Ranch Country photography
by Robert McCune
FACES OF A POWWOW
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO
2003 & 2004
by Robert McCune
Place: the University of New Mexico's "Pit" sports arena. At the Grand Entry of the 2004 Gathering of Nations Powwow, hundreds of dancers are entering onto the vast floor, to the powerful sound of drums and the chanting of singers. On a large stage at the edge of the floor, a woman* of 35 or so stands up, microphone in hand. She is clad in ankle-length white buckskin dress (fringed and beaded), and moccasins and leggings. A single large white feather adorns her braided, long black hair. The singing stops and her voice can be heard over the continuing drums. Strong. Measured. Proud.
"During moments of Powwow dancing, where is racism? Where is hatred of cultures? Where is famine? Where is war? We dance. We honor the mystery of the one God by our dancing. By the strong beat of the drums. This Gathering of Indian Tribes from all corners of this continent. In Peace. We sing ancient chants of Honor and Respect and Love for the one God."
*Roseanne Abrahamson, descendant of Sacajawea.
The photographs in this gallery were taken at the 2003, 2004, and 2005 Gathering of Nations powwows. The following text is from entries I jotted down in a shirt-pocket notebook during the 2004 Grand Entry: "Everyone standing as the Grand Entry begins. Several drums, from across the North American continent, beating loudly. Fills the arena. Powerful chanting of singers seated around huge drums. Eagle Staff carrier. Three tribal elder military veterans in Chief regalia; war bonnets and fringed leggings. Outgoing Miss Indian World, frequently raising right hand to brush away tears of emotion; her last night as MIW. She is followed by relatives and attendant court of Royalty. At arena-floor entry ramp, a ballet corps of twenty-five or more jingle dancers waits, those in front dancing in place. They join the procession. Feet and legs clad in moccasins and leggings. Seemingly dancing on air. Sound of a thousand jingles blend with drums and singing. Older men dancers are on the floor now. Fringed leggings and bright-colored full-sleeved shirts of the plains tribes. Some with faces and naked torsos painted. Bodies bending. Eyes peering intently here and there in a simulated hunt. Moccasined feet stomping with beat of drums. Stately movement of Lady Shawl and Traditional dancers, in line now, closely alongside intricate-stepping jingle dancers. All these dancers being carried forward by drums and singing. Sight and sound fills the vast tiered arena. Dancers with bright-colored shawls held out like spread wings, dancing all the while. Hundreds of Native Americans on the floor now, slowly moving clockwise around the vast arena in the Grand Entry of this Gathering of Nations. I feel great sense of humility. Spiritual."
The most moving thing for me in looking at these photos, is their faces. The emotion they might have been feeling at the moment the lens opened and shut. Pride. Confidence. Joy. Great sadness. Disdain possibly, for me and the camera. In reliving the 2003, 2004, and 2005 Gathering of Nations powwows through these photographs, I'm awed and humbled by what I see. I say to each of you powwow participants with deep respect, Thank you.
Since 2003, 2004, and 2005, Maggie and I have attended many more powwows; in New Mexico, Arizona, and southern Utah. In 2006, because of the work I've been doing these past several years on the Navajo Reservation, and because I‘m a veteran of the Korean War, I was invited to take part in a special drum-dedication Gourd Dance at the Whitehorse powwow in Montezuma Creek, Utah. And at civic and social functions when there's a Song and Dance, I'm no longer startled and nonplussed when a Native American lady asks me to dance with her. I'm now able to do a passable Navajo two-step.
Beginning in 2002, Maggie and I have been making visits twice a year to that part of the Navajo Reservation that lies within the state of Arizona. (A third of the Reservation extends over the Chuskas and into the northern part of New Mexico). I paint and do repair work on houses and hogans for elderly ladies and men who mostly live alone, on Social Security income of maybe $600 or so a month. And when on the Reservation, Maggie and I take in powwows as often as we can manage to get away from the work.
