Life lessons

One of the most crucial problems facing American Indian tribes today is the loss of their native languages, says Fred Bushyhead, hereditary chief of the Southern Cheyenne nation.

“Some of the tribes have tried to keep the language, preserve their heritage for the younger people — [but] many of the younger people really don’t seem to care about it,” he told Xpress in a recent interview.

Language issues, in fact, figure prominently in many aspects of American Indian culture — including its widespread appropriation by the non-Indian population. Contrary to the current code of political correctness, Chief Bushyhead prefers the term “American Indian” to “Native American,” remarking that, “If you were born in the United States, then you’re a Native American.” He also notes that Kituwah is actually pronounced “gid-DOO-wah” (the term, which can be translated as “gathering place,” is thought to be the name of the ancient Cherokee’s first permanent settlement).

Today, Kituwah — sponsored by the High Country Art & Craft Guild — is one of the East Coast’s most massive intertribal gatherings. The arts, heritage and educational celebration represents American Indians from nearly every corner of the continent. As the festival’s cultural chair, Bushyhead naturally praises the role of handmade crafts, dance and storytelling in the festival’s mission and continued success. Ultimately, though, he believes that, “Education is the most important thing, more than anything else. We’re not only educating the general public, but other Indians. We are educating one another, and that’s what Kituwah really means.”

A dancer and frequent coordinator of pow-wows, Bushyhead has long been disturbed by the widespread ignorance of tribal individuality, among both Indians and whites. “Even other Indian people don’t realize that other tribes have their own style of dancing,” he laments.

“I would go to these Indian pow-wows and I’d be standing there watching, and people would come up and [ask me], ‘What are they doing? What kind of dance is that?’ The announcer would just announce the dances — he wouldn’t explain them. Right then, I thought, well, when I get a dance troupe together, I’m going to tell the audience [what the dances mean], because people want to know what they’re watching.”

In due time, this vision became Kituwah: “At the festival, we have the Wisdom Keepers [tribal elders who use storytelling to preserve their heritage]; we have different people demonstrating different types of arts and crafts, and we have the dancers … and when it all comes together, the focus is primarily educational.”

That said, Bushyhead explains that certain sacred dances are routinely excluded from the festival.

“We don’t do any of the ceremonial dances; mostly, we do what we call the pow-wow dances [which Bushyhead narrates]. Within each group, there are different types … some of the women’s dances are more like aerobics, more contemporary than anything,” he says with a laugh.

And though many dancers rigidly adhere to ancient traditions, modern variations in tribal regalia (“I don’t like to call them costumes,” he notes evenly) are inevitable: “A lot of the dancers try to dress like their ancestors did, many years ago, but of course that changes over the years, kind of like our language did.”

The chief also maintains a positive view of Kituwah’s expanding popularity, believing that it stems from a heartfelt curiosity: “There are so many people out there that are hungry, that want to learn about American Indians.”

But his benevolence doesn’t extend to folks who try to cash in on the culture’s newfound popularity.

“There are a lot of what we call ‘wannabes’ now, more and more people stealing our spirituality and stealing our ways, our customs. They make their own way as they go along, and they think it’s the Indian way. If you check out some of these books [on Indian traditions], over 50 percent of them aren’t even American Indians that wrote them. I saw one that said it came from the Sycamore Tribe Inc. Well, that’s a tree, not a tribe. I couldn’t believe it.”

To Bushyhead, it’s partly a question of authenticity. “To be a real medicine man — the New Age thing is the shaman — you don’t have to advertise,” he points out: “People know who you are.”

And oral tradition, he holds, is the most reliable healing vessel.

“There’s been a resurgence in storytelling, because people have found out how important it is. You see, American Indians largely didn’t have a written history. Everything was handed down through stories — sad stories, funny stories, scary stories. There are so many stories about what happened way back in the past — stories that make up a history.”

The closest many tribes come to having a documented past, Bushyhead reports, are ancient pictographs (paintings or drawings, often done on deer hide).

“A lot of people now go back and study these pictographs,” he notes, adding, “Some of them are so old, so fragile, that they can’t even touch them. They have to take a picture.” And while the tribal languages may likewise be disentegrating, the stories themselves — he believes — are indestructible. In the end, they may be American Indians’ last unifying cultural force.

“It’s a way to relate to the younger people how the tribe came about,” the chief concludes on a note of promise.

A cultural extravaganza

Kituwah, a Celebration of American Indian Arts, Heritage and Education, comes to the Asheville Civic Center Friday, Sept. 24 through Sunday, Sept. 26. Festival hours are 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on Sunday. Dance performances will be given three times each day, with a schedule posted in the lobby; times for storytelling and Wisdom Keepers’ performances will be posted at the sign-up table.

Featured attractions this year include the Zuni Pueblo Dancers, from the Arizona desert, and Central Yup’ik Eskimo storyteller Chuna McIntyre, who shares the heritage, culture and regalia of the Bering Sea shore. The work of 100 juried arts-and-crafts exhibitors will be displayed on the Civic Center’s concourse level, along with the diorama competition — a stunning collection of 6-foot-by-12-foot paintings of tribal life from American Indian schools across the country.

Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children 6-12, and $5 for American Indians with tribal identification. Three-day tickets cost $25 for adults, $12 for children (group rates available). Call (800) 257-1300 for information on local accommodations, and (828) 259-5544 to order tickets or for general information.

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