Just east of the Manhattan skyline, in an open field brimming with moccasins and iPhones and fry bread and Brooklyn brogues, Jose Quijano lugs a large drum to his sedan parked behind a cluster of trees. “I’m selling it,” he says. “$500.”
It’s late Sunday, the final day of the 20th annual Gateway to Nations New York City Native American Heritage Celebration and Pow Wow. Quijano is packing up his grass dancing regalia. He said he spent the weekend competing in the men’s grass dance category, but he knew that he wasn’t going to place going up against the burgeoning, limber young 20-somethings dipping and stretching and bopping to the deep rhythm of the drum groups encircling the dirt-grass arena.
Congregated around his car is Quijano’s family, his brother and sister – each one born in Puerto Rico and clad in red, white and blue. A pair of Puerto Rican flags on a nearby SUV whip in the breeze. In honor of Puerto Rican Heritage Day in New York – which was also Sunday – Quijano has tied a small Puerto Rican flag to the top of his roach in recognition of his people, he said.
Quijano is not only Puerto Rican. “We have Taino heritage,” he said. Quijano, of Brooklyn, said his parents moved his family to New York City in 1956. Soon after they settled, Quijano enrolled in the Boy Scouts, and it was there that he learned about Native America, about dancing and singing – it intrigued him.
“We used to get a regalia in the boy scouts (and dance), then after years boy scouts was not that cool anymore, so we started off-shooting from the boy scouts and (we’d) just go to the pow wows. Then we used to go sing and dance, compete – hoop dance, fancy dance.”
Quijano said no one in particular taught him or his siblings how to dance or to sing in the Native American way; they taught themselves by observation, he said.
“We learned by just looking. Good dancers and good singers – we used to just watch them do it. We used to just see them and just do it. And singing, too. We used to have a tape recorder. We used to listen to it. … We used to go out West. We used to go to Pine Ridge Reservation … and what we did was (if) we liked a song, coming back (to Brooklyn) we used to be humming it, and we learned it and we’d bring it back and we used to sing it.”
The same process goes for his regalia, Quijano said. He visually studied the details and intricacies of Native American traditional garb, and then he began to make his own – head to toe. “The regalia – we used to look at them and at the same time we invented new things.” Quijano reaches into the trunk of his car and shows off his fringe. “We used to go to 34th St. [to buy our materials].” Quijano said he would experiment with the fringe and use different materials that had not been utilized by other dancers.
Back in the 1960s, he and his family would hit the pow wow trail and dance and sing all over the West. His drum group was called, “The Brooklyn Drum,” and, according to Quijano, at no point did he claim to be indigenous North American. He and his troupe would let Native American communities know upon arrival, especially at pow wows, that he and his family are Taino, but that they enjoy participating in North American indigenous ways.
“They accepted us,” he said. “We never told anybody that we were Indians. We told them that we were Puerto Ricans and we come from Brooklyn, New York.”
About 100 yards east of the Quijano family, past the arena, beyond the FRIED BREAD stand, is a camped Gonzalo Echevarria and his family. Echevarria is also Taino, but he and his family dance the traditional Taino way, he said.
“Our dance differs. We dance on our left foot. When we dance on our left foot we stomp the ground to call our ancestors to dance with us,” he said. Echevarria, still clad in some of his native Taino regalia and face paint, said he and his family dance wherever they are invited and will also sell cultural items, which he calls ‘New Taino.’ Echevarria said he refers to them that way because they used modern tools to make traditional objects.
By 7 p.m. storm clouds were on the sun and a heavy wind muddied fresh fry bread; dancers in sunglasses were covering their faces and wiping the dirt from their garb and the area began to clear out. The Quijanos were already gone and the Echevarria family was packing up. … The muffled conversations of passersby suggested that getting home was going to be difficult. “No taxis come out this way,” one said. “We’re going to have to bus it to the subway.” Another concerned voice muttered: “My phone’s dead. I don’t know what bus to take.” Forty-five minutes later, a bus arrived, but read: “NOT IN SERVICE.” A collective gasp erupted from the growing crowd, and a woman shouted, “Are you kidding me!?” Children grew restless. People with naked shoulders, dressed for the summer heat, suddenly found themselves huddled together, hugging each other with shawls with fringe – an image reminiscent of the centuries of yore. A man still in face paint and buckskin-like trousers eyed the street for any sign of a bus as another man in headphones kept shouting, “Let’s go, Rangers!”
More people flooded the bus station – swelling the anxious crowd to about 50 or 60 cold bodies … then, suddenly, a woman shouts, “Look! … It’s a fleet.” Two massive buses arrive along with a sigh of relief. At once all was well again, and the conversations continued in the same way as they had been before the clouds, the cold and no buses: “Did you see those guys with those great big feathered things on their backs? They had two of them, I think, right? It was kind of fancy the way they were dressed.” A man behind the woman grinned and with a chuckle chimed, “Yes, it actually was pretty fancy.” Then, zip. Everyone was off, back to Park Slope or Williamsburg in Brooklyn, or to the subway station where they’d catch the 2 Train all the way back to the hustle and bustle of Madam Manhattan.