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'King of the Missions' Hosts Vibrant Powwow

In the shadow of a 216-year-old Spanish mission their ancestors helped build, the small and federally unrecognized San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians had their annual pow wow on Saturday and Sunday, June 14-15.

Known as one of the bigger and more diverse non-casino pow wows in the San Diego area, the San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians 18th Annual Inter-Tribal Powwow hosted more than 100 dancers and thousands of spectators on a temperate weekend in Oceanside, California.

“The pow wow came about as a sign and signature of pride in our culture and wanting to share and celebrate that Native American heritage with the larger community,” pow wow coordinator and tribal member Carrie Lynn Lopez told ICTMN. “Since we were not a reservation tribe, and all the other tribes in the region were starting to have pow wows, we wanted to do the same.”

Lopez said her tribe has been fighting for recognition for decades, including a formal federal petition for the past 30 years. Made up of approximately 550 voting members, the band of Luiseño Indians base its membership on lineal descent instead of the usual blood quantum like most federally recognized tribes. And this pow wow, on the grounds of the “King of the Missions” -- as it’s aptly nicknamed because it’s the largest of the 21 California missions -- is one of the tribe’s showcase events; a way to highlight their quality to the outside world, and to remind the more established local tribes that they are still here.

Hosting the pow wow on the mission was also a controversial decision; one the tribe didn’t take lightly.

Diego James Robles

San Diego native and grass dancer Tony Nelson plays with his pets during a pause in the action of the San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians 18th Annual Inter-Tribal Powwow, in Oceanside, Calif., on Saturday afternoon, June 14, 2014.

“Without hesitancy we knew we wanted to do it here at the San Luis Rey Mission,” Lopez said. “It was not a popular decision with the other tribes given the history with the mission over the years, but they did come around and we have a special relationship with this mission.” And nobody seemed to mind or express their disapproval openly. In fact, some dancers and Native contingents posed for photographs in front of the towering mission and throughout its manicured compound.

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Despite a drought in California, the grass underneath the waves of pounding moccasins didn’t get there by accident. Members of the tribe and pow wow committee watered and shepherd the event site months in advance because the mission generally doesn’t have use for the field located approximately 100 yards from their main buildings.

Fancy shawl dancer and tribe member Cristina Perez-Lopez, 23, has been dancing since she was eight years old. Because her mother is the pow wow coordinator, and her whole family actively helps run the pow wow in one capacity or another, Perez-Lopez feels immense pride in her people’s pow wow. “It’s indescribable, this is my home, this is my family,” she said. “When I am dancing, that’s who I am representing.” Moreover, she laments that her grandmother’s generation never had events like this and therefore, she will dance for them and her ancestors of long ago, the people who helped build the gargantuan white structure behind them.

Looking around while still trying to get their bearing after just arriving, Al McCoy and his family were captivated by the sights and sounds of the pow wow. “We’ve only been here for half an hour but we’ve enjoyed every moment of it,” McCoy said. “I think it’s fantastic, we’ve never taken part in anything like this before and we’ve always wanted to and we’ve made it a special point to come here today, to understand Native American heritage.”

When his five-year-old son Thomas was asked what he thought of the pow wow, the shy curly-haired tot replied, “That was great.” And when the follow-up questions was asked regarding his favorite dancer, he shouted, “That one,” pointing to a beautiful southern buckskin dancer named Fawn Galvan.

One of the best dancers in the pow wow circle and an avid booster of all San Diego pow wows, grass dancer Michael Cadotte, Standing Rock Sioux, made an impression on his fellow dancers and those watching him. His moves were crisp and deliberate with his torso and upper body often becoming parallel with the grass as he executed the harder grass steps.

A San Diego native, Cadotte has been coming to this pow wow for a long time because he loves the feel of the outdoor event. “I go to all my local pow wows and support them in any way I can,” Cadotte said. “I love it. People are nice, the food is great, I get to see northern people, like in LA and that region and it’s more outdoor.”

Diego James Robles

Nicknamed the “King of the Missions,” the Old Mission San Luis Rey can be seen at dusk on June 14. 2014.

As the sun went down over the ocean, a few miles west, the mission was illuminated by the dwindling dusk light, a white beacon that could be seen from far away, featuring a pow wow and a band of Luiseño that could be heard even farther away.