They came from all over the U.S. to the small foothill town of O'Neals. Members of Indian tribes as far away as South Dakota converged for a powwow to help celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Sierra Mono Museum.
For the last two summers, wildfires forced cancellation of the long-standing powwow. But not this year.
On a big lawn in front of a local high school, a ring of tents surrounded a dance circle. Everyone seemed to know the rules: “Come in from the East -- that’s where the sun comes up -- and dance clockwise,” Richard Gonzalez explained.
“And everybody knows that you don’t run across. This is not a playground. The powwow circle is sacred, like a church," he said.
Gonzalez is Lipan Apache. He’s a Vietnam veteran visiting from Texas, but he grew up near here in Fresno. He and a handful of other vets led an opening procession around the circle. Then the dance competitions started.
Away from the contests, in the air-conditioned gym, 86-year-old North Fork Mono Indian Leona Chepo sat with a small group of vendors selling her hand-woven traditional baskets.
These intricate baskets made of deer grass and sedge root are what got this powwow started. “We were losing our baskets,” said Chepo. “People were stealing them from families and selling them for cheap, you know, for their beer.”
That was in the late '60s, Chepo said, so she and a group of other Mono Indians began looking for a way to protect the baskets -- an important part of their heritage. They decided to start a museum.
To help fund their new endeavor, they got creative. Mono women showed others how to make acorn mush. They sold watermelon. And Chepo’s aunt made baskets while visitors watched.
"Once," Chepo said, “we made the ugliest beads you ever saw! Our first time to make medallions, they didn’t have no shape. And people bought them. I couldn’t believe it!”
Finally, they invited some dancers and it grew into a powwow from there.
Some 45 years later, it’s a local tradition -- and it’s part of a way of life for many Native Americans who spend weekends going to powwows across the country.
At last weekend's event, there were Shawnee and Kiawah from Oklahoma, Apache from Texas and Chukchansi, Tachi Yokut and other tribes from all over California.
Along the edge of the circle, 16-year-old Dylan Ashley was getting ready to dance. He’d come all the way from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. “We found out there’s a powwow, so we came to check it out," he said.
Dylan is from the Oglala Lakota tribe. He was wearing a bustle made of eagle feathers, and a porcupine hair crest on his head. He was preparing to do a traditional dance. “When you’re dancing you’re telling a story,” he said. “You’re hunting or you’re going into a war.”
He gripped his eagle talon staff and walked into the circle. He got low to the ground and stepped to the drumbeat while his little sister, Chelyse Hines, watched. “It just makes me feel very happy,” she said. “I love it!” When Dylan walked out, he was shiny with sweat and he couldn’t stop smiling.
He came with his aunt, Helene Gaddie, who said at home in South Dakota they dance all the time. But Dylan’s sisters live in California, and they rarely go to powwows. Gaddie is trying to change that by helping them learn to dance. She said it’s a way of strengthening their identity.
“You get to feel free, and know that no matter how hard the United States government tried to abolish native people, we’re still here.”
Near the end of the first day of the powwow, Mono elder Leona Chepo was still sitting in the gym with her baskets. She laughed with her niece, Sandy Clark, about how the powwow barely breaks even.
“It’s a lot of work and we’re tired,” Clark said, “but at the end of the day we love it.”
Chepo taught Clark how to weave her own baskets, and in the powwow raffle this year, Clark’s basket was the top prize.