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Indigenous groups come together for in-person cultural festival in Santa Rosa

It was easy to find the Indigenous People’s Gathering at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Saturday: Just follow the drumming and chanting. But it wasn’t as easy for people to locate parking spaces. The lot was full up most of the time.

People still came from everywhere, including other states, to perform and to watch the dancers and drummers — in traditional Indian headdresses, some wearing brightly colored skirts — chow down on Mexican food and check out vendors’ tables displaying handmade abalone earrings, beaded necklaces and tiny baby moccasins. Some set up popup shelters or sat on picnic blankets.

Such many-nation gatherings and smaller events weren’t held last year because of the pandemic. Tribes socially distanced and came together online.

The first Indigenous Peoples Gathering in Santa Rosa attracted a big crowd, with people coming and going from noon to sundown. They stood or sat on folding chairs around a circular area where performances took place. The master of ceremonies, Jerry Dearly, traveled from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in St. Paul, Minnesota. He made jokes and chatted with the crowd between acts.

Reuben Crowfeather, a member of the Lakota tribe of South Dakota who lives in Santa Rosa, helped organize the event. He said more than 30 tribes were represented.

“We brought people together for healing of our communities, to share prayer time, sing and dance,” he said. “We brought many nations together.”

Crowfeather, a student at Santa Rosa Junior College, said he collaborated with the Raizes Collective, a nonprofit group of artists working with Latino and Indigenous people in Sonoma County. He was dressed as a traditional Lakota dancer, with a porcupine and deer-hair headdress and a golden eagle feather bristle.

The Round Valley Feather Dancers from Covelo in Mendocino County, composed of dancers and singers of all ages, performed in the heat for 45 minutes. Men and boys with bare chests wearing eagle, turkey and owl feather headdresses and wraps called breech sheets pounded their feet and women and girls in skirts swayed holding colorful scarves.

The Aztec Dancers were slated to perform later. Veelies, a member of the group from Santa Rosa who preferred not to give her last name, said “We are here to support our Indigenous community and our tradition of danza, an expression of prayer that praises our ancestors.”

Several people referenced the gathering’s religious importance.

“It’s like our church, in a way, ” said Little Hawk, 23, of Ventura, who was sitting in a men-only drumming circle. “It’s a good way to showcase our culture, meet new people and see family and friends.”

“Everything is for God,” said Myron Hoaglen, 57, of the Round Valley Feather Dancers of Covelo, who set the rhythm with chants for 30 to 40 dancers. “Those are God songs.”

Some of those who came lamented the gradual loss of their Native American traditions.

“Coming here makes me feel closer to our traditions and culture,” said Marisa Aparacio, 36, from Point Arena. “I don’t think it’s brought out enough. I feel it’s really good to be with other people who I identify with culturally.”

“Our traditions are going,” Hoaglen said. “We have 5,000 tribe members. And this is all the dancers we have?”

But he added, “I’m just glad we’re dancing again.”

Editor’s note: Myron Hoaglen’s first name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. In addition, Reuben Crowfeather’s name was misspelled in the photo captions in an earlier version of this story.

You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at kathleen.coates@pressdemocrat.com.

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