The event is billed as “10,000 years of culture – 187 tribal nations – 10 days – all in one location.” Despite the full agenda of Thunder in the Desert, organizer Fred Synder advises: “We’re on Indian time, so take off your watch and put it in your pocket because nothing starts until the medicine men and gourd dancers finish their blessing ceremony.”
Any Thunder in the Desert beyond the upcoming event will have to come from monsoon storms as this year marks the fourth - and final – local desert pow wow, part of the First People’s New Millennium World Fair in Tucson, Arizona, we began yesterday, December 30, and goes until January 8. The kick-off gathering of Indigenous Peoples representing every corner of the world, from Alaska to Australia, began in 2000.
“Tribal elders requested the event to show the world and our children the contributions made by Indigenous Peoples everywhere,” Synder said. “The elders came to me and said the celebration would be like wearing a Bostonian shoe on one foot and a moccasin on the other. While non-Natives celebrated 2,000 years of existence, Native Americans could celebrate being here for 10,000 years by showing our children what we have contributed to the fabric of life and humanity.”
Synder, representing the Northern Plateau region with Colville/Chippewa tribal affiliation, was tapped to oversee the immense challenge.
“Native Americans felt it important to commemorate the 21st century as a special time in history to celebrate the continued existence of The People and a recommitment to continue the strength, beauty, and endurance of tradition and culture,” he said. Because four is a sacred number to all indigenous peoples, the event was scheduled for four times, every four years.
Each day of the epic event features traditional songs, dances, foods, and craft exhibits covering 10 acres with arenas for Pow Wows, exhibition dancing, a concert stage, and an international village. “All our events will acknowledge contributions to humanity and the unique cultural values of Native Peoples for the past 10,000 years.”
The lengthy festivities, called “unprecedented” by organizers, feature a changing daily theme starting with an opening day noon concert, followed by an evening-long social pow wow kicked off by gourd dancing at 4 p.m., a grand entry at 5 p.m., and on-going entertainment by Aztec, Tlingit, Ecuadorian and Aboriginal Dancers.
A midnight Friendship Round Dance is scheduled for just before midnight on Saturday, January 1; Traditional Indian Medicine is the feature on Tuesday; Mentoring between Seventy Generation Youth and Golden Age tribal members is Wednesdays focus while Thursday, January 4th, is Native American Veterans Day (Healing the Wounds of War). Competition pow wow dancing is booked for the last three days with craft demonstrations, everything from arrowhead making to feather painting, taking place throughout the week.
As organizers of the fourth and final event work feverishly on last minute details for the 2012 pow wow, Synder was asked if he felt the extended effort had been successful: “Analytical minds attempt to judge success on the basis of the who-what-why-where, and most importantly, how much --- but as Indian people, we look at things differently,” he replied.
“We define and determine ‘success’ by trying to be in harmonic balance with everything that’s around us, so if we have one child who, as a result of being involved in Thunder on the Desert, is able to carry on the songs, dances, drumming, story telling, crafts and food traditions, that’s how we measure results. We don’t evaluate things analytically and numerically, we haven’t cared how many people have turned out to participate or observe. The ones who showed up were the ones who were meant to be here and the message was there for them. After the 2008 gathering, we had people who cried and didn’t want to leave the arena. One 77-year-old told me he had never been moved by such beauty and cultural expression, moved in mind, body, and spirit.”
As the final showtime nears, all in attendance intend to nurture every moment according to advance publicity that advises: “All performers and presentations can, and do, change, and all events and times are tentative. Our seventh generation children and elders extend an invitation to be a part of this never-again occurrence, asking: Where will you be when the sun rises?”