DENVER – Once a trade route, always a trade route, or so it seems along the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where contemporary pow wows recall the rendezvous of old that joined trappers, traders, Plains Natives, and a few European visitors for days of selling, feasting and fun.
Today’s sales are more likely of Native jewelry or paintings than of pelts and deerskins, but the spirit of the gatherings remains.
Tesoro Indian Market and Powwow takes place yearly near Denver at The Fort, a re-creation of Bent’s Old Fort in southeastern Colorado, which is, in turn, a National Park Service-maintained replica of the original Bent’s Fort of the mid-1800s. The forts share a history with the fabled Santa Fe Trail, which crossed the area from Missouri to New Mexico.
The two-day pow wow featured Gourd Dancing as well as traditional categories, drawing hundreds of visitors who came to dance, observe and buy.
On May 16, Armed Forces Day, Native veterans and Natives serving in the Mideast and on active duty there or elsewhere were honored.
Dr. Allen Chuck Ross (Ehanamani), Santee Dakota, an Army veteran, was honored for his service with the 82nd Airborne Division. Ross, an educator and author, wrote a number of books, among them “Mitakuye Oyasin” (All My Relations) and “Ehanamani” (Walks Among).
The Tesoro Powwow takes place below The Fort on a grassy area surrounded by red rock formations and the more distant foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where a sign greets visitors in several languages. Rings of booths offer frybread, Indian tacos, soda, and everything from Southwestern-style jewelry to baskets, rattles and ledger art. Preserving the international nature of trade, some of the customers – and craft materials – are from abroad.
“This was the Wal-Mart of the prairies – you could buy anything here,” said Don Brehm, a Tesoro volunteer who talks history with visitors. “It was an international trade here in the 1840s – silver from Germany, beads from Italy, tea from China, china from England.”
And that’s still the case, in some ways. Antone LeBeau, Minneconjou/Lakota, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and one of the Tesoro Powwow’s vendors, points to some of his wares including amber from the Baltic Sea, coral from Hawaii and Africa and other exotic materials.
LeBeau also includes turquoise in his silver work, which appears to be a departure from his characteristic Plains bone breast plates and feather fans. But turquoise has been found in burials in South Dakota, he said.
“You have to realize there were elaborate trade routes throughout the U.S., including here. There has always been a trade route on this side of the (Rocky) mountains.”
An indigenous garden at The Fort includes a sampling of trade items of days past – Assiniboine flint corn, Arikara watermelon, Hidatsa beans and Mandan tobacco from various parts of the northern Plains. Traditional Ute basket weavers, a Southwestern pottery artisan and others continue the multi-tribal theme.
Above the pow wow grounds, Brehm talks about the fort’s history, telling listeners that, “Having this fort out there on the Plains – it was an international destination for people, goods and material. There were Polynesians – I don’t know how they got here – blacks, both freedmen and slaves, Native Americans, Spanish, Canadian-French people.”
He explained that New Mexico did not look after its northern provinces at that time, “so commercial people from the East began running freight down to them – it was more commercial than anything else.”
The spirit of buying and selling continues. Several customers said they’ve been coming to the Tesoro Indian Market for years because of the quality of goods sold.
Terrance Guardipee, Blackfeet, said customers were discriminating and entries limited. He found considerable interest in his ledger art work and paintings, represented in collections including those of the National Museum of the American Indian.
Mark Silversmith, a Navajo painter who has won awards at the Heard Museum and Santa Fe Market, said Tesoro is “one of the better ones collectors come by.” Ron Mitchell, a Cherokee artist from Oklahoma, has come most years since the pow wow and market began a decade ago.
“Our tribe went from the far north to the far south,” said Venus Brightstar, of the Ma-Chis Lower Creek Tribe of Alabama. “We traveled so much.” Her buckskin fringed wraps in various colors are trimmed with beads and sometimes quillwork. One rainbow pattern was to “honor all people – people come up to me at shows and talk about their Native great-grandmothers, or others.”
As is true with any commercial enterprise, there are risks. One booth is devoted not to selling, but to buyer protection to combat counterfeiting by non-Natives, a practice that may not have mattered as much in the old trading days, but today constitutes a multimillion-dollar business in phony, often-imported Native handicrafts.
Tony Eriacho, Zuni, president of the Council for Indigenous Arts and Culture, was in charge of a display that mixed a few natural gemstones with manufactured ones – and very few were able to distinguish between genuine and fake, which he said is common.
Another problem is that Native handmade jewelry is different than Native handcrafted jewelry, the former requiring a Native craftsperson working with original materials and the latter only requiring that pieces be Native-assembled, carrying the danger that counterfeit materials may be used. He said that getting a detailed receipt is one safeguard.
The nonprofit Tesoro Cultural Center at The Fort west of Denver was founded in 1999 and is “committed to protecting and making available to the community the artistic treasures of our American past.”