the four corners is a very sacred place alive with the breath and heart beat of four sacred mountains. Within these mountains lies a blend of Ute and Navajo cultures that has a life of its own, separate from the white mans world. Life is slow on the res, very slow. Though time seems to halt, the natives never stop creating their beautiful baskets, pottery, bead work, rugs, wonderful tamales, and on and on. They raise their own sheep and goats from which they get their wool. They dye it with sumac, juniper, and an assortment of native plants. They have regular ceremonies to honor their sick, the earth, the weather, all veterans, each other and the Great Spirit. Every pattern in their bead work, woven goods and pottery has a meaning and relates to the eternal connection. . Their life stories relate to the animals, the birds, the fauna, their ancestors and the heavens. Many still visit the traditional medicine men and many still have no running water. Both the Ute and Navajo reservations are filled with poverty, garbage and insane beauty. That hasn't changed in 50 years and neither have the Pow Wows... They are still filled with amazing colors and beautiful people gathering to watch the dancers compete for prizes and to share their bounty. It is a life all its own.
There are several types of Pow Wows. The ones I enjoy most are the Ute Bear Dances, The Navajo Fair in Bluff and the huge Ship Rock Fair and Pow Wow in . Most larger Pow Wows also have an all Indian Rodeo with professional riders and stock.
All Pow Wows have traditions and etiquette they have to follow and are taught to the children when they are very young. They have absolute respect for their elders and these traditions. The Pow Wow tradition I love the best is called The Giveaway. They lay a big blanket out in the middle of the arena and bless it and then dedicate it to a family that is in crisis. The family stands on one side of the blanket and the attendees partake in the giveaway. They walk to the blanket with their money and put it in the blanket and shake the family’s hands. The line can get very long as hundreds will partake in this blessing. This event cannot be photographed. They also have a giveaway for the children where they will bring hundreds of toys and candy out and give them away to all the children. During the Pow Wow whole families gather around in the huge circle under a large covered shade huts . They bring their own chairs and big boxes filled with feathers, drums, beaded costumes, huge tail feathers and head gear. Each piece is meticulously folded and stored with great respect. A feather cannot touch the ground and if one does it has to be blessed. The Pow Wow comes to a complete halt and the medicine man blesses the feather. Everything has have to be very securely attached to the costumes as they dance for 3 days and with a furious speed few people can match.
Etiquette for all dancers is as follows:
1. Be on time. The Committee is doing everything possible to ensure that activities begin and run smoothly. Please cooperate in this regard.
2. Appropriate dress and behavior is required in the Arena. Anyone unwilling to abide by this rule will be asked to leave by the Arena Director. (If you are going to dance, try to wear dance clothes.)
3. Arena benches are reserved for dancers. Dancers wishing to reserve a space on the bench should place a blanket in that space before the dance begins. Please do not sit on someone else's blanket unless invited. Uncovered benches are considered unreserved.
4. Listen to the Master of Ceremonies. He will announce who is to dance, and when.
5. Respect the position of the Head Man and Head Woman Dancers. Their role entitles them to start each song or set of songs. Please wait until they have started to dance before you join in.
6. Dance as long and as hard as you can. When not dancing, be quiet and respect the Arena.
Since the families of these dancers are all in the audience, children at a very young age are exposed to this gala event. The final preparations for each dancer take place in the audience and all is done very quietly. Often the Elders will catch a quick nap.
Interspersed in the circle are as many as 10 huge drums with up to 8 drummers singing and drumming. These singers are from several different tribes and many have CD's available. There are several categories in which these drummers and dancers compete. Each has its own requirements for costuming and placement.
Starting the Pow Wow is the Grand Entry where the lead couple start the procession with all the dancers entering the arena. The arena fills quickly with of a hundred or more dancers. It is the most powerful experience that I know of and it always brings a flow of tears to my eyes. When the dancing stops, prayers and blessings are given.
After the Grand Entry, there are several Inter-Tribal Dances where the dancers get warmed up in often 90 degree or higher temperatures. The general public is encouraged to dance along. This is a very unique experience and should be tried. Women will need a shawl and a good eye. Men and children enjoy this too. During the Inter- Tribal dances the drummers are announced and compete in drumming and singing. These dance competitions can go on for three days and it is a slow elimination process and their endurance is something to behold.
The different categories for the dance competition are Gourd, Fancy, Feather, Grass, Straight, Shawl, Jingle, Buckskin, Cloth and Traditional. both Northern and . These are broken down into age categories and begin with the tiny tots. Some of these wee ones can barely walk and some are held by parents or siblings. The children are amazing at stepping into the role of the dance and they take on the character of animals they live with and move in ways that defy the eye. This movement is necessary to sneak up on the prey when hunting. The animals are also used to tell stories. In a Navajo Ye Be' Che' the sly fox pokes fun at the human condition, making the audience laugh late into the night. The Ye Be' Che' begins with a healing ceremony in a Hogan with a Traditional Medicine Man. A huge sand painting is made and blessed. This ceremony can go on for several days, depending on the severity of the illness. These sand paintings can not be photographed but from personal experience, they are a true work of art.
Along with the Pow Wow, fairs offer food, and lots of it. Navajo tacos, mutton stew (favorite of the Navajo), lots of fry bread, the best corn tamales ever, lots of melons and shaved ice all to be had. There are many booths of art work. The crafts are varied and range from true turquoise and silver to molded turquoise and nickel. There is also hand spun and dyed wool, depending where you are. You can barter with most vendors and it is a lot of fun.
I never leave a Pow Wow the same. I am always humbled by the beauty of these people and the gentle way in which they raise their children and live their lives. As I get older I find myself yearning to live back amongst my Navajo family, saddle up my pony and go herd the goats and sheep.
Karla Prudent is a photographer and dancer residing in Utah, USA.
all images courtesy/ copyright of Karla Prudent