Old Traditions in a Modern World

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October 1st 2011
Published: August 30th 2012
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I woke up this morning outside Cortez Colorado.

The town is completely unlike most people’s vision of the state.

Many see Colorado as the ultimate example of the Rocky Mountains.

Instead, Cortez is part of the southwestern deserts: dry, relatively flat, and surrounded by pine covered mesas.

Cortez is a long way from Las Vegas.

Why drive all the way out here?

I’m here because I need to be.

The time is now early October, and this month is when weather at high elevations starts to get sketchy.

To see sights in this area comfortably, I need to do so now.

Cortez is also close to a remarkable festival, one that provides a glimpse into another world.

I drove out of Cortez heading south.

This area is definitely desert, covered in dry scrub, with almost no signs of human habitation.

The road passes a number of mesas.

A long mountain appears on the right that looks like a person sleeping on his back.

It’s called “Sleeping Ute Mountain”, and supposed to be a former warrior.

The highway crosses into New Mexico and soon reenters the Navajo Nation.

It eventually reaches a downright ugly collection of buildings around a highway intersection, Shiprock.

Northern Navajo Fair

This week, Shiprock hosts the Northern Navaho Fair.

It is the oldest Native American fair in the country, and the most traditional.

Few people outside the region know it exists.

The fair celebrates Navajo culture, a rare view for outsiders.

People from elsewhere are welcome as long as they show proper respect.

Part of that means not taking pictures.

Unfortunately, the fair has had organization issues in recent years, so finding information about it required a great deal of research.

Today the fair had a number of events.

The one I’ve never seen before is the pow wow.

It’s a contest of traditional Navajo dancing.

The powwow has multiple dance categories, each of which covers a different style.

In between, there are open dances where anyone can join in, although only competitors did so.

Everyone is dressed in traditional regalia, painstaking handmade outfits covered in beads and feathers.

I saw similar outfits in the Native American sections of a number of museums.

The dancing was colorful and interesting, although I know nothing about the symbolism.

The music comes from drum circles.

Groups of people sit around large drums and sing.

One drum circle hosts the powwow and starts it off.

Afterwards, other groups can just set up at the edge of the arena and take a turn.

I saw a number do so during the event.

They represented Native American groups across the west, plus one from Canada.

The singing was all in native languages, although the announcements were in English.

The concession stand sold traditional Navaho food.

The main item was a stew very similar to beef stew.

Desert consisted of Indian frybread, basically fried dough without the toppings.

Both of these fill people up.

The other major event tonight was a rodeo.

After the American Army forced most Native Americans onto reservations, many turned to ranching to survive.

The rodeo allows cowboys to show off their skills.

The events and their order are the same as other rodeos, but entry is restricted to Native Americans.

Their skill level fell between the professionals of the Black Hills Roundup (see The Western Tradition) and the amateurs of Cody (see The Real, and Fake, Wild West).

Competitors did incredibly well at the precision roping events, beating even the Black Hills Roundup in this category.

The rest was fun to watch.


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