Yakama Pow Wow Dancers Perform in Front of 1.5 Million in South America

Yakama Pow Wow Dancers Perform in Front of 1.5 Million in South America

Jack McNeel

“I think it’s the best I’ve ever been treated,” HollyAnna DeCoteau Pinkham said. “We arrived and they had two bands, traditional and contemporary, and traditional dancers and contemporary dancers who greeted us and performed for us. The mayor of Arica was there along with some of their tribal leaders. The press was there. It was really interesting to be greeted like that.”

Last July the Yakama Nation of Washington was contacted regarding Carnaval Andino in Chile, the second largest event in South America, second only to the huge Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. No North American Indian group had ever been invited to participate at Carnaval Andino but the Yakama Nation was asked to send a group down and take part in the huge parades with dancing and singing. Not only that, they would be the featured group!

This is huge, not only the size of the event, where they were expecting 1.5 million spectators and over 5,000 dancers, but also the honor of not just being invited but to be the featured group. The hosts would also provide air fare and meals, leaving only lodging to be sorted out by  while the members of the group.

There was another part to the trip of equal value, if not being even more important. In addition to taking part in the dancing and singing, they were also asked to speak on a variety of issues. HollyAnna explained, “They wanted us to speak regarding issues of how we’re doing cultural and traditional retention, surviving in modern day society, issues about language retention, education, and how as a treaty tribe we are able to govern ourselves. They also wanted us to talk about issues like the dam and how the dams affected us because they’re fighting a big dam on the Amazon River. They wanted to talk about environmental protection, housing issues, tourism and economic development.”

“I didn’t know what to expect initially but the cultural exchange was a lot deeper, more than I expected," said Angela Lewis, Paiute and Navajo. "I thought we were just going to dance and to share our culture but in turn we learned a lot about them. I was especially grateful for that part of the experience."

The portion I was really impressed with and was memorable was meeting Teofilo Contreras," said Elena Bassett, Yakama. "He was the Aymara medicine man. He did the blessing of the monument and blessing of the ground and used traditional practices and blessed all four corners of this mat he was using. It impressed me because our way is to bless the four directions: north, south, east and west. That was so similar."

Each individual who was chosen to make up the group had some expertise in one or more of these subjects in addition to being a pow wow dancer. Most were from the Yakama Nation, but a few others were selected to fill out the group and the various expertises needed.

Within the group HollyAnna is well versed on treaty, sovereignty and tribal law, Lauren Terbasket about tribal council, Terry Heemsah and wildlife, Elena Bassett and housing in Indian country, Tiinesha Begaye knows music in Indian country as best female recording artist of the year in Native American music, Aja DeCoteau about fisheries, water rights and environmental subjects, and so on throughout the group.

The group of 21 flew out of Seattle on January 24 and arrived in Chile on January 25. That’s when they were met by bands, dancers, the mayor, and the press.

“The Carnaval itself was just amazing,” HollyAnna enthused, “the number of dancers, the colors, everything!”

She explained they have long parades for three straight nights. The first two nights it was about three miles long and the third night it was significantly longer. Along the route were five different stages where groups stop and perform. This provided the opportunity to perform a variety of pow wow dances plus a welcome dance and swan dance in addition to doing the Lord’s Prayer in Indian sign language. “At the traditional ceremony we also did a traditional dance from our tribe, a medicine dance,” HollyAnna said.

“They had never seen Native Americans before,” HollyAnna said. “We didn’t realize what a big deal it was. We had no clue. The first night, getting ready to start the parade, the crowd just mobbed us. We had 30-40 security detailed to us and that wasn’t enough.” It wasn’t a problem at the stages because metal fencing kept the crowd back but during the parade the spectators crowded close. “We had no real problems.” She added that the first night when the parade ended there was a fireworks display for them and they got separated. “That was a little unnerving,” she added. But the next night security was doubled and then doubled again the third night.

“We expressed to them that for us song and dance is the highest form of prayer. One of the reasons we went down was to pray for them, to help them. Also the presentations we did for their traditional leaders and their university professors. That went over really well. They might be coming up here in June. We’re hoping and making plans that they’ll be here for our Treaty Day celebration.”

HollyAnna commented on some of the similarities she noticed. “The stories of the legend of the condor and the eagle were so similar. To me it was like they know our legend,” she laughed. They visited a museum and her reaction was, “If I had not known I was in Chile I would have thought I was in a Plateau museum. The mats were almost identical, other than they used a different kind of reed. Items were so similar in nature, everything from fishing hooks to txus (dogbane). I gather and prepare cordage so I when saw their cordage I was like, oh my gosh, that’s exactly like txus. The jewelry, the beadwork, the baskets, the tools, all were extremely similar.”

During one of her talks HollyAnna discussed the U.N. recognizing Indigenous Rights. Many in the audience don’t have modern technology and knew nothing about it, so she explained the meaning of indigenous rights and the meaning behind the U.N. resolution. She also stressed the need to have a working relationship with the Chilean government. “Fighting all the time doesn’t get you anywhere. There has to be some sort of mutual understanding and a working relationship, otherwise you’ll go round and round like in an eddy.”

The honors given the group continued right up till departure. HollyAnna explained, “When we left from the airport, they took us just down the road to a roundabout. We stopped and they dedicated a monument to this cultural exchange project. It’s a huge concrete monument with a plaque commemorating the cultural exchange between Arica, Chile and the Yakama Nation. It has a picture of a condor and a picture of an eagle. That was like WOW! We didn’t expect that. A traditional leader blessed it and blessed the ground.”

Even before the trip to Chile there had been indications this would lead to invitations to visit and speak with indigenous peoples in other countries. Since returning other contacts have been made. “People from Rio (Brazil) want us to show up. I got a call from Johannesburg, South Africa. A lady emailed me from Ireland wanting how she could bring the group to Ireland. I was like, oh my God!”

Michael Sekaquapktewa, Yakama, the official photographer and media correspondent for the group, was blown away by the response they got in Arica. "While we were there we were almost like national celebrities," he said. "There were interviews left and right and national broadcasts. It was neat because it felt as though Native Americans or indigenous peoples were celebrated almost like rock stars. It was weird how we had to travel to South America to feel that way. We had to leave (the U.S.) to feel appreciated.”

Local groups have also been in contact including Central Washington University who would like them to perform for an international group coming to campus. The Lewis & Clark group has a big annual event and has asked them to come dance and sing.

Asked about overall impressions of the trip HollyAnna answered, “It was not so much about Carnaval but a very newfound appreciation for what rights I do have and the need to continue the work I do and how important it is. It helped me to realize there are a lot of people out there who are a lot worse off than we are and the need is there to help them. That was not only myself but many of the dancers like my niece. She’s just having a total appreciation for her housing, saying ‘I’m never going to complain again.’ I heard a lot of comments like that from the dancers.”

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