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Native New Year

Flip through the pages of our New Year's Guide, and you'll find many ways to ring in the New Year. You can dine at elegant restaurants, catch a comedy show or dance to a disco beat.

For those who wish to ring in the New Year to the beat of a different drummer, there's a chance to do that, too. From 11:45 p.m. to 12:05 a.m. on New Year's Eve, a traditional Native American Friendship Round Dance is open to all. The free event takes place at Rillito Raceway Park, 4502 N. First Ave. The Friendship Round Dance is a "traditional ceremonial (event) the public is invited to participate in," says Fred Synder, director of the National Native American Cooperative. The dance takes place on grounds blessed by medicine people. A drum is placed at the center of a circle, with Native American dancers surrounding it. The dance is "a time to come into the circle to re-syncopate the energy of Mother Earth to the beat of the drum," he says.

Synder is the volunteer coordinator for the New Year's Competition Powwow, Indian Craft Market and International Day taking place from Friday, Dec. 30 through Sunday, Jan. 1, at Rillito Raceway Park. Hours for the event are 4 to 10 p.m. Friday, noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8, free for children 8 and younger. For more information, call 622-4900 or visit usaindianinfo.org.

While the popular notion of a powwow is that it's entertainment, Synder says "it's much, much more than that. ... From an Indian point of view, a powwow is dancing that is a prayer made visible. ... Powwow was misunderstood by early colonists. It's an Algonquian word that means "medicine person." (When Indians would gather for meetings or negotiations), a medicine person came in to do a blessing. The non-Indians didn't know this and called it a powwow (referring to a gathering of people)."

Synder also notes that a powwow is "a complex living entity. ... What people don't realize ... they see feathers and quick movements, but there is a process. Grounds are blessed by medicine people. During the first hour-and-a-half of each day, gourd dancing takes place. Warriors pray and cleanse the arena so when dancers come, they are protected. A circle is placed where the public can come to the arena and leave their dis-ease. Indian people see dis-ease as not being in a harmonic balance with everything that is around you. After the gourd dancing, there are special dances of honoring and acknowledgement of elders. After that, there is a call for every dancer. That starts what most people know as a powwow."

This year's powwow is organized by three Indian organizations: the National Native American Cooperative (an organization of 2,700 Indian artisans from more than 400 tribes), the Indian Information and Trade Center (a clearing house for Native American information) and the Reservation Creations Women's Circle Charitable Trust (a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships to Native American artisans and students). The organizations put on four events throughout the year.

Synder says many powwows are sponsored by non-Native organizations such as museums or convention centers. "This event is unique because it's a Native organization sponsoring a Native event in traditional ways."

Some of the traditional events include singing, dancing and drumming competitions. The competitions are divided into male and female divisions, and are also divided into age categories. Still another division is by style, with Northern (including tribes from Montana, Canada and the Dakotas) and Southern (including tribes from Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico) dancers focusing either on the voice (Northern) or the drum (Southern).

Native American fiddler Arvel Bird will also be on hand to perform at the powwow. Bird is a classically trained violinist who toured with performers including Glen Campbell, Loretta Lynn and Ray Price (as noted at arvelbird.com).

Outside the music and dance arena, there will be an arts-and-crafts market, traditional Indian foods (including buffalo jerky and fry bread), children's activities, birds of prey and an authentic teepee village. In the past, children have "made Christmas ornaments, learned about kachinas and made necklaces out of beads," says Synder. The birds of prey come from a rehab center and, depending on availability, can be eagles, hawks or owls.

Those interested in more educational topics can learn how teepees are constructed. "You can get an idea of how it's put up, what it's made of, how many poles there are, its history, why it faces east. ... There are many lessons taught from looking at teepees," says Synder.

All of the events will be kept moving smoothly by two masters of ceremonies: Sammy Tone-kei White, a Comanche from Oklahoma, and Chuck Benson from South Dakota. "They will explain what the circle is and introduce powwow etiquette. You must walk around the area and not straight across," explains Synder.

With various brochures at information booths, there will be other things to learn at the powwow. Perhaps one of the most important aspects to appreciate is that the Native American tribes are inviting everyone to join in their festivities designed to create harmony with the elements around us. And we can all dance in unison toward that goal.

More by Irene Messina

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