Indian Givers

Native American tribes generously share their traditions, food and crafts at this weekend's pow wow.

It's time to give thanks. And in that spirit, $5 and a new Christmas toy is the suggested donation for the weekend-long pow wow at Rillito Raceway Park. Let's all remember that if the Indians had not shown our gangly ancestors how to fry up some eel and squelch that scurvy, there never would have been a Thanksgiving in the U.S. of A. So, really, are a fiver and a yo-yo that much to ask?

I'm not being entirely fair. Tucson's neighbors, including the Tohono O'Odham and Pasqua Yaqui tribes, had nothing to do with Squanto and his gang of Patuxets. And what percentage of today's turkey eaters descended from the 100 settlers in Massachusetts? In any case, the upcoming celebration with members of Hopi, Yaqui, Cheyenne and over 40 other tribes harks back to the Pilgrims' days of sharing cultures, meeting neighbors and exchanging favorite recipes (even if they do involve succotash).

Pow wows are cultural trading posts for different tribes as well as non-Indians. With over 600 tribes across the U.S. today, a pow wow allows people from all over the continent to dance, drum, eat and compete among themselves. Congress declared November Native American Month, and this pow wow's primary aim is to celebrate Indian heritage. The other goal is to make more Indian children smile on Christmas morning. Last year, the North American Indian Information and Trade Center (NAIITC) collected over 1,200 toys for underprivileged Indian children. This year, anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 attendees are expected, and with luck the toy drive will yield even better results.

And if you're not an Indian? Don't worry, you can come, too. Although many pow wows include religious dance and drum, this weekend's event is purely social. Just "leave your watches at home," says Fred Synder, NAIITC's director. "When the medicine man has said his prayers and the elders have said what they had to say, then the pow wow continues."

Although there is a schedule of events for the three days, don't confuse it with a business agenda. If the wind becomes too cold for the children, it's time to go home. If gourd dancing runs over time, so be it. All are encouraged to bring a chair to watch the dances, a camera to capture the beauty of the traditional garb and some cash to buy early Christmas presents.

But Ansel Adams aspirers beware. If you want to snap a few photos, you may, but do not use them to sell. Pow wow protocol further dictates if you want to take a close-up of a dancer, ask him or her first. The Rillito riverbed will be tread by the moccasined feet of so many dancers your film might run out before you'd have to worry about such details anyway. Make sure to save at least one exposure for a special dance.

The gourd dance, originally a male warrior dance, hails from the Kiowa and Commanche tribes of the Southern Plains. Legend tells of a weary Kiowa warrior who happened upon Red Wolf; he was standing on his hind legs singing a song and shaking a gourd to the rhythm. If the Kiowa would vow to cherish their culture, Red Wolf promised to teach them a new song and dance to pass down through the generations. To this day, the gourd dance begins and ends with a howl in honor of Red Wolf. There will be a gourd dance every day of the pow wow. Exhibition dancing will also take place on Saturday and Sunday with members of various tribes.

Artisans selling wares from pottery to basketry to beadwork also will be featured. Only 40 vendors are admitted to this pow wow, and all are authentic craftspeople who create their works by hand. Desiree Cole, a member of the Cheyenne tribe of Oklahoma, brings her unique feather painting to the pow wow. Using three types of paint and India ink, Cole delicately paints lifelike portraits on feathers.

Contests are an integral part of the pow wow. Not to be confused with a competition, an Indian contest doesn't carry "winner vs. loser" connotations. A drum contest will provide the not-so-called "winner" with a prize of at least $500. On Saturday a baby contest will determine which baby will represent this pow wow at another. Children 6 and under dress in their tribe's garb, and one will be chosen as the new ambassador.

And let's not forget one of the most valuable elements of Indian culture: making good food. Three tribes will cook traditional Indian foods including frybread, mutton stew, steaks with roasted chilies wrapped in frybread, tacos and even vegetarian tacos.

For those of us not schooled so well in Native American history, some news might be surprising. Each Indian tribe is as different as each European nation, explains Synder. "[People] see them all dancing to the beat of the drum" and assume that they're all basically the same, he adds, but that is far from the truth.

The term "Indian" as the official name of this continent's native people is easily one of the greatest misnomers in history, but more abound. "Navajo" is a derogatory Spanish word loosely meaning "thief"; "Sioux" is a French word meaning "snake in the grass"; "Papago," the former name of the Tohono O'Odham, is a slang term meaning "bean-eaters." Many tribes use various or alternative names: Navajo are also known as Dineh; Sioux as Dakota; Cherokee as Keetoowah. Synder explains that many of the negative names stem from European settlers' misunderstanding of Indian ways. There were no fences between lands--the concept of ownership did not exist here as it did in Europe. Therefore, the Indians' use of natural resources that settlers had claimed unfairly branded them as dishonest robbers or sly thieves. Beyond such false branding, the American Indian cultures are vast, rich and very much alive.

Sometime after Thursday, pack your family and a turkey sandwich in the car and head to the riverbed. You just might discover something else to make you thankful.

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