Music and dance unite cultures at pow-wow

Posted: Sunday, September 03, 2000

Audiences drop their jaws and raise their cameras when the Young Medicine Warriors of Oakland, Calif., strut their stuff.

Members of the dance group, who range in age from 5 to 57, wear eye-popping outfits featuring silky angora goat leggings, sheep bell anklets, satin ribbon or multicolored yarn, roaches (headpieces) trimmed with waving feathers and spiky porcupine hair, fringed shawls, bone beast plates and/or fur.

Flowing streamers of yarn and ribbon are typical of grass dancing because they "reflect the movement of the dance," said Gilbert Blacksmith, 44, co-founder of the group. Traditionally, grass dancers danced first at any gathering, using a particular foot movement to mime preparing and flattening the ground for subsequent dances.

These elaborate outfits are not "costumes," Blacksmith said, "because costumes are for clowns." The intricately beaded or painted vests, aprons, leggings, staffs and feather bustles are "regalia."

Blacksmith's wife, Lori, put another twist on the information: "It's all just dance, but the regalia tells you where they are from."

Although the group's 25 members reside in California, their roots are planted deep in South Dakota, Montana, Mexico, Alaska, Oklahoma and Maine. Their ancestors are Apache, Dene (Navajo), Cherokee, Aztecan, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Minnecouja and Sicangu Lakota (Sioux), Blackfeet, Choctaw and Passamaquoddy (Micmac).

For example, Gilbert Blacksmith is Lakota, originally from South Dakota's Rosebud Reservation. He performed Northern style fancy dance in February in Cuba for Elian Gonzalez' father just before Juan Miguel Gonzalez flew to retrieve his son in the United States.

"Our main aim is to keep our culture preserved even though we live in an urban area," Blacksmith said.

The Young Medicine Warriors are one of many attractions today and Monday at the third annual "Gathering of Tribes: Pow-Wow 2000." Organized by Garfield Katasse and Cody Greyeyes, the gathering honors veterans, and will be held from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. both days at Juneau-Douglas High School.

"Our main goal is to share Native American culture and dances with the people of Alaska," Katasse said.

One of the special treats this year will be James St. Claire of Craig, one of the nation's only authentic hoop dancers. Other drumming and dancing groups include Southern Cree from Montana (nine drummers and dancers), the Northern Light from Anchorage, Seventh Generation from Kenai, Sleeping Lady from Anchorage, the Mount Juneau Tlingit Dancers, and the Sheetka-Kwaan from Sitka.

Katasse describes Southern Cree as "one of the top five drum groups in the nation."

He expects 2,000 people to attend, keeping in the back of his mind his example, the annual Albuquerque pow-wow, where 60 drum groups thunder and an appreciative audience of 50,000 applauds. However, Katasse's pow-wow is not competitive.

Co-founder of the Young Medicine Warriors is John Menor of San Francisco. Menor, a Passamaquoddy, dances in a female brown bear skin that reaches from forehead to heels. It's very hot, "but that is part of dancing with your bear," Menor said.

As he used strong thread to repair the nose of his bear regalia, he told how he acquired it.

"The whole thing came from my dream. A year after I saw the regalia in my dream, an old man I had never seen before came to me and said he had something that belonged to me. He gave me this bear skin."

The stranger had served as a medic in Vietnam and then on reservations. "This skin was given to him by someone he cured, and he told me, "I know that this doesn't belong to me.' "

"When these (unexpected) things happen, they are real; they can't be denied," Menor said.

Entrance to the pow-wow is $10 each day; $5 for students. Entrance to the area where arts and crafts are sold is free. Food also will be sold.

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