The story’s in the dance: Once at night and once in the morning, men impersonating the gaan — spiritual beings who live in the mountains and have the power to bestow blessings, heal the sick, and drive away evil — descend from the mountains to dance with a girl who has just reached puberty.
The Apaches chant and beat the water drum. First comes a clown, who blesses each of the four cardinal directions. Then come the men, dancing to the medicine man’s songs of prayer — dancing to bless the girl and to ensure her good health and long life.
It’s a ceremony dating back to Geronimo’s days of tribal leadership, in the 1880s. Performed to invoke the gaan, the dance is also meant to evoke in participants a strong sense of cultural pride and deep spiritual fervor.
This year, the Apache Crown Dancers will offer the dance at Kituwah, Asheville’s annual celebration of American Indian arts and heritage, which features tribes from across the continent.
The event, newly moved to the UNCA campus after years at the Civic Center, also showcases assorted other aspects of American Indian culture, such as the art of full-blood Cherokee Donald Vann. His painting “The Rainbow Bridge” contains both a story and a call for understanding: Vann created it in remembrance of his beloved canine companion, who passed last year, and also as a touchstone for all who’ve shared the unconditional love of a pet.
“Through my images, I hope people will be inspired to learn more about the customs and values of America’s native people. If I can make people see with their heart instead of their eyes, then my art has spoken; then I have succeeded,” says Vann, winner of Kituwah’s 1999 People’s Choice Award.
Dawn Dark Mountain’s “Sacred Sisters” — the painting featured on this year’s Kituwah poster — blends the mystical with the historical: Three Indian women nurture three sacred Iroquois plants — corn, beans and squash. Beneath them dance images of animals such as the heron, representing the many Iroquois clans. In Iroquois tradition, mothers owned both the land and the crops and chose the clan leaders; myth has it that “First Mother” gave her body so that the people might live. From her grew the corn, beans and squash that sustained the people. Planted together on small hills, the beans twined round the cornstalks, and the squash’s broad leaves stifled weeds. These were the “sacred sisters.”
Festival organizers make a point of including such stories — as well as art, crafts and dance — in order to “dispel the myths that the movies and the entertainment industry have created,” explains D.J. Williams, education director for the High Country Art and Craft Guild, which sponsors Kituwah (pronounced “gid-DOO-wah”).
That’s also believed to be the name of the ancient Cherokees’ first permanent settlement in the area; it translates as “gathering place.” Williams adds: “Kituwah brings in a part of culture and society that is unique. It enriches our lives and gives us a chance to see, touch and experience American Indian culture — better than we could from any history book.”
Consider the classic American tale The Last of the Mohicans (not to mention the movie of the same name, filmed here in the Asheville area). From James Fenimore Cooper’s story (ditto the tweaked movie version), you’d guess there weren’t any Mohicans left in the U.S.
But Kituwah 2000 features singer/songwriter Bill Miller, an American Indian of Mohican descent from the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation in Wisconsin. A five-time winner at the 1999 Native American Music Awards, Miller has been called the “Altered Native,” influenced as much by the music of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Neil Young as by that of his Mohican ancestors. His most recent release, Ghostdance, reminds us that we’re all linked to the past:
“[The title song] was … pivotal … because of the parallels between what was happening in the 1890s [the massacre, at Wounded Knee, of 200 men, women and children, all members of the Ghost Dance religious movement] and what’s going on today, not only for native people but for everyone. I think many people today feel the same apocalyptic energy that the original Ghost Dancers felt,” reveals Miller.
The singer’s sentiments dovetail with Kituwah’s mission of encouraging the preservation of American Indian art, crafts and traditional cultures — and enhancing the American public’s awareness, appreciation and understanding of the American Indian experience. Asks Williams: “How does [American Indian culture] relate to [our] past and present? How does it relate to our society?” These questions are central to Kituwah’s purpose, and answering them is the key goal of a newly expanded teacher workbook, “American Indian Culture: A Teacher’s Guide,” Williams explains.
Originally written by the Kituwah Education Committee as a complement to the annual teachers’ workshop held at the event, the workbook now offers a complete unit of study that satisfies the state Board of Education’s curriculum guidelines, thanks to the work of UNCA’s education department, she notes.
“[The workbook] was always a useful tool, providing historical information and activities appropriate for schoolchildren,” Williams continues.
