January 25, 2014

Indians perform "rain dance" to end drought

When in drought, rain dance

By Maureen MageeThe scent of burning sage wafted toward the inflatable bounce house. The beat of drums and the distinctive cries of Apache song caught the attention of boys playing soccer.

Smack in the middle of Mance Buchanan Park in suburban Oceanside on Saturday, dozens of Native Americans gathered in a circle on the brown grass to do what their ancestors had done generations before them: pray, sing and dance for rain.

As California enters its third straight year of dangerously dry conditions amid what Gov. Jerry Brown has proclaimed a drought emergency, Gil “Feather” Fernandez led a traditional rain dance on yet another hot and sunny winter day. He was joined by Sam Bearpaw, Windwalker and dozens of other Native Americans from multiple tribes who work to keep the traditions and rituals of their culture alive in a modern world.

“This is our way of bringing awareness to the severe drought we are having here in California,” Fernandez said. “We look at it from a spiritual angle. But we also want to remind people to respect the earth and take care of it.”
Below:  "Wind Walker bows her head in prayer as representatives of several tribes preformed a rain dance on Saturday to attack the drought from a 'spiritual perspective.'" (Earnie Grafton)

From the Coast News, 1/26/14, comes other tidbits about the event:In Oceanside on Saturday, Gil “Bluefeather” Fernandez and several Native Americans gathered to perform a rain dance and raise awareness of the drought situation that the state is currently facing.

Native American singer Windwalker was on hand to lead in songs, along with Sam Bearpaw performing Apache chants and dance.
And:There are variations in how these rain dances are performed in the different tribes, and individuals representing various tribes, including the Yaqui, Cherokee, Lakota Sioux, Apache, and Crow will be participating.

Native American singer Windwalker will also be performing during the dances.
So Lakota and Cherokee Indians were doing their traditional powwow rain dance in San Diego? Maybe San Diegans should send some Kumeyaay Indians back east to do a sunshine dance.

You can see the muddled thinking in these excerpts. Was it *a* (single) rain dance? A bunch of different rain dances? General chanting (singing) and dancing with prayers for rain attached? Or...?

I don't think the event was at a powwow, but it sounds like they were doing powwow-style dances. Were they claiming these were authentic rain dances from particular tribal traditions? If so, which tribes?

Or were they doing typical powwow-style dances and separately praying for rain? And calling the combination a "rain dance," which is misleading if not stereotypical?

Rain dances are done by particular tribes at particular times of the year. They involve particular preparations, accouterments, and rituals. They generally are not ceremonies that anyone from any tribe can do without the proper cultural knowledge.

A tribe-specific rain dance with centuries of history is completely different from a made-up "dance for rain." It's like the difference between performing the Eucharist in church and eating a McDonald's hamburger named Jesus. They're both examples of eating the body of Christ, but with huge differences in terms of meaning and validity for the participants.

If I were an Indian and in charge, I'd curtail the practice of doing questionable "rain dances" as public stunts. The claim that all Indians have magical dances that can bring rain isn't much different from claiming all Indians are vicious warriors or nature-loving hippies. It doesn't help, it hurts.

As for "Wind Walker" or "Windwalker," is she an Indian or a wannabe? Which tribe is she enrolled with, if any? Who gave her the right to wear a headdress, usually reserved for esteemed male chiefs?

If she was singing rather than dancing, was she doing a "rain song"? Is there such a thing in her tribal culture, whatever it is? Or did she basically make it up?

For more on rain dances, see Oktoberfest Organizer Wants Rain Dance and No Such Thing as Rain Dances.


Diane Tells His Name said...

I live in San Diego area, been involved with the Native Community since the 1970's. I was furious at this "journalism" by the UT and other newspapers in the area. I am having a rant on my FB wall...I am seeing this Sam Bearpaw is a actor...??? What was he thinking???

Rob said...

Yes, Sam Bearpaw is an actor. But I think he also dances in powwows and does other traditional things. Being an actor doesn't mean he can't be a traditionalist.

I'm annoyed that the event conflated at least three things: 1) prayers for rain, 2) traditional rain dances performed by a few tribes, and 3) powwow-style dances performed by many tribes. These are separate things--and powwow-style dances, in particular, have nothing to do with rain.

I don't know if the participants explained the differences clearly and Magee the reporter bungled it. Or if the participants confused the issue by labeling the entire event a "rain dance." If I had to guess, I'd say the latter.

I don't blame Magee if she didn't realize there were things to question. I don't think the potential problems are obvious to the casual observer, or reporter. Indeed, it would take a fairly knowledgeable and brave person to question Indians about the authenticity of their activities.