Hello, Earth Day; Goodbye, PC at Colorado’s Garden of the Gods

Earth Day at Colorado’s Garden of the Gods displayed Mother Nature in her finest holiday apparel—soaring red rocks and snow-covered peaks against a stunningly blue sky.

A small group of Native dancers headed by Kenneth Sweetwater, Southern Cheyenne/Osage, were invited to perform for those who attended Earth Day celebrations at the Garden, a National Park Service-administered National Natural Landmark.

In blithe disregard for political correctness and with an apparent need to startle and instruct, Sweetwater regaled a large crowd of spectators and area residents with ornery, self-deprecating humor: “Now you can shoot an Indian (pause) with your cameras,” as he invited children, especially, to have their pictures taken with him and others in the troupe.

Or, reassuring youngsters who were invited to join a round dance, he explained in caricature-speak,“We’re friendly Indians now—we no scalp-um no more.”

Or, pointing out the athletic demands made on a fancy- and hoop-dancer who, he said, was tired from early performances “I hope he makes it.” “Is there a nurse here? A doctor? A veterinarian?”

Illustrating the way times have changed, he said—using an unacceptable, though formerly common, term for Native women—that they now often serve as chiefs of tribes. Women coming home from work may ask their men if the dishes have been washed and prepared, he added.

His remarks weren’t intended to be disrespectful, but instead constituted a kind of satire on the way in which the language of tourism and common speech can be startling—as shown when a few people gasped and others chuckled, if somewhat uneasily.

On a more straightforward note, Sweetwater said that the red rocks area was sacred to a number of tribes, including the ancestors of present-day Utes, and that many ceremonies were conducted there in the past, including the Sun Dance. Earlier still, from the 1200s to the 1400s, it was “a spiritual place for a lot of Native American tribes,” he said.

Sweetwater described to spectators the role of the eagle in the traditions of many tribes and the meaning of several dances performed for Earth Day outside the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center. He emphasized they were not spiritual or ceremonial dances.

“Every day is Earth Day to us,” he said of Native people. “Always carry on your culture,” he told the youth who attended the Earth Day events.