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Passing Down the Tradition of the Comanche Dance

Ray Chavez and his family have carried on a tradition of participating in the Comanche dance every year at the pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh

Patsy Maestas likes to talk. She could tell you her entire life-story in a 40-minute drive from the pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh to Santa Fe, New Mexico. I know this because that’s exactly what she does when we rode from her store in Ohkay Owingeh, where she sells jewelry, clothes and other locally made products, to Ragle Park in Santa Fe where Franki, her daughter, 14, is about to play a softball game.

It’s a hot day at the end of June. Patsy has been working since early morning making war bonnets, feather bustles and leggings for the upcoming celebration of Saint John the Baptist, a day when the entire pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh in one way or another participates in the Comanche dance. She has only two days left to finish the outfits of her son Lauren and several other customers. “I’ve been so busy, it feels like I have no life,” Patsy says. However, even though she barely has time, there’s no way she will miss Franki’s softball game against the only team the Indians haven’t beaten this season.

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Lauren ‘Greyhawk’ Maestas-Chavez and his twin sister Franki ‘Yellow Flower’ Maestas-Chavez.

About 20 minutes into the drive to Santa Fe, Patsy gets to the part where she talks about Ray Chavez, her partner. “I already had a crush on him when I was in primary school in Ohkay Owingeh,” she giggles. That didn’t lead to anything. Both she and Ray went their own separate roads in life. They grew up, studied, had jobs and relationships and children. Patsy went to college but dropped out at 18 when she had a daughter. Ray joined the Marines, went to California and got married there. There wouldn’t have been a story here, except for the fact that they both moved back to Ohkay Owingeh.

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Patsy Maestas in her stor in Ohkay Owingeh.

“I was divorced and my daughter was already a teenager when Ray and I met again,” Patsy tells. He hadn’t forgotten her. Then things moved fast. Patsy wanted more children and, if possible, a real family. Ray didn’t mind fitting into this picture. He got a job at the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, they both quit drinking and Patsy got pregnant. “I still remember when the doctor in the hospital in Santa Fe showed me the first ultrasound,” Patsy says. The doctor pointed first to Baby One and than to Baby Two. It took a while, and then it hit her: she and Ray were going to have twins.

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Ray Chavez, from the pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh, paints the face of his son Lauren to prepare him for the comanche dance.

Fourteen years after that ultrasound, as Patsy and I arrive at Ragle Park in Santa Fe, Baby One, now known as Lauren ‘Greyhawk’ Maestas-Chavez is hanging with his dad in the stands. Baby Two, now known as Franki ‘Yellow Flower’ Maestas-Chavez, is in the dugout getting ready to play catcher for the Indians softball team, The fact they have both ‘American’ and indian names shows that they’ve grown up in two different, but overlapping, worlds.

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Ray Chavez with Patsy Maestas and their twins Lauren ‘Greyhawk’ Maestas-Chavez and Franki ‘Yellow Flower’ Maestas-Chavez.

Ray had taken the twins to a dental appointment in Albuquerque and the three of them just made it back in time for the start of the game. Even though Franki is in serious pain from the dental work, in the fifth inning she hits a ball deep into the outfield and brings in three runs. The Indians win the game and the Maestas-Chavez return home to Ohkay Owingeh in great spirits. Only Patsy is wondering, how on earth, she will get all her work done before the celebration on Saturday.

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Franki with her catchers helmet on in the dugout.

Franki and Lauren

Franki and Lauren both study at the Santa Fe Indian School, a school with some 700 students in the grades 7 to 12 that is owned and operated by the 19 pueblo’s of New Mexico. The twins are dorm-students, which means that during the school year they’re only home on the weekends. They both characterize the school as ‘strict’, but agree also that strict is a good thing. “Ray is our disciplinarian,” says Patsy while she nods at her husband, “so our kids are used to having rules.”

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Franki Yellow Flower Chavez, a 14-year old girl from Ohkay Owingeh is looking through the wires of the dug out into the field, ready to play, with a rather determined look on her face.

It’s summer vacation and you would think the twins would be chilling most of the time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Franki and Lauren have busy schedules that include playing in basketball, baseball and softball tournaments, running cross-country, attending a film camp at the Museum of Native American Art in Santa Fe, doing internships at a camp in which students identify local petroglyphs. Every now and then, they are also invited to perform traditional dances at events. And then, of course, there will be the Comanche dance on Saturday.

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Lauren Greyhawk Chavez poses with his girlfriend Danyel, she's Navajo from Shiprock, in his mother's store in Ohkay Owingeh.

Lauren plans to dance all day long on Saturday. He’s extra excited because his girlfriend Danyel, a Navajo girl from Shiprock, will be visiting Ohkay Owingeh to watch him dance. Franki prefers the more traditional dances of the pueblo and she has decided this year to help her mother and grandmother preparing the food for the dancers and visitors. Her boyfriend, Shaun, who is from Acoma Pueblo, will be visiting too.

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Lauren 'Greyhawk' Chavez is mixing some blue paint in a container while his sister Franki 'Yellow Flower' Chavez is doing something on her mobile phone chatting.

