SAN BENITO — They sat in a circle, voices rising like mystical smoke fire, the haunting melody made more ponderous by the thundering of drums.
At the edge of the dance arena at Veterans Memorial Academy yesterday stood the members of numerous native tribes from many places, rising slowly on the balls of their feet in rhythm to the music.
It was an elegant preamble to the 6th Annual San Benito Native American Cultural Powwow, which would include songs, Aztec dancers, fry bread and Indian tacos.
Ruben Cordova, dressed in a red head wrap, leather moccasins and breech cloth, walked around the room with a bundle of burning sage to bless the event. He frequently stopped to give blessings with an eagle feather.
“The eagle is the highest flying bird so we consider that it’s closer to God,” said Cordova, 60. “So when we get their feathers it means that it’s been touched by God and so we use it for extra power.”
The powwow was presented by the Texas Heritage Independence Celebration Association and the South Texas Cultural Powwow, both of which he’s a member.
Cordova, one of the organizers, explained the powwow was an opportunity for everyone to come together and learn about native cultures.
“A lot of people know they are Native American, but they don’t know how to get into the culture or start the process of practicing the culture of the Native American,” said Cordova, who is part Lipan and Chiricahua Apache.
“We try to bring everybody down and share the Native American culture and heritage,” said Cordova, who lives in Santa Rosa.
“We invite people to come down and dance with us and we treat them like family,” he said. “A lot of people keep telling us we’re one of the powwows that make them feel more at home and that’s what we want.”
One of those who came down to dance was Calvin Walksaround Osife who performed the Northern Traditional dance.
“It’s a family dance,” said Osife, a member of the Dine’ Nation, more commonly known as Navajo.
“It was given to me as a child,” he said. “I’ve been dancing it ever since I was a small child. This is what inspired me the most on the dance floor.”
It was indeed a family affair for Osife, who came down from San Antonio with his wife Jennifer and daughter Dakota Prarierose.
Dakota, dressed in a blue satin blouse, jeweled crown and metal conical pieces on her dress, was excited about doing the “Jingle Dance.”
“In a way it’s very hard but I’ve just been practicing over and over again at many different powwows,” said Dakota, 13.
A pamphlet handed out at the door explained that the Jingle Dance began when an elder was very ill. In a vision, a young woman taught him how to make a “medicine dress” that would make him well. She also taught him songs that would make the medicine come alive. When he awoke from his vision, the man told his granddaughters how to make the dress. They followed his instructions and he was well again.
“The Jingle Dance is an Ojibwe dance,” said Dakota’s mother, Jennifer. “It doesn’t even originate with the Navajos, but a lot of the different tribes have adopted it. It’s more like a healing dance.”
Dakota was also excited to be named the “head lady dancer.”
Her mother was delighted that Dakota had been presented this honor and also, in like manner, her husband Calvin was the “head man dancer.”
“I am very proud of her, very proud of her and my husband that they were asked to be head staff today,” she said.
Father and daughter danced throughout the day. During an intertribal dance, Dakota stepped into the dance arena, jeweled feet stepping out with youthful energy, back and forth, side to side, the metal cones jingling. Following behind her was her father, his feathered head rising and falling, weaving left and right, eagle feathers splayed across his back in a dramatic display. Behind him came another dancer in bright colorful costume, spinning rapidly to the music. They all cast a sort of hypnotic spell, this conjuring of ancestral memories, everyone watching with awe.
In spite of all the intricate footwork, Calvin said that wasn’t the hardest part.
“The most difficult thing is dancing into your fifties and your forties, trying to keep up with the younger generation,” he said with a laugh.