In honor of Jameson Peshlakai

Sheri L Ziemann

Navajo medicine man James Peshlakai turned the tragic loss of his 18-year-old son Jameson into an opportunity to reunite tribes in the Grand Canyon region after years of separation. Labor Day weekend (Aug. 30 - Sept. 2) marks the second annual Jameson "Sonny" Clyde Peshlakai Memorial Hoop Dance Contest. Peshlakai's wife Mae and their grandchildren will also be dancing in this year's event.

"My son [Jameson] ? died almost four years ago," said Peshlakai. "A couple of years ago, my relatives and friends said we should have a memorial pow wow for him because he was a great dancer. We ran into a landowner here in Tusayan, on the Canyon's south rim, who owns an empty lot between McDonald's and the Grand Hotel. He suggested that, instead of having it on Navajo Land, we hold the pow wow here on his land."

Peshlakai's uncle at the Fort Apache Reservation agreed to bring his dance group to the event. Pretty soon members of the Havasupai (Supai), Hualapai and Hopi tribes all decided to get together. "When we got together, it became a ceremonial pow wow," said the elder Peshlakai. "We really didn't plan it, it just came together. We knew it was the first time the tribes who live in this area were getting together since Teddy Roosevelt kicked them out of the Grand Canyon to make it a national park."

Without even a program, the Supai tribe offered to be the host tribe since they live in the Canyon. Then it was agreed that the tribe that traveled the furthest would dance first, which meant the Apaches, then the Hopis, the Hualapais and finally the Supais.

Miraculous things happened as soon as the Apaches entered the circle at the first event two years ago. Peshlakai reflects back on the California condors that began circling overhead when the Apaches began dancing. "It was very spiritual. The second year we got together and the condors showed up again," stated Peshlakai. "One of the Hopi dancers was so overwhelmed; [by the sight of the condors] he went weak. They did a healing ceremony for him."

According to the Ventana Wilderness Society, the California condor population began to plummet at the turn of the 20th century "after decades of wanton shooting and poisoning. In 1987, the last wild condor was taken into captivity to join 26 others." Captive breeding has successfully increased the population size of the endangered species. As of October 2002 the population of California condors was 202 birds, with 73 of them in the wild.

The Peregrine Fund, now based in Boise, Idaho, stated in 2002 that "two pairs of captive-raised condors made Arizona history by laying one egg each in spectacular caves in the Grand Canyon ? they were not successful in hatching young - typical for young, inexperienced pairs. We are all hoping that this coming year we may see the first wild-hatched condor to soar over the Grand Canyon in almost 100 years."

The journey from idea to execution wasn't easy for Peshlakai and his supporters. In reviving the old gathering at the Grand Canyon, the National Park Service was heavily involved. A permit was required to do just about everything. Many of the tribes have been in boundary disputes with National Park Service for years. But pulling together this event was such a magical experience that people cried when the condors showed up.

Peshlakai's son Jameson was an accomplished musician and ceremonial hoop dancer. Just 10 days from being inducted into the U.S. Navy, his father asked him to get an extension so he could help haul firewood for the family sheep ranch. He was killed in a car accident shortly afterward.

According to Peshlakai, "the Indian tribes who live in this region used to get together to renew friendship, competition and trade. We haven't gotten together in many years. This ceremonial dance festival revives our old Indian trading days. The Supai bring bighorn sheep dancers - 'Guardians of the Canyon' dancers. The Apaches come with Mountain Spirit Dancers. The Navajo will choose a Butterfly Dance or Buffalo Dance, while the Hopis bring Eagle Dancers, or maybe this year the Deer Dance."

"We do dances today of animals and birds who used to live here. We do the Buffalo Dance, even though we never saw buffalo. We also dance to honor the condor and the wolves and elk. We never saw elk until just recently. They're just now beginning to come back - beavers, condors. We're trying to reintroduce the wolf in this region, but people don't want them. We hope to hear the wolves howling again in our woods. Part of the purpose of our gathering is to renew the efforts to restore the wolves."

After the word spread from the previous year, in 2003 the Sioux people from the Plains Tribes, and the Mayans from the Yucatan region in Mexico will also attend. The people traveling the furthest are the Incas from Peru.

The ceremonial dance is wide open to anyone who wants to participate. There is no cost to dancers, even for food. There will be no charge for admission - the group is seeking sponsors to cover the cost of the food. Peshlakai promises, "We're going to roast a couple of steers - eat and dance, eat and dance and pray throughout the entire Labor Day weekend."

The festival will also include art sales, fry bread and other Native foods, as well as a silversmith gallery. The Peshlakai's silversmith gallery won't compete with the other artisans at the art show out of respect for the other participants.

The Peshklakai Cultural Foundation was started at the same time as the first event in 2002, in order to preserve Native American cultures. To date the Foundation has raised more than $30,000. The money goes to the actual teaching and preservation of Native American Culture.

Even though the National Park Service historically hasn't let Native tribes go near the Grand Canyon, they are now willing to give permits for activities such as the dance festival over Labor Day weekend.

"A new regime of the National Park Service is coming; the sun rises a little better for us," said Peshlakai. "We'll be back on the rim one day. We'll celebrate with our holy people in the canyon. The Indian tribes who live in this region, we hold the canyon very sacred. We don't just go into the canyon any old way - we make an offering. When we get to the edge, we pick up two sticks and mash them together, to make the sound of the Big Horn Sheep crashing together. When our people are in the canyon, they are well taken care of by the people of the canyon. When you do that, the people will look up to the rim and say, 'James Peshlakai and Sheri Ziemann are coming down - take good care of them.'"

For further information, call Peshlakai Trading Company at (928) 638-1100, or e-mail

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