By John Geluardi
Special to the Daily Planet
Berkeley celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day with the colorful vestments, music and dancing of native cultures that thrived on the West Coast for thousands of years before Europeans arrived.
Hundreds of people came to Martin Luther King Jr. Park Saturday to enjoy the official holiday and sunshine at the Ninth annual Powwow and Indian Market.
The celebration, co-sponsored by the city, the Indigenous Peoples Committee and the Turtle Island Project, was a day-long event featuring Northern and Southern Native American drumming and dancers wearing vibrant garments and headgear adorned with feathers and strung bone and shell beads.
UC Berkeley student Lawrence Killsback of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe said the event achieves a number of positive goals for the community besides cultural exchange.
“There are Indians throughout the community going to school and working but we don’t always recognize each other and powwows give us a chance to meet, organize and celebrate.”
The Berkeley City Council unanimously passed a declaration in 1991 making the weekend nearest Oct. 12 Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The first celebration was held in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the Americas, which Native Americans say was the beginning of centuries of cultural erosion caused by genocide and enslavement.
This year’s celebration was dedicated to the release of Native American rights activist Leonard Peltier. Speakers said it is widely believed that Peltier, now imprisoned for 24 years, was falsely convicted of killing two FBI agents in 1975 and called for President Clinton to grant Peltier Executive Clemency.
The dancing was held in a circle approximately 100 feet in diameter. Many spectators sat on blankets or on the grass along the edge of the circle eating Indian tacos and fry bread while watching the succession of dances. During certain portions of the Powwow, the master of ceremonies, Lorenza Baca, encouraged all spectators to join the dancing.
Peppered among announcements of the dance events, expositions of recent Native American achievements and gentle reminders to spectators who parked illegally, Baca amused the crowd with occasional jokes.
“Did you know I was in Los Angeles recently to audition for a TV series?” he said artfully over the public address system. “That’s right, it’s called ‘Touched by an Anglo.’”
The dance gear drew much attention and Baca constantly reminded spectators to be respectful and ask the dancers’ permission before taking photographs.
Headman Dancer Gilbert Blacksmith said each dancer makes his or her own dancing regalia, which is an expression of individuality. Blacksmith, 44, said there are three native dance styles, traditional, grass dance and fancy dance. He has been dancing for 40 years and said he is now the oldest fancy dancer in the nation.
Blacksmith teaches fancy dancing every Thursday to all interested at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland.
Spectators Sarah McPherson and her two daughters Anne, 7, and Meg, 5, danced each time the inner circle was opened to spectators. “This is just a great event,” McPherson said. “I brought the girls for the cultural experience but I never thought they’d have this much fun.”
Other celebrants strolled along the outer circle of vendor booths selling arts and crafts such as Native American jewelry, dream catchers and musical instruments. Vincent and Jodi Castanon have been making and selling traditional soap stone crafts for 29 years. “We go to as many as 35 powwows a year between March and November,” Vincent said. “And when we’re not traveling we teach soap stone carving.”
Soap stone is found throughout the United States and was used by Indigenous tribes for 2000 years to make pipes, beads, carvings and talcum powder.
There were several information booths among the crafts vendors including the Green Party, The Native American Health Center and activists promoting the preservation of the West Berkeley Shellmound, the site of a ancient Native American community and burial site at the mouth of Strawberry Creek.
The Native American Aids Project distributed condoms and pamphlets describing the organization’s services. NAAP Program Director Joan Benoît said the HIV infection rate among Native Americans increased 700 percent between 1990 and 1999. “We’re here to make sure the people stay safe.”