John Jaramillo, a Pueblo Indian from New Mexico, is not your traditional pow wow dancer but everything he has done in his professional career revolves around connecting people and grounded in the elements of pow wow dancing.
His wife, Therra Cathryn Gwyn sums it up neatly: “John’s resume is pretty packed with a lot of what might seem like unrelated things—he’s a professional Flamenco dancer—one of the very few Native Americans from the United States to become one—he’s an actor, he’s a mime artist, he’s a professional Aztec dancer and in demand teaching artist in schools.”
“I always attach my teachings to pow wows,” said Jaramillo. His Aztec Dances of Mexico workshop draws participants to the Friendship Dance, which is inspired by the pow wow two-step dance of the North American Plain Indians.
Jaramillo, who performs the traditional Aztec Dance in full warrior style regalia, said he puts into perspective his Native culture in a dance that has ceremonial and social elements as well as one that pays respect to warriors.
As a Pueblo—he is Isleta from his father’s side and San Felipe Pueblo from his mother side—Jaramillo said he was in and around pow wows while growing up, but as he grew older he found himself drawn to performing arts, to theatre and dance.
“Growing up in New Mexico, in the Pueblo reservation, there was always pow wows,” he said. “We went to state pow wows and regional pow wows.”
In 1990, Pat Zamora, founder of the Aztec dance troupe EHECATL ("the wind"), based in Albuquerque, invited him to join them. He danced around the country with the troupe, comprised of members of different Native tribes from regions in Mexico and the U.S.
“In the last 15 to 20 years Aztec dancers have been coming to pow wows,” said Jaramillo. “I think it is because historically Native people have always connected.”
Jaramillo said the Aztec dance movement—a modern mystic folk dance tradition of Central Mexico—has branched out in the Southwest, in places like Colorado, California and even New York.
As a Pueblo and professional Aztec dancer, Jaramillo said he sees his role as a teacher and one that helps people connect to Native culture that is evolving with the times.
“Native culture is not dead and gone. Yes, it is nice to go to museums but if you want to know Native culture go to the pow wows. Go and ask Native Americans,” he said.
Gwyn said her husband is most especially enthusiastic about empowering kids and letting them know that they can reach beyond boundaries.
“He was very intent for himself, even when he was very young, he wanted to be able to leave the reservation, see the world, educate, entertain, and always keep one foot and part of his heart in New Mexico, where he came from,” she said.
Currently, Jaramillo is forming a non-profit organization called Ancestral Arts that will focus on featuring and preserving Native American historical and cultural arts and dance.
At the same time, he is also developing a Native American storytelling theater program called Kokopeli’s Traveling Tales, where he as Kokopelli takes viewers on an ancient trade route, from Mexico through parts of the United States.
The stories he tells are those that have been handed down, word of mouth, from generation to generation—from the Aztecs, the Pueblos, the Sioux and the Cherokee, said Gwyn.
Jaramillo said the Kokopeli’s Traveling Tales takes off from the shows he produced earlier in his career. In 1996, he produced, directed and performed Old Man Kokopeli, a masked theater work inspired by his Native American-Pueblo Indian heritage.
He played Coyote Blue in Coyote Tales—a series of seven Isleta Pueblo coyote stories originally told by his great grandfather that were later adapted for the stage.
The production made its touring debut in 2000 and was performed at the University of New Mexico’s Popejoy Hall, in Albuquerque, and at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.
“Kokopeli has a voice,” said Jaramillo of his new production. He said in his earlier works Kokopeli did not talk. This time around, the story telling is vivid, with the elements of mask theatre, dance and puppetry.
He said he plans to premier Kokopeli’s Traveling Tales by summer of next year in Albuquerque and take it to different theaters and community center.
The pride in his works is evident. Jaramillo said of his almost three-decade career, “I am proud to say that it is not easy to be an artist and have a career.”