It’s been a couple of weeks now since I returned home to Colorado from a trip South to Albuquerque New Mexico with Dene elder Caroline Bjorklund from Churchill, MB. The trip was inspiring to me and a lifelong dream fulfilled for Caroline.
Native dancer at the Gathering of Nations. Steve Selden photo.
Gathering of Nations pow wow. Steve Selden photo.
The highlight and focal point of the journey was the Gathering of Nations powwow held at the Pit on the University of New Mexico campus. The largest first nations gathering in the world featured an incredible mixture of native dancers, drummers and singers occupying the floor for two full days of magical transcendence. Even the wry humor of the master of ceremonies added to the unique event…heyyy.
Another amazing moment of the trip for both Caroline and myself was meeting three of the original Navajo Code- Talkers. These men recruited during WWII to provide secret dialogue disguised by intermixed Navajo words to confuse the enemy-mainly the Japanese in the Pacific theater-are heroes that in essence saved the United States from defeat. They are held in total high esteem..although very few people know much about them. The movie, “Wind Talkers”, was maid to portray their effort but fell short of the real story.
Caroline and the code – talkers. Steve Selden photo.
Caroline was amazed to find that many of the Navajo words were quite similar to her native Dene language. I guess “amazed” should better be described as relieved as she has always believed that a link between the two separate tribes has existed. This was the first indication that the theory could be quite true. And to discover this from men whose job and mission stemmed from the use of those and other actual Navajo words was pretty thought-provoking.
Navajo code-talkers. Steve Selden photo.
Young native dancer looking on. Steve Selden photo.
So, from the dancers, drummers and singers to the Navajo code -talkers then on to the native historical museums and Navajo reservation out West at Window Rock, Caroline sewed together some semblance of fabric encompassing some long “uprooted” roots. People she and I spoke with seemed vague in their thoughts regarding a link between the two native groups though a constant feeling of one nation prevailed. The most poignant statement or concept on the whole thing came from one of the curator’s at the Navajo native museum out near Window Rock when he told Caroline that his people “came from Mother Earth”. In that sense the truth is we are all related.
Churchill Dene elder Caroline Bjorklund realized a life-long dream and quest last week traveling south all the way to New Mexico seeking her roots and native connections with the Navajo nation.
Caroline had heard, and read from numerous sources, that her Dene tribe from Northern Canada was long ago part of what is known today as the Navajo nation in the United States. For as long as I have known Caroline she has dreamed about reconnecting with the lost brothers and sisters she has never known other than in her heart. This trip was a chance to see if a connection was there.
Caroline with a Navajo dancer. Steve Selden photo.
The focus of the journey, in which I had the pleasure of joining Caroline, was the Gathering of Nations held at the Pit on the University of New Mexico college campus. The beautiful sunken basketball arena served as an awesome venue for hundreds of tribal representative dancers, drummers, singers and crafts artisans. The gathering is the largest “pow wow” in North America taking place over a two day period. Two long exhilarating days. Having never been to a “pow wow”, this was far from what my mind had conjured up as the setting though I soon realized once the drumming and dancing started, the setting really made no difference.
Gathering of Nations grand entry. Steve Selden photo.
I used to follow the Grateful Dead back in the 80’s and the feel and vibe of the entire scene, not just the performance is what kept me coming back to the shows. This, as I realized by the second day of the gathering, was a feel quite similar to those experiences….minus any drugs or alcohol. That reliance on drugs for many “deadheads” is what, in the end, caused my interest to wane. As much as the drug “feel” was apparent at dead shows, the sober innocence “feel” was also quite noticeable at the pow wow. The energy inside the arena and friendship vibe outside around the food court and arts tent were refreshing. It’s funny how well people treat others when not under the influence of any drugs. Sincerity shines through.
Native dancer awaiting his call to the floor. Steve Selden photo.
The dancers from every possible native group wore their feathered “regalia”, not “costumes” as I overheard one dancer correct a woman from Texas. The colors were as vibrant as the energy rising from the floor in the middle of 18,000 or so people in the arena. Young as well as older dancers were judged by a panel floor-side with prizes awarded to the best in the competition. However, even though it was a competition..technically.. the feel of the whole thing never gave way to a competitiveness. It was as if the all were dancing and drumming to, at once, celebrate their past roots as well as fend off any demons that still exist.
Young dancers at the Gathering of Nations. Steve Selden photo.
Meeting and engaging in conversation with people allowed Caroline to feel part of a bigger native family here in the United States. In Canada, near Churchill, only a few native tribes exist..in the states, as we all know, there are numerous groups. A little overwhelming for a Dene woman living in a town of just 800 or so inhabitants..not all of which are even native. The gathering opened eyes and minds..both Caroline’s and mine..of the beauty of all peoples coming together as one…a dream truly imagined and found for these two days at least. More of this dream trip in the next post..stay tuned.
Dancers and crowd dancing together. Steve Selden photo.
I’ve been invited out to the Watchee Lodge in the Wapusk National Park near Churchill for several years now. Unfortunately the trip has not happened for me so far though after seeing the attached video piece by ABC television I hope to venture out there sometime soon.
Without question February and March can be cold beyond cold on the open tundra in search for mother and cub polar bears.The thrill of seeing the first interactions between mom and her young cannot be matched. When the bears finally break out of their winter homes, a once in a lifetime experience ensues and photographers stand shivering to capture amazing shots.
As much as Watchee lodge presents rare opportunities, mostly for accomplished photographers, to view these animals in their natural habitat, there are ample chances for others to see sows and cubs throughout the year. They reappear around Churchill after they emerge from dens they head to the coast to hit the ice for seal-hunting school. These encounters as well as Summer encounters can happen but are somewhat rare. Fall is still the best time to view cubs of the year or coy’s as they are known as well as one and two year-old’s with mom.
Big sparring males in October and November surely thrill the crowds of travelers however a serene day watching interactions of sows with their young is soulful.
The bond that exists between Churchill and Winnipeg, Manitoba is ageless. Churchill lies roughly 500 miles North of Winnipeg as the crow flies and is only accessible by airplane, train or dogsled….ruff! Yet, the link between the two towns is one of necessity as well as one which transcends bloodlines over many generations.
For thousands of years aboriginal tribes gathered in Winnipeg at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers ; a place now known as the Forks. The tribes would come together to exchange goods,mostly furs, stories and old fashioned companionship..some not always of the friendly variety. No email, no texting, no cell phones…actual human interaction…something sorely lacking in my opinion in today’s world. Stories and encounters…later on with Europeans, passed on at these gatherings live on today through multiple generations of Manitobans both native and of European descent. Winnipeg is still a place today where a wide range of ethnicity abounds. Still a gathering place of sorts.