Renewing the Spirit

Before this continent was colonized by calendar-toting Europeans, the people here celebrated the new year in many different ways.

Some tribes marked the new year at the vernal equinox in March; others did so in the fall. The Hopis celebrated a new-fire ceremony in November, while the Creek new year ceremony, known as the "busk," took place in the summer.

These days, of course, almost everyone around here celebrates the Gregorian new year—but you can still do so, Native American-style.

The National Native American Cooperative's New Year's Competition Powwow will take place over the entire New Year's weekend at Rillito Raceway Park. The event has been happening for nearly 20 years, and it's considered one of the most popular New Year's events in town. (It's not only popular here in Tucson; people from tribes all over the country show up.)

The celebration will kick off at noon on New Year's Eve with performances by dancers from dozens of tribes, including the Nahui Ollin Aztec Dancers from Mexico, as well as the Pascua Yaqui deer dancers—who you'll almost never see performing other than at Easter.

Around 10 p.m., the event will be temporarily shut down, and people will reconvene just as the racetrack's lights come on at 11:45—that's when the Midnight Friendship Round Dance will start. Organizer Fred Synder says masses of people will dance around a drum while holding hands "to rebalance Mother Earth and ourselves"—the perfect way to prime oneself for a new year. Several hundred people usually show up for the midnight round dance, Synder says.

"Everyone will be invited to come down and dance in the arena," Synder explains. "Being asked to come into the arena is a pill or medicine that's way beyond anything Western medicine can give to you to heal your spirit, mind and body. A powwow is a prayer made visible, and that's a very important factor—it's the same as if you went into a church or synagogue."

The powwow will feature dancers and singers from more than 100 tribes. There will also be handmade crafts for sale; traditional Native American foods; dancing, singing and drumming contests; a birds-of-prey exhibit; an authentic teepee village; and information booths. Children can take part in arts and crafts activities, and make rainsticks, Christmas ornaments and dream-catchers; they can also learn knot-tying techniques.

All activities will be held outdoors, so bring chairs and sunscreen for the daytime, and jackets and blankets for the evening. But leave your timepieces at home—Synder says everyone with a watch is asked to take it off, so the event can proceed on "Indian time." What happens, and when it happens, is up to attendees, so the event has a rather open schedule. However, the dances will all be explained by the master of ceremonies, so you'll always know what's going on.

Says Synder: "We're doing what Indian people have done for centuries, and that's sharing our songs, our dancing, our regalia. We're trying to show our children the cultural significance that the indigenous people have had for the fabric of life for more than 10,000 years."

The New Year's Competition Powwow takes place Thursday, Dec. 31, through Sunday, Jan. 3. Events start each day at noon at the Rillito Raceway Park, at River Road and First Avenue. Admission is $9 for the general public; kids 8 and younger, military members and Native Americans dressed in regalia get free admission. For more information, call 622-4900, or visit

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