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Long-time emcee shares his experience, humor

SAN DIEGO - Randy Edmonds has spent more than 40 years serving as the master of ceremonies at pow wows across the country.

Edmonds, Kiowa/Caddo, has a gift for gab and a knack for telling jokes in a serious tone of voice, or what he fondly refers to as ''boarding school humor.''

When he first started his career in Los Angeles, he would emcee at 25 - 30 pow wows annually. Now 71 and semi-retired, the Ocean Beach resident emcees five to 10 times each year.

In recent weeks, his throat has been sore from allergies, but it didn't stop him from doing his thing at the 19th Annual American Indian Culture Days at Balboa Park in San Diego May 12 - 13.

In between the intertribal and individual categories, Edmonds made announcements passed to him by spectators. As a sample of his humor, the laughter quickly spread when he announced in a serious, monotone voice, a business that offers spray tans and waxing services. He somehow managed to remain straight-faced.

During an interview, he said that being an emcee requires more than following a set schedule and telling jokes. ''Throughout the day you have to know the different kind of dances, the giveaways and honor songs.''

An emcee's knowledge of the grand entry, such as Flag and Victory songs, and who to call on to conduct the invocation, are also paramount. Edmonds said he usually calls on an elder, often a veteran, to say the opening prayer.

To keep the pow wow flowing, the emcee must maintain the drum rotation. There are usually two or more drum groups participating. The host drum will be called upon to perform during the grand entry and for special songs throughout the event. And at many pow wows there are both northern and southern dance categories.

''The head drum singer has to have knowledge of both northern and southern songs.''

Being an emcee wasn't something that Edmonds planned in his youth. In fact, he was faced with challenges that could have easily driven a wedge between him and his culture.

He spent 12 years of his youth at the Riverside Indian School in his hometown of Anadarko, Okla. The military-style boarding school was not enough to wash the Indian out of Edmonds. ''A lot of us survived and continued traditions.''

Even when he moved to Los Angeles in 1954 as part of the federal government-initiated Urban Indian Relocation Program, he managed to hold on to his cultural ties. The program, which began in 1952, promised reservation dwellers better economic opportunities if they moved to a major urban city.

For some it worked out, but other Natives turned to alcohol or headed back home. Edmonds, 20 at the time of the move, eventually met other Natives who wanted to stay and continue to perpetuate their culture.

He said the relocation act contributed to the explosion of the pow wow scene in Los Angeles. As a historical side note, he said the early pow wows had strictly southern-style dancing and drums. To satisfy Native transplants from all over the country, pow wow organizers started rotating weekends between southern and northern styles.

It was at a pow wow that Edmonds was first asked to be an emcee. He figured that the person asking him must have liked his voice. ''I must have been talking too much,'' he quipped.

Over the years, he's traveled the country as an emcee. He has repeatedly served as emcee at pow wows in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York state.

Meanwhile, Edmonds has no plans on slowing down. He enjoys entering the arena as a Southern Straight or Gourd dancer. In fact, he's the last chartered member of the Golden State Gourd Society, which was chartered in 1971 in Maywood.

Dancing gives him the chance to socialize and practice his Kiowa traditions. ''That's the joy of the gathering - being able to see old friends and make new ones.''

Last year he danced at all the major pow wows in the southern California area. This year he has been invited to be the head Gourd dancer at the Orange County, Pechanga and Indio pow wows.

In addition to his dedication to pow wows, Edmond's career path enriched individual lives. In 1979 he founded the Indian Human Resource Center in San Diego, where he worked until his retirement in 1999.

Prior to moving to San Diego, he spent 20 years in Los Angeles, serving as director of the BIA Relocation Program and the executive director of the Los Angeles Indian Center.

He and his wife of 20 years have nine children, 17 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.