AMARILLO, Texas– Ten-year-old Garrett Love had been a Cub Scout for a year or two when he first saw the Kwahadi Dancers perform. His mother, Lee Ann, said Garrett did his research and found out everything he needed to do to join their ranks. He did just that at St. Stephen’s Church in Amarillo, where he danced until the Kwahadi Kiva Indian Museum opened in 2004.
The word kwahadi means hunters (or eaters) of antelope; kiva means a ceremonial center, generally a roofless courtyard surrounded on four sides – on winter nights, however, ceremonies are done inside. Thirty-eight tribes are represented in Amarillo; dancers for the museum are raising money for Native scholarships.
Since those earlier days, Garrett, now 15, and his elder sister Ginny, 18, have traveled as far away as Hawaii with the troupe. Ginny has served as head maiden for two terms, while Garrett’s been assistant clan chief. Over spring break, the dancers do a nine- or 10-day tour, and then travel two to three weeks in the summer.
The Venture Crew group is similar to a scouting organization, with some differences. For example, members don’t have to have a rank in scouting to hold a position in Kwahadi, and it’s open to either gender.
The main requirement of members is that each must make his or her own costume over time, and in doing so, learn the significance of each feather, bead and fringe. In most cases, dancers spend a minimum of 200 to 300 (some spend more than 500) hours on beadwork and building bustles. The dancers have one set of winter, and one set of summer, regalia. One can’t be a chief (ranking depends on it) until one has full regalia; dancers continue to add to their regalia even after that.
One dancer’s father said, “They come away with leadership and turn it over to the other dancers. They have to be responsible for everything. The kids handle it all backstage – which dances they’ll be performing, who’s dancing, etc.”
Another parent said that director Charles Ritchie’s program “removes all the shy bones. The kids learn cooperation – they work together as a team, and grow tremendously from the disappointing, frustrating moments as well as the good ones. Chas has taught them to meet and greet the guests after each performance. They’ve learned to look every person in the eye, to shake hands and accept compliments. Now they know how to be sociable and to be photographed. At each performance, they do a Social Dance where the dancers go into the audience and invite the spectators come out to dance with them.”
Catherine Monroe and her son Tyler, 9, drove all the way over from Hot Springs to see the dancers again, after the dancers performed for Tyler’s Cub Scout camp a few weeks prior. “It was awesome,” said Tyler. “I couldn’t wait to come here to see them dance again.”
Tyler’s mother agreed. “There were 54 dancers who kept a large group of first- through fifth-graders entertained,” she said. “The speaker was wonderful, too. He held the boys in rapt attention while the dancers changed, and then we were treated to more dancing.”
The Kwahadi Dancers learn different types of dances from various tribes – Fancy dances from the Kiowa, Traditional from the Sioux – and the maidens have their own, such as Fancy Shawl and some Traditional dances. With the Crow in Montana, women began to pick up their feet like the men and bring their shawls to their shoulders. Aztecs called their drums we-wet – the voice of ones who came before.
In the Pueblo Shield Dance, every warrior knew the real protection was not in the rawhide on the shield, but rather in his heart with his ancestors and guides. The Eagle Dance is believed to take the prayers of humans to the one true God. The Pueblos had to protect themselves from marauding Commanches – older folks, all the way down to those who barely walk – put them in back, stronger in front. Commanche dance reminds everyone that it’s OK to be whoever they are, at whatever skill level, etc.
The young people serving as the Kwahadi Dancers are taught that every great discovery in medicine was created by someone who was once their age – that every great leader was once their age. They’re encouraged to make a difference for good in this world.
Garrett’s priorities have evolved over the years. “I’ve learned so much about discipline and responsibility – to make sure I get my costume made, respect for other dancers,” he said. “If I go away to college, I will continue dancing until then. But if I stay here, then I can continue to dance into college.”
Garrett laughed as he told about learning the Hoop Dance. “You go in front of a group of other dancers, where you’re expected to perform blindfolded. I tried out three years ago. The other kids [Hoop dancers] decide if you get to do Hoop Dance in performances,” he said. “You get really dizzy doing the dance that way. If your feet ever stop moving, you don’t make it. Once you’re done with the tryout, the group discusses your good and/or bad points, then they vote. I didn’t make it on the first try. Most don’t.”
One of the most significant pearls of wisdom imparted by Ritchie to his dancers? “You never know when some little thing you do will impact a child – it’s the ripple effect.” There are too many ripples to count all of the lives who’ve been affected by Ritchie and his Kwahadi Dancers.