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The American Indian Capital of the World

Posted on 2015.08.09 at 19:29
Current Location: Florence, CO
The Gallup Inter-tribal Ceremonial, the part I attended, anyway, reminded me of nothing so much as the New England Folk Festival. Instead of sampling pierogi and dolmas, listening to New Bedford sea chanteys, watching little Chinese girls in pastel silk cheongsams and trousers perform a simple dance with giant fans, and participating in an Argentine Tango workshop, I sampled Zuni sourdough bread baked in a traditional earth oven, listened to the story of how Little Snake got his fangs and rattle, watched Maricopa Pima teenage girls in long appliquéd skirts perform a simple dance with shallow handwoven baskets, and participated in a round dance with... I'm embarrassed to say I forget which tribe that particular dance group hailed from. The Ceremonial attracts Natives from all over North America and one of the things they do is demonstrate the traditional arts, especially the dances.

There's also a rodeo, a powwow, two parades through downtown Gallup and a "beauty contest" (the announcements about it point out that there is no bathing suit competition; instead, the emphasis is on historical and cultural knowledge and the talent portion, which has been divided into Traditional Talent and Modern Talent, although of course the contestants also have to be pretty) leading to the crowning of a Ceremonial Queen. The Southwestern tribes seem to have really gone in for this beauty pageant thing. During the Night Parade, I learned that even local elementary schools elect princesses, and every one of them was invited to march. I think half the parade was girls and young women in fancy dresses, each waving to the crowd while walking or riding behind a banner giving her name, her school or other electing body (Miss Indian New Mexico was there, as was Miss Native Arizona) and, usually, a sponsoring local business. Bigger deal for the locals who knew at least some of these kids than for out-of-towners like me. I did notice that the way they were distributed through the parade separated the dance groups well enough so that the drum rhythms didn't overlap. It was the dancers, of course, that got the big cheers from the crowd. Groups ranged from a sedate, dignified line of Zuni women with ceramic pots (made the traditional way and worth hundreds of dollars each) balanced on their heads, to Aztecs in dramatic headdresses performing downright athletic choreography. I wasted entirely too much of the parade taking photos in which the hair of the spectator in front of me was in better focus than the dancers. I had a great time.

I passed up the powwow. Even though I knew I'd be one of many white tourists there, it just seemed too intrusive. I've never been much of a fan of the rodeo, or of beauty contests. But I did pass through the rodeo grounds on the way to turn in my key to the campground shower house, as my last step in breaking camp. (The Ceremonial is such a big deal that the rodeo facilities are actually part of the state park.) It was very early on the first day of the rodeo, and all around me were people unloading horses from livestock trailers, grooming horses, riding horses. And I felt envy. I felt an unfamiliar longing: to be part of a community based on a symbiosis with beautiful animals.

The modern fascination with the tribal is partly ordinary human curiosity, partly appreciation for a good show, but also partly species nostalgia. It reminds us of the price we've paid to be modern. Before the machine age, our ability to form enduring bonds, with each other, with members of other species, and even with particular places, was a big part of our success. More than ability, actually; it's a desire, like the desire of well-fed housecats to stalk and pounce, a desire that modern life doesn't automatically satisfy. In many cases, satisfaction is expensive. The horse culture is a perfect example. A lucky few can make their living in it, but the overwhelming majority of horses in this country are luxuries, owned by the same kinds of people who can give their kids brand new cars for their 18th birthdays. The more ordinary of us make do with little apartment-sized dogs, with a mortgaged condo, with a small circle of family and friends that hangs on precariously in a sea of strangers. But the real thing pulls at us. We're fascinated, even while we know that the price is beyond us.

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