The last sun will set tonight on the New Millennium First Peoples’ World Fair and Pow Wow, an extended twelve-year-long celebration presented as an international welcome to the 21st century. Today marks the final pow wow, which ends tonight just as the sun goes down, in this incredible decade-spanning event.
At the request of tribal elders who wanted to display the contributions made by indigenous peoples worldwide, the Thunder in the Desert Pow Wow began life in the year 2000 by asking the question: Where will your spirit be when the sun rises in 2012?
The answer was Tucson, Arizona, where hundreds of participants and thousands of visitors showed up for lengthy, unprecedented festivities centered around 10 days of observances relative to 10,000 years of culture. “All the events acknowledged the unique cultural values and contributions to humanity made by Native Peoples for the past 100 centuries,” noted organizer Fred Synder, North American Indian Information & Trade Center Director.
In further acknowledgement of American Indian spirituality centered around the concept of four — 4 cardinal directions, 4 seasons, 4 sacred colors — the Thunder in the Desert pow wow took place in 2000, 2004, 2008, and this years’ finale that ushered in the 2012 New Year. “Native Americans felt it important to commemorate this special time in history to celebrate our continued existence and to recommit to carry on our tradition of beauty and culture,” Synder said.
This pow wow was both special and traditional in that it provided time to renew thoughts of old ways while joining in dancing, singing, visiting, rekindling current friendships, and making new ones.
By the end of December 2011, tepees and travel trailers were the first to arrive at the pow wow site — tepees to house demonstrations and travel trailers to house demonstrators, and dancers, and drummers who came together to make the event possible. “Literally, this event is an all volunteer organization that dedicates three years into planning these ten days of presentations,” said Synder.
And then the fun began with an Electric Pow Wow and a traditional Social Pow Wow featuring flute players and aboriginal dancers representing Aztec, Ecuadorian, and Tlingit cultures along with Zuni Buffalo and Eagle dancers and hoop dance performances — all of which lead up to late afternoon gourd dancing and an official Grand Entry begun as the sun began to sink in the West to end Day One.
Special events kept activity levels high right up till the last moccasin step of competition pow wow dancing at the close of the ceremonies. Each day brought something special from a New Year’s Eve Midnight Friendship Round Dance as 2011 concluded to a 5am Sunrise Ceremony on the first day of 2012. Other days offered other features like World Indigenous Peoples’ Exhibitions, Traditional Indian Medicine (Balance and Harmony Day), Native American Veterans Day, Seventh Generation Youth and Golden Age Day, and three full days of exhibition dances and competition pow wow.
Navajo actor, singer, song writer James Bilagody (who grew up on the Navajo Reservation in Tuba City, Arizona) handled microphone duties as Master of Ceremonies during the initial pow wow events. Bilagody, part of an internationally renowned indie rock/post classical string band (Ethel) and one-time disk jockey on a Tuba City Navajo radio station, told Indian Country Today Media Network: “As an MC I’m supposed to keep things moving along and keep talking to fill in time during breaks in the dancing and singing action. I’m kind of like the comedy act between the stage show, and as a stand-up comedian, I do that regularly so I’m not apprehensive about the responsibility here…in fact, I consider it an honor.”
Bilagody displays a sample of that comedic mind when asked how he was chosen to be MC for this historic final Millennium Pow Wow — did he draw short straw or was his name pulled out of a hat? “Nah, it was a beauty contest, and they named me Mr. Congeniality,” he says.
Although he recently performed Master of Ceremony duties for the annual Navajo Festival of Arts and Culture in Flagstaff, Bilagody advised: “I haven’t been a Pow Wow MC for 20 years and I’m a bit rusty. It’s a bit like not having ridden a bicycle for awhile — you can forget some of the little things, like whether front or rear brakes come first, but there’s so much knowledge here in the arena that if you stumble, someone will pick you up and send you off in the right direction.
“This is a social pow wow so Number One, its first function is to provide fun, and Number Two is R&R, rest and relaxation. Native peoples believe singing is ceremony and ceremony is healing and that belief has a scientific basis. Listen and heal. Dance the music and heal because each dance represents a prayer made visible. The more active you are, the more healing takes place — including all of the senses the Creator gave you.”
If activity levels equate to healing levels, a lot of both happened — prior to, during, and following the lengthy festivities. Before the pow wow date, supporters began offering spare rooms for use by dancers who came from overseas. Once the event got underway, volunteers and church groups stepped up to make big pots of chili and pasta to feed hungry dancers. And when the last drum went silent, the pow wow grounds had to be policed by lots of willing hands.
Until it was go-home time, native artisans displayed their authentic arts & crafts including vendors like Desiree Cole, a Northern Cheyenne feather painter, and local Yoeme artist Louis David Valenzuela who crafted their wares as pow wow attendees watched the artistry in action.
As a closing comment, coordinator Carole Garcia thanked participants by noting: “It is an honor you have chosen to be with us at Thunder in the Desert and thank you for keeping our children dancing. As you enter into this new time in history, may you walk in peace and balance in your maze of life.”