Ancient Rituals and Cultural Encounters: A Powwow in the Heart of Downtown
Sunday morning as I was mucking out my horses’ stalls the mission bells began their familiar rhythmic tolling across our valley calling our town’s parishioners
to Mass, a sound that has been heard for the past 250 years. Continuing my labor, a smile played upon my face as my thoughts drifted to the day before. I’d had
a hair appointment in town and found a parking spot next to our Historic Town Center Park. I recalled that as I climbed out of my car, the air was vibrating
with the melodious throbbing of tom toms coming from the park. A shiver of excitement washed through me. I knew I had to get to my appointment, but I hoped
that whatever the event was in the park would still be going on later.
After an hour or so, I left the salon still hearing the drums, only they were much louder. I hurried toward the sounds thinking it must be something to do with
our very active band of Native People. At the park, I slipped into the crowd of a few hundred and watched six men in the center of the park dressed in native
dress. They were stomping in time with the loud drum beats. Another shiver ran through me. I had somehow stumbled onto a powwow! I soon learned that
representatives from many Native American nations from across California and beyond had traveled great distances to join in. I learned that this was the first
powwow to be hosted by our local Acajacheman nation.
My work as a mission docent, teaching school children about our first people, has heightened both my interest and appreciation of them and their important role
in our town’s history. For over ten thousand years, tribal people inhabited this area of Southern California; long before the Spaniards arrived. The California
Teaching Standards for fourth graders require a unit on Native Americans. It is my honor to guide our visiting students through the mission, teaching about the
skills, culture and lifestyle of the earliest people. Mission San Juan Capistrano welcomes more than 50,000 students each year. The children love to hear about
the hunting, fishing and agricultural practices of the first inhabitants. The fact that the City of San Juan Capistrano has recently supported the construction
an outdoor Acajacheman Village museum, located nearby, adds to the children’s excitement.
At the powwow two friendly women were standing next to me. They seemed as spell bound as I. We smiled hello. Soon we chatted a bit and introduced ourselves.
They were local residents, mother and daughter. The daughter told me she had been married for thirty years to a Native American, and that he was the “fire
keeper” of his tribe in Northern California. As my eyes widened in interest, she elaborated. “Yes, we had a sweat lodge on our property. The elder men held a
weekly healing ritual at our home.” She laughed, “The tribal leader would call my husband and report how many rocks he would need to have heated for each
week’s ceremony. One time my husband had to have 145 heated rocks ready! It was a fascinating way to live.”
As the crowd grew, the circle of about ten drummers kept up their persistent beat, participants could be seen getting into their intriguing colorful costumes.
The older men donned something like an enormous bustle of turkey feathers attached below their waist in the back. Younger men and boys had less ornaments. The
women were beautiful in long skirts, skins, shawls and headdresses. One dancer, Teeter Romero was carrying a basket with smoking incense. Teeter is often
weaving baskets at the mission.
My new acquaintance, helping me to understand what I was seeing, whispered against the beating drums. She explained that turkey feathers are highly revered and
represent abundance and strength; that the elaborate bear claw necklaces worn by some of the men are considered to contain spiritual powers
Before long a colorful processional of perhaps 50 dancers of all ages circled the inside of the arena as welcomes were made. Domingo Belardes, a well known
member of the local Juaneno Band of Mission Indians offered a prayer. I knew that Domingo headed up the newly refurbished Blas Aguilar Adobe, one of the last
1790’s adobes still standing in town, which has become a museum displaying Acjacheman history and artifacts. Later I learned that it was the Blas Aguilar Adobe
Museum which sponsored the event.
As the program continued, we met Roy Two Bears who was bearing the Eagle Staff. Many others were introduced. Stories of the sacred Acjacheman lands on which we
were standing were shared. I understood the purpose of such powwow gatherings. They are about honoring the rich ancestral culture through stories, songs and
dances. It is also a time to socialize, strengthening the bonds of community.
I sat down on the grass in the shade of an awning at the edge of the circle. I did not want to miss a minute of it. As the participants danced around the
circle, my friend and representative of the Acjacheman people, Jacque Nunez, recognized me and blew me a kiss. I felt a bit fevered by the thrill of it all. I
could not help but think that this was happening in my very own home town. I swelled with pride to live in a community which respects and reveres its native
people. On a recent trip to the Los Angeles Natural History Museum I was humbled to view a portrait of Jacque hanging on the wall in the First Americans
exhibit. She is a recognized spokesperson for the Acjacheman people, frequently presenting lectures in schools and in the community. One of her favorite topics
is: “The Acjachemen Nation is Alive and Well.”
Across my life I have been earnest in seeking out and appreciating other cultures and ways of living. I have been blessed to travel to many parts of the world
in that quest. My experiences are many and include dancing the Jumping Marriage Dance with the Masaii in Tanzania; dishing alms into the food pots of the
Buddhist monks in Cambodia in the dark of early morning; stepping inside primitive shelters visiting families along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Viet Nam while
chickens and pigs rubbed past me inside the humble abodes, to the giggles of scantily dressed bare-foot boys and girls tantalized by my presence. Across my
adventures I have been awed to find that my fellow humans are mostly joyous and eager to engage, no matter the setting.
Interacting with people in dramatically different cultures in other parts of the world has been a driving force in my life, meaning more to me than I can say,
experiences I keep in the deepest part of my heart. Like so many others with whom I have interacted, the powwow celebrants beamed with joy and welcome. I could
feel how much this all-day event meant to them.
Later, during a break in the festivities I shyly asked one costumed dancer, a man, if I could have a picture with him. Smiling he agreed. Grinning with pride,
he proclaimed, “I am Apache!” For my part, I am thrilled to live in a world where it is possible to meet all kinds of people who are free to live their lives
in their own ways and to share those ways with others. I am particularly grateful to live in an historic community which respects our First Americans and views
them as an integral part of life in San Juan Capistrano.
What cultural experience have you enjoyed that caused your heart to skip a beat? I’d love to hear about it. For now, I best get back to finishing my