In the real world, he travels up to 100,000 miles a year in high-powered jets. But in the world of fantasy, he races millions of miles overnight in a reindeer-powered sleigh.
Rick Waters is a well-traveled businessman, educator, and family man, but he’s also known as Santa, weaving fantasy into the annual American Indian College Fund (AICF) Elders’ Dinner, where silver-haired men and women return to childhood holidays “at least for the moment,” Waters said.
Waters, national director of tribal relations for the University of Phoenix, is a busy man, but somehow for the last decade he and his four-wheeled sleigh have always made it to the Elders’ Dinner, where he bursts in on some 250 elder diners in his Santa suit, signature feathered headdress, and sunglasses. This year, the dinner was held December 11 in Denver.
He always tells Santa jokes—this year he said he’s been in so many dark chimneys he’s got "Claus-trophobia" and he tries to incorporate tribe-specific humor, given the diverse tribal backgrounds represented. One year when the University of Oklahoma was high in sports rankings, the portly Santa had a little OU teddy bear peeking out of his pack.
There were hams, pies, cookies and donated bison meat. The new AICF president, Cheryl Crazy Bull, introduced herself to the community and talked about Richard B. Williams’ legacy. Williams is the former CEO and president of AICF who recently retired and is now AICF senior advisor. His son, Cetan Wanbli Williams, was emcee. Honor songs were sung for elders, including Grace B. Gillette, Arikara, and Diane Buck, Assiniboine, prominent officials of the Denver March PowWow.
All, of course, was and is not light-hearted. Waters, Kiowa/Cherokee, recognizes the elders present as sources of strength for their children, and, as grandparents, they are often raising their grandchildren. “It’s their celebration,” he said. He passed out gift bags, stopped to shake hands, and gave some hugs.
Near Carnegie, Oklahoma, where Waters lived as a youngster, Rainy Mountain Kiowa Baptist Church, in Mountain View, enjoyed a visit from Santa at the end of the regular program. Santa entertained the church-goers with a dry, droll humor.
His grandmother told him how families used to come and camp at the church a week before Christmas—people from the area would arrive in horse-drawn wagons. But recently, he recalls, only one family is still camping.
Even if that and other customs are slowly dying out, the holiday will endure. After all, it’s “a time of giving, a time for family,” he believes, and the annual event bears him out. The elders leave the dinner smiling, toting large gift bags, and hoisting hams destined for holiday tables.