(From left to right: Jacob Erickson, Josiah Huhta, Seth Huhta) The Owens Valley War Dancers perform the traditional Eagle Dance. (Photo: Fredericksen)
In Paiute tradition, before a feast can commence, a blessing is given by a tribal elder. Last Friday, although stomachs may have been growling, more than 280 members of the Paiute Nation and Bishop community gathered at the Pow-wow grounds in a giant circle—the traditional formation— to listen to the blessing given by 86-year-old Freida Brown.
Holding onto her walker for support, Brown delivered a blessing of the food and the gathering of her people in the Paiute language. She is one of the last remaining members of the tribe who is fluent in this ancient native language.
“When I’m asked to give a blessing, I feel free,” Brown said. “I always go to give the blessing, as long as they feed me!”
Brown said to give an accurate English translation of the blessing would be time-intensive, but the general message is similar to a blessing in church, beginning with, “Our Father, help us, so we can learn and carry on…”
Paiute members gathered Friday evening to honor native youth who have performed well in academics and athletics. The names of recognized K-12 students were announced one by one, and each student received a certificate of achievement. Sixty-five youth were also honored who have actively served the community through the tribe’s new program, Wünüt. Managed by Kris Hohag, Wünüt is a coalition of young adults who support choices that positively impact the health, success and sense of community of local native youth. Wünüt means to “stand up” in the local Nüümü Yodaha (Paiute) language.
To honor the students, members of the Paiute community gathered together to perform and enjoy the Circle Dance, similar to pow wow-style dancing, but unique specifically to the Paiute tribe.
To introduce the Circle Dance, a story was told about a time when the “only people who talked were animals.” There came a time of drought and the animals looked to Squirrel, who was their chief, to decide what to do. Squirrel told them they needed to perform the Circle Dance, so the animals prepared to dance and sing. When they were ready to begin, however, Squirrel was nowhere to be found. The animals searched for Squirrel until they found him in his home. He told them he was afraid his toes and claws were so huge that he might trip and not dance the right way. But the animals convinced Squirrel to join them, and it turns out, many of the animals also had big claws. Despite their claws, the animals sang and danced until they were too tired to dance anymore. The Creator saw what they had done and the wind blew, holes in the soil filled with seeds, and the rain came.
The Circle Dance came to help people. So, the storyteller finished, “If you don’t know how to dance, just look to the people around you.”
With that, Paiute members, young and old, gathered together in a large circle, held hands, and began to dance. Throughout the evening, different performers sang rhythmic chants while playing the drums.
“The Paiute people are very humble,” said Sage Romero, a youth prevention worker for Toiyabe Indian Health Services. “We don’t have a lot of flashy costumes, but we maintain a deep spirituality. The Circle Dance is an embedded part of our culture.”
In addition to the Circle Dance, Black Feather, a drum group of young men, performed traditional pow-wow songs. The evening’s itinerary also included the Owens Valley War Dancers, a trio of young men, who danced bare-chested wearing rabbit-skin skirts and magpie-feather hats. Their dance teacher, Gerald Kane, said the boys started learning how to dance when they were about 6 years old.
“They really respect their culture,” Kane said of his students. “It’s been a pleasure to work with these boys for so long. They enjoy learning the dance of their great-great grandfathers.”
To close the evening, Romero delivered a final blessing, acknowledging the Creator— giving thanks for watching over his people. Black Feather then played a final drum song, with a more resounding rhythm than previous songs, mimicking the steady, deep pounding of a heartbeat.