“It’s important that teachers have accurate information. They have the opportunity to influence dozens of children every year,” puts in Perry Ground, an Iroquois storyteller and educator who first attended Kituwah in 1992.
Ground — based in New York state but currently working as a programs manager for the Children’s Museum in Houston — agrees that it’s important for performers and educators at Kitwuah to dispel misperceptions about American Indians: “Many people think of modern-day Indians as having long, black hair and [running] casinos. But during my performances, I’ll wear a ribbon shirt and jewelry [reflecting my heritage], while I may also be wearing Dockers or Reeboks,” he reveals.
In a way, the workbook can also be considered a featured “performer” at the education-centered event — along with the American Indian teachers, oral historians, authors and artists who’ll share their cultural perspective with local teachers in a Saturday-morning workshop at Owen Conference Center.
On Thursday and Friday, Ground and many other Kituwah artists and performers will visit schools in Cherokee, Polk and Henderson counties, Williams reports. Additionally, some local schoolchildren will make the trek to UNCA Friday for a little cultural exposure, checking out the Plains Indian encampment that the Big Mountain Family of the Comanche and Mohawk nations will construct on the quad.
Of course, what the kids will see can only be the merest sampling of American Indian culture: A full telling of just one creation myth that Ground knows would take three whole days!
“I’ll condense it to the 10- to 15-minute version,” he says, laughing. Ground will also serve up one of his favorites, a nearly lost tale — discovered in a book and adapted to his own interactive style of storytelling — that reveals how the owl got big eyes and the rabbit got big ears.
Which brings Williams back to the unique opportunity Kituwah offers people of all ages. Reflecting on the diversity of last year’s performers, who included the Zuni Pueblo Dancers from the Arizona desert and Central Yup’ik Eskimo storyteller Chuna McIntyre from the Bering Sea shore, she remarks: “How many of us have had a chance to meet an Alaskan Indian? We learned why the dances of McIntyre’s culture seem quiet and [involve] less movement than, say, the Zuni: It’s cold up there — and, historically, they were crowded into smaller spaces, trying to keep warm.”
A special feature of Kituwah events is that performers and organizers explain the dances, art, ceremonies and traditions, adds Gail Gomez of High Country. “Being at UNCA, too, brings out more awareness that this is an educational festival, featuring authentic information, authentic American Indian crafts,” she observes. All vendors and performers are registered American Indians, Gomez emphasizes.
And then, with a little swipe at the movies, she comments, “They don’t chase trains out West.”
A Kituwah sampler
Kituwah, the American Indian Celebration of Arts, Heritage and Education, comes to the UNCA campus Friday, Oct. 13 through Sunday, Oct. 15. The event opens with a preview party on Friday at 7:30 p.m., offering participants a chance to meet featured artists, sample authentic American Indian food, and witness the unveiling of the juried fine-arts exhibit (reservations are required for the preview; tickets cost $15). Saturday hours are 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday, it runs from 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
• Dance performances are scheduled at various times on Saturday and Sunday, featuring the Big Mountain Family of the Comanche/Mohawk nations and the Apache Crown Dancers of Arizona’s White Mountain Apache Reservation. Dance times will be posted at all Kituwah sites.
• Kituwah features question/answer sessions and storytelling by tribal elders collectively known as Wisdom Keepers, including Jake Swamp and Sara Smith (Mohawk), Perry Ground (Iroquois), Max Little (Seminole), and Leonard Four Hawks (Northern Cheyenne). Wisdom Keeper/storyteller schedules will be posted at Karpen Hall.
• Visual art, crafts and the juried fine-arts exhibit will be shown at UNCA’s Justice Health and Fitness Center. Featured artists/crafters include Western Band Cherokee Donald Vann (winner of the Kituwah 1999 People’s Choice Award); Kituwah 2000 poster artist and Oneida Nation representative Dawn Dark Mountain; Kiowa/Comanche sculptor Barthell Little Chief; Navajo jewelers and katsina doll carvers Harry Bert and Veronica Negale; Eastern Band Cherokee sculptor Lowery Begay; Ojibwa pipe and leather sculptors Bud Johnston and Rona Moore; Salasaca Quichua wool-tapestry weavers Rosa Maria, Martina and Francisca Masaquiza … plus many more. UNCA’s quad will host a Plains Indians tipi encampment, as well as other displays and food vendors.