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Franki is smart, pretty, outgoing and – according to her mother – stubborn. In 2016 she was the first runner-up for the Miss Indian Teen New Mexico pageant. With a 4.0 grade average she seems determined to make something of her life. Patsy thinks her daughter wants to go into nursing, but Franki confides in me that she has her goal set a bit higher: “I want to be an orthopedic surgeon.” she says. Her kick-ass game face at the softball game makes you believe she has the determination to make that happen.

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Lauren 'Greyhawk' Chavez tries on a head piece for a dance while his mother shows him her fists and - jokingly - shows him who's the boss.

Until two years ago, Lauren was smaller than his twin sister. Now, with the lanky and athletic body of a 14-year-old boy, he towers a head above her. Lauren is more an introvert that Franki. His eyes can look at you with a serious gaze that seems to notice everything without betraying any of his own feelings. But when he smiles, the facade disappears like it never even existed. “Lauren’s test scores are very high,” says Patsy, “but he doesn’t like doing homework. He always wants to know why he has to do something.” Lauren is interested in becoming a mechanical engineer, but when you see him dance, you would think he was born to be a performer.

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Ray Chavez is painting the face of his son Lauren 'Greyhawk' Chavez right before the beginning of the comanche dance, an annual tradition in the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.

Face painting

It’s Saturday morning, the day of the Comanche dance. Ray and Lauren have gotten up early to get ready for the dance. In Patsy’s store, right in the heart of Ohkay Owingeh, they look at pictures of previous years as they discuss how to paint Lauren’s face. The regalia and movements for the Comanche dance are not like most traditional dances of the pueblo, but, as the name indicates, inspired on the traditions of the Comanche. This gives the dancers great latitude in what to wear and how to paint their faces.

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Father Ray Chavez looks on while his wife Patsy Maestas is adjusting the outfit of her son Lauren 'Greyhawk' Chavez in preparation for the annual comanche dance in the pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh.

After they’ve decided on the design, Lauren sits down and his dad draws, very meticulously, a design in black paint on his son’s face. While Lauren sits as still as humanly possible, his mother rushes in with Franki. Patsy has discovered at the last moment that she has no leggings for Lauren and hurries into her workspace to solve this problem as quick as possible. And indeed, when around nine o’clock, the sound of the drums announces the beginning of the dance and Ray applies the last paint to Lauren’s face, Patsy has somehow produced a pair of leggings from sheep wool.

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Patsy Maestas kisses her son Lauren 'Greyhawk' Chavez to wish him the best as he's preparing to dance the comanche dance in his Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh.

In previous years the pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh sold tickets to photographers and tourists who wanted to photograph the Comanche. No more. The administration that came into office last January has banned photography. “It has to do with social media,” says Patsy, “ the governor and the council don’t want photo’s of all our dances to show up on facebook or any other social media.”

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Lauren 'Greyhawk' Chavez is posing in the store of his mother in Ohkay Owingeh, where he just got ready to dance the comanche dance, an annual celebration in his pueblo.

Lauren gets a hug from his dad and kisses from his mother. Jacque, Patsy’s daughter from her first marriage, rushes into the store and kisses Lauren. “Be light on your feet as you dance brother,” she says. Danyel, his girlfriend, wishes him luck. Then Lauren’s ready to go. He’ll be dancing all day long in the hot sun. Too long? “No way,” says Lauren, “I love to dance.” Playing baseball, basketball and cross-country keeps him in shape.

Looking Towards the Future

Everybody except Patsy has left the store to watch the dancers go through the village. Finally, she has a couple of minutes to relax. Her mind races over the kid’s schedules for the summer. “There are so many activities. It’s exhausting. Ray and I want to make sure that our children are 100 percent part of their culture, their community, but I also want them to be able to succeed outside this pueblo. Not everybody stays here."

Patsy also wants Franki and Lauren to have opportunities she missed out on. “I got married when I was 18 years old. That was too young. I want my kids to wait. I want them to be able to go out and see the world.” She also sees too many kids with parents that aren’t really adults yet. “They are still too busy partying and can’t properly take care of their children.”

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Lauren Chavez’s girlfriend Danyel is going back home to Shiprock and the two embrace in front of the car that will take her back.

Franki and Lauren will soon turn 15, a dangerous age for any teenager in America. Patsy: “My people have always had issues with alcohol. Now we see the prescription drugs addiction in the area. Our community has lost young people to drugs and alcohol. I tell my kids to stay away from them and we keep them busy with school and sports.” Ray and Patsy also try to give the best possible example. They both have been sober for 16 years.

Patsy gets up to watch Lauren as the drums and the dancers pass right in front of her store. There’s a lot of things to do today. Maybe she can open the store this afternoon and make a few bucks. She thinks about the fundraiser she wants to organize, so Franki’s basketball team can go to a big tournament in Las Vegas. Really, it is quite a job to raise two energetic Native American teenagers who grow up with one foot in their community and the other in the larger American society.

Teake Zuidema is a Dutch photographer and journalist living in Pittsburgh. He got to know the Maestas-Chavez family in 2013 when he took photos of the Comanche dance in Ohkay Owingeh on an assignment for a European travel magazine. He sent his photos to the family and that was the beginning of a lasting friendship.