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Glamorous Pageantry Marks Native American Inter-Tribal Ceremonials - 2003-08-21

Nearly 40,000 people gathered in the small town of Gallup, New Mexico, in early August for the Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonials. The annual festivals honoring Indian culture featured art exhibitions, traditional dances, rodeo competitions, poetry, and lectures by participants from across the nation and abroad.

The sound of traditional Native American songs and dance filled the air in Gallup, New Mexico, in early August as thousands of people from several Indian tribes took part in the 82nd Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonials.

Over 30 Native American tribes descended upon Gallup, New Mexico to put together a glamorous pageantry that touched all aspects of Indian culture. The smell of frybread and grilled mutton filled the air as crowds lazily sauntered among hundreds of vendors selling Indian jewelry at the Red Rock Park, a few kilometers outside downtown Gallup, where most of the Ceremonials took place.

Organizers of the Ceremonials say the festival is the largest and most varied gathering in the nation that honors Native American history and traditions.

"The event is worldwide," said Joe Athens, the executive director of this year's Ceremonials Association. "It is completely inter-tribal which means that all tribes from the United States, Mexico, Canada and Hawaii are invited to display their culture and traditions through art, dance, story telling. And we can see that Indian people are becoming contemporary and are in the mainstream of the United States."

Mr. Athens says the main concept behind the Inter-Tribal Ceremonials when it was conceived in 1922 was to honor Indian tribes. Before then, says Mr. Athens, Native American tribes were decimated through attrition, massacres, wars and desperate attempts to assimilate into mainstream America.

Mr. Athens says the Ceremonials allow Native Americans an opportunity to preserve and promote Indian culture and tradition, particularly with young Native Americans who are more likely to abandon their traditions.

"Ceremonials is making concerted efforts to try to include as many juveniles into this because we know that juveniles are the future of the world," he said. "Teach the young people how to do the craft of baking bread, how to make Navajo rug out of wool, and how to continue the cooking and the traditions to womanhood."

Artistic expression, as an important part of Native American culture, featured prominently in the Gallup Ceremonials. Opening night at the Gallup Art Museum was attended by hundreds of people who came to admire the work of artists from different Indian generations.

"Right now in our gallery we have several different artists," said Rhonda Ray, director of Special Projects with the Southwest Indian Foundation, a group that organized this year's art exhibition at the Ceremonials. "We have jewelers, weavers, sculptors and painters. One of our big projects right now is the painted pony Chase. The Reunion of the Masters has decided to collaborate and do a collage in which they are displaying the beauty of their talents."

The four-day Ceremonials began with a colorful parade. Michael Gorman is a 19-year-old Navajo who used to dance in the Ceremonial performances. He explains what the Ceremonials mean to him.

"Ceremonials have been a big part of my life growing up," he said. "I used to actually dance for the Ceremonials when I was younger. When I was just a baby I was part of it. Big mama used to take me on a cradleboard for the different Navajo dances. So I have been participating since I was just a baby."

A bystander at one of the dance performances told the Voice of America that the spirit of the Ceremonials speak powerfully to the new generations of Native Americans in the United States.