Just east of Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County, Calif., down a dusty road littered with tall splayed oak trees, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians hosted the 19th Annual 2014 Chumash Inter-Tribal Pow Wow, on the weekend of October 4-5.
Down from 325 dancers last year, this year’s pow wow only attracted 100 female and 75 male dancers. Tribal member and pow wow coordinator Dominica Valencia, with piercing green eyes and a long salt-and-pepper ponytail, attributed the lower numbers to things out of the control of the tribe.
“For one, it’s hotter than usual,” Valencia said referring to temperatures hovering around triple digits for most of the day. “We had quite a few cases of dehydration, heat stroke. We had some dogs go down too, unfortunately, they are dropping like flies.”
Also, this year their pow wow fell on a busy pow wow weekend, and although the tribe offered decent prize money, they still found it difficult to compete with larger casino pow wows and their air-conditioned tents.
A shirtless Oglala Lakota traditional dancer Aaron Ten Bears didn’t have a problem with the heat. He was happy to be at the pow wow despite the forecasted 100-degree plus heat. “It’s good to see representation of indigenous culture no matter what the conditions,” Ten Bears said. He also chose the Chumash pow wow carefully, noting that it would probably not be as popular, or crowded, as other pow wows that weekend. “A lot of the tribes that have big casinos, and are profitable, hold these… big contest money [pow wows] and the energy is different. The fellowships and the kind of people that come to this pow wow is very positive. I’m not discounting big pow wows, but I like the smaller ones.”
Located in the Live Oak Camp and not far from the affluent community of Santa Barbara, the pow wow was strewed with diverse and high-end vendors, many jammed in-between towering oaks. Some sold animal parts including fox tails, turtle shells, coyote skins, skunk pelts, and various whole paws affixed claws. Others concentrated on traditional Mexican and Guatemalan garb like knitted tops, blankets and shawls. One stand even specialized in small to medium Aztec and Mayan portraits and embellished historical scenes.
John Grable of Whirlwind Beadworks has been coming to the Chumash pow wow for ten years. A fit older man with white locks and a sweat-stained hat, Grable primarily sells beaded embellishments like buckskin knife sheaths, medicine bags, hair-ties and luxury handbags. “There is a lot of great stuff here in this pow wow,” Grable said. “It’s good people, good vendors, and I don’t see them as competition. We are all friends and we all do well here.”
Perhaps the most popular attraction at the pow wow, beside the dancers themselves, was the tribal-sponsored healing circle. Under a massive oak tree surrounded by bales of hay, Adelina Alva Padilla and a few other spiritual elders used burning tobacco and sage to cleanse and bless approximately 100 visitors. As the interested parties formed a line around the circle, they were given tobacco to pray with and once they finished with the elders, could either keep the small gift or offer it to the Creator in gratitude.
Padilla’s son, Raymond, was in charge of keeping children and adults from wandering outside the sacred healing circle, he also made sure nobody took pictures during his tribe’s holy ritual.
“This is a cleansing for themselves,” Raymond said. “Either something is ailing them or something is missing spiritually. It’s a prayer. Say you go to church; a priest blesses you when you go to communion — this is our church.”
Janice Reid of nearby Arroyo Grande was compelled to attend the pow wow after a Lakota co-worker of hers told her about the positive experience she had had at the healing circle. Reid said it was neat to have traditional healers offer this service to the masses. While she was waiting in line and praying with the tobacco, she was overcome with emotion and it brought tears to her eyes.
“I don’t know what it did for me,” she said. “But I am waiting for the Creator to tell me.”