White Mountain Apache Tribal Community's Incredible Crown Dancers

White Mountain Apache Tribal Community's Incredible Crown Dancers

Lee Allen

All of Arizona’s Native American tribes are playing an important part in the celebration of the 100th anniversary of statehood with Apaches in the lead spotlight via the Beyond Geronimo: The Apache Experience Centennial Legacy Project.  The blockbuster exhibit of collections and artifacts housed in the  famed Heard Museum in Phoenix will run until January 2012.

To herald the exhibits opening on February 11th, the museum recently sponsored an Apache cultural performance rich in heritage and excitement --- an evening of traditional dance presented by the award-winning Dishchii’bikoh dancers from the White Mountain Apache Tribal community of Cibeque.

“We’re all White Mountain Apaches who have been together for four years,” says Jarrett Dale, performance drummer/singer and co-coordinator of the group.  “Collectively there are 22 boys and 12 girls with the youngest being a 2-year-old singer.  Most of us are extended family members or old friends who go way back to elementary school years and Indian Club days.”

Dale is the nephew of fellow coordinator Hedy Kelewood, a school administrator who oversees Apache language and culture programs in her village.  “I love my language and my culture and was in search of volunteer opportunities within my own community.  Helping organize the dancers and singers is a matter of pride and these young people touch me deeply as I watch them learn about their culture, praying, and respect.”

The group has competed and won awards for group singing and crown dancing, notoriety that has led  to performances before the Indian Gaming Association in California and tribal festivities in Mescalero, New Mexico.

Although multi-talented, the renowned drummers and singers are especially noted as Ga’an or Crown Dancers, spiritual ancestors of the Apache people.  Historical displays at the San Carlos Apache Cultural Center relate that:  “The creator sent the Ga’an (Spirit People) to guide the people, teaching them how to walk in the Holy Life Way, to be kind to each other, and to live in harmony with each other and the land.”

Today’s Apaches still honor those spiritual traditions and crown dancers are called upon to evoke blessings and ward off evil at ceremonies.  Ga’an dances are performed by men who invoke the mountain spirits.  Four dancers representing the four sacred directions paint their bodies black and white and adorn themselves with evocative lightning designs and animal motifs.  They are accompanied by a fifth dancer painted gray, an unpredictable clown who acts as a messenger to communicate with the Spirit People.

“This is a healing ceremony,” says Kelewood, noting that a public performance not the actual ceremony but the mere tip of the iceberg.   “If this was part of a real event, it would take four days to complete the Crown Dance because of the significance of the number four.”

The Ga’an dancers are also instrumental in healing and cleansing ceremonies including preparing the grounds for the coming-of-age ceremony for young Apache girls just coming into womanhood.  “Twenty years ago we had only one coming-of-age Sunrise ceremony for the entire year.  Now there are more of them which is a change for the better because the more times you see it, the more you learn about it,” says Kelewood.

“Women do this dance to honor Apache women for their accomplishments.  We hear about the men’s deeds through literature, but women also had a major role in the entire lifestyle of the Apache peoples from participating in warfare to being medics for the warriors to planning battles.  Women were often responsible --- but unrecognized --- for others successes.”

Success abounds within the Dishchii’bikoh dance group.  “One of the boys told me he used to feel alone in his own community where his peers didn’t communicate with him,” Kelewood says.  “But when the group came to be, and they started singing and dancing together, they all became friends.  That boy told me it had made a big difference in his life, from being a former lonely person to having a positive experience with a group.

“These kids pick up my spirits with the good memories they have given me.”

And with the memorable performances they have given to others.

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