The long line of vehicles that stirs up dust clouds on the way to Mission San Xavier del Bac attest to the popularity of the Tohono O’odham tribes 32nd Annual Wa:k Pow Wow, held last weekend near Tucson. The two-day event was entertaining and educational.
“While dancers come here to socialize and compete, our pow wow is a learning experience for non-Natives to find out a bit more about who we are as a people,” Philbert Bailey, the event director, told ICTMN. “The pow wow provides visitors a glimpse of our culture as we share the traditions of our San Xavier district.
“We don’t care how many attend, just as long as they all have fun,” Bailey said.
The event name, Wa:k, displays a certain amount of irony. It translates to ‘where the water comes out of the ground’, but very little of the precious liquid exists today in this part of the Sonoran Desert, where Tohono villages once survived on the then-running waters of the Santa Cruz River.
Despite the traffic congestion and the weather fluctuations (nearly 80 degrees one day, 40 mile-per-hour winds the next), the pow wow fun began with the sounds of Waila music. Waila (from the Spanish word baile or dance) is a genre of music unto itself; with polkas and two-steps belted out on guitars, drums, an accordion and a cow bell.
“It’s non-stop pageantry, fun, and dance competition,” says Bailey of the weekend-long gathering that begins with a cultural dance by the Wa:k T-ab basket dancers and leads into a Grand Entry procession with O’odham tribal officials and visiting royalty from different nations. “We get the crowd in the mood with tiny tot dancing, youngsters who can barely walk up to age 5, that’s always an audience favorite.
Intertribal dances come next where anyone can join in. Then, it’s on to exhibition, teen, elders, women’s, and couples dancing until day one ends late in the evening under a canopy of stars.”
Tohono Nation member Ryan Rumley kept everything flowing as Master of Ceremonies. “We have a lot of tourists and first-time pow wow visitors and I try to keep them informed about who the dancers are and what specialty dance they’re performing. We typically get about 125 dancers, many from the northern states who follow the circuit into Arizona in the cold months because we’re not under 3-feet of snow.”
Badger Wahwasuck and his wife Karen lead the Grand Entry and dance at pow wow about 45 weekends every year. “My son and daughter perform even more because they travel into Canada to dance,” Badger said. “This is a family tradition for us, and we like the intertribal social setting that the Tohono O’odham event provides. This may not be ceremonial in nature, but the social dancing makes younger Natives proud to be involved in traditional tribal ways.”
Towering somewhere in the 6’4” category (even without headdress), Badger’s regalia had the same vibrant colors worn by all participants. “Because we’re from the northern plains, my regalia honors old time warriors by keeping their memory alive. The vivid yellow and black combinations represent our Thunder clan.”
Surrounded by green O’odham farm fields in the shadow of the famed Mission San Xavier del Bac (The White Dove of the Desert), Elizabeth Peterson of Lakota/Cherokee background, wore her tribal regalia as well as adopting Tohono O’odham colors. “I’m more of a sun dancer, but I got introduced to the pow wow circuit a couple of years ago, and here I am.”
The smell of traditional fry bread and Indian tacos permeated the performing arena that featured O’odham vendors. Local artist Donny Preston is a craftsman who makes picture frames out of saguaro cactus ribs—a unique-enough creation that one of his works is in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. “While artists can be part of the dancing art form, I’m not a pow wow dancer. I prefer to do things with my hands rather than my feet.”
But there was enough fancy footwork to send spectators home with a better understanding of who these desert people are.