May 2008 update. This is the last entry in my work log from PAINTING THE REZ: Job No. 3 of this trip, May 2007. At a 1-bedroom house, I repaired the drywall, painted the interior, and repaired all the windows, each which consisted of six panes. Two panes were missing altogether; the openings were merely covered with plywood and plastic sheeting. Made overnight trip to Gallup to get replacement panes. Due to severely deteriorated condition of the old glazing and the window muntins (wooden cross pieces), it was impractical to do the repair with glazing compound; I used caulking instead - six tubes.
Notes re second day on this job: Strong winds sweep across entire western half of the Navajo Nation, frequently at gale-force. On horizon in all directions is opaque wall of dust a hundred feet high. Blast of wind slams me and causes me to lose balance. I drop a prepping hand-tool and grab the ladder with both hands. Loose window panes chatter and rattle with each gust. Two hours of squeezing a caulking gun, and my “gun” hand begins to lock with cramps. Sand is blown on fresh white caulking, creating a dusty rose look. Sand grit gets in teeth and mouth.
200 yards away, a house, hogans, corral, and several cows have disappeared in the sand storm, and so has the vast formation of Black Mesa itself, in the far distance. Nose and cheeks have become burned by the dry wind, as though sun-burned. Like I’ve said before, to get a job like this done here on the Rez, you just have to keep at it. Maggie and I have found that this is a frequent condition here; severe wind storms lasting three or four days.
Late afternoon. At an Elderfest Celebration at the Community Center in Chinle, near the Senior Center. Sponsored by the Agency for Aging, the Navajo Nation’s headquarters organization that oversees the Senior Centers on the Reservation. I was invited to participate in Posting the Colors with the Color Guard that carried flags of the United States, state of Arizona, and the Navajo Nation. Two Navajo royalty princesses of the Nation’s Central District were honored and gave speeches about community service they’ve been performing.
The festivities included a traditional Navajo Song and Dance. Two ladies asked me to dance with them. (It’s a Navajo custom that ladies ask men to dance). The last dance was a mix of the Navajo two-step and 1940's swing. My partner and I were picked by the judges as fifth best among the finalists. There were only eight couples. Being an outsider guest, I was invited to say a few words to the gathering. “Yá’át’ééh...!”
My PAINTING THE REZ days have come to an end. And I no longer paint houses here in Trinidad. The reason is that I was nearly killed by a drunk driver in March last year -2006. The (censored) was southbound on a freeway, crossed the median into the northbound lanes and hit me almost head-on at a combined speed of 140+ m.p.h. (His 80+ and my 60). Fortunately, I was alone in my vehicle. But the lingering effects of that collision to my hips and legs, combined with my age*...that phase of my life has come to an end. Maggie and I had a working visit to the Navajo Reservation scheduled for September this year (2008), but on the way to the Rez, my legs got to bothering me so much I had to call it off - the work and the visiting. (*Will be 77 this year, in July).
In October (2008), we visited friends on the Rez, but did no work. Stayed at the Cottonwood R.V. Campground at the entrance to Canyon de Chelly near Chinle, AZ. Early the next morning, I stepped outside the van and stood there a few minutes, thinking back on the past five years. About the people Maggie and I have met and come to know on the Navajo Reservation. The feeling of satisfaction...justifying my existence by helping make living conditions better for elderlies in that area. And it is with sincere thanks and admiration, that I remember the three young Navajo women who, at different houses, helped in this work; especially Arlene who is a “natural” with a brush and has the spirit of a painter.
I felt guilty, that it was done with. My PAINTING THE REZ years. But there was already a wind rising, and looking up at a bad-weather sky, that feeling of guilt was quickly pushed aside by a strong sense of relief that I (and Maggie) would no longer have to undergo the often severe conditions of working on the Rez.
For some reason, maybe because my father ended his career in the navy as chief engineer of the cruiser WICHITA (1945 during the war in the Pacific)...I think of the old days of ships and men. When a ship arrived at its destination and was secured to a pier, its captain would ring down to the chief engineer at his post in the engine room: FINISHED WITH ENGINES.