When Santa wore feathers

DENVER – Santa says, “Ho, ho, ho” – unless, that is, he’s an Indian Santa, in which case he says “Ho, ho, a-ho” as he dances in, feathered headdress and sunglasses bobbing atop a fuzzy red suit.

Santa was a little late to his dinner date Dec. 14 because his reindeer found themselves in a Diné area and, unrecognized, were shot, the announcer says. And then the reindeer were further stranded on the Southern Ute Reservation, but they’d be arriving eventually if the Utes let them leave.

Despite his flight delays, Santa finally joined the annual American Indian College Fund-hosted Elders’ Holiday Dinner, where 277 over-55s were enjoying choice bison cuts, frybread, and all the trimmings.

Humor alternated with the poignant, as an honor song was sung for those who had walked on in the intervening year.

Rick Williams, American Indian College Fund president and CEO, was seated in front of 200-plus gift bags which, together with holiday hams, were distributed to members of Denver’s Indian community age 55-plus who attended the Elders’ Holiday Dinner Dec. 14, an annual tradition over the last decade.

Volunteers escorted the guests to their seats, and plied them with coffee and, later, pie, cake, and cookies, prompting Rick Williams, AICF president and CEO, to ask the crowd, “Wasn’t it nice to be treated special?”

Evidently it was – it’s the 10th or 11th year for the event, although no one could remember which, for certain.

But one thing was different this year – a first-time American Indian Elder of the Year award went to Rev. Sonny White, who is Cheyenne/Lakota and a descendant of leaders Little Wolf and Little Big Man, Williams said. White’s father danced at the last Sun Dance on the Pine Ridge Reservation, S.D. in 1936.

White operates a food bank out of his Christ the Answer Church, and was recognized in the state of Colorado as among five groups that together have distributed many tons of food to the needy.

Williams described White as a peace chief “in the old way” because he is known “by giving everything he has to others.”

The drum struck up an honor song as White was enrobed, and elders and others filed by, some in wheel chairs, to shake his hand and congratulate him.

“A lot of people have knowledge and intelligence, but very few have wisdom,” Williams said. “That’s why we honor our elders.” He presented a painting to Edith Wilson, 89, Dakota, for whom an honor song was sung.

Another elder singled out was Blanche Whipple, Santee Dakota, executive director of the Caring Association for Native Americans, which assists Indian people who travel to Denver for medical treatment.

Whipple said she had been gifted recently with 15 sheep and she planned to keep them in her yard. She requested assistance with the animals from CANA officials Charles Bearrobe – who offered the opening prayer for the elders’ dinner – and Marty Chase Alone, both Oglala Lakota, but both were at a loss about sheep, so she had to “find some Navajos.”

At one of the many tables where chatting elders were seated, long-time leader Margaret Red Shirt Tyon, Oglala Lakota, talked with Ida Bear, Winnebago, about the elders’ event they began many years ago that has merged into the current dinner.

Logan Bear, Ponca, Ida’s husband, talked with Father James Purfield, of Cheyenne/Irish descent, who said he learned humility from growing up near the mountains, even though it ended up, he sighed, that “Logan’s the one with all the answers.”

Purfield yearly donates the space at All Saints Catholic Church for the event, which he calls “a great occasion.”

“All Saints parish is sure happy to provide a building to have our people here,” he said. “They’re the people who really belong here. I think the Catholic Church has not always respected the Indian culture as we should, to our detriment. And the Bears have been very active in the parish.”

Good nature abounded, tangible in the piles of gift bags and more than 250 hams that will grace dinner tables on Christmas Day, and in the 25 pies, multiple cakes and cookies, and 140 pounds of buffalo meat, some of it donated by the Intertribal Bison Cooperative and prepared by Tocabe, a local Native restaurant.

AICF officials emceed, including Williams, Gerald Montour, Diné/Mohawk, who said he wants a feather for his Santa hat, and Casey Lozar, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, who calculated that with 225 elders (before the official count) at an average age of 60, “there are 13,500 years of knowledge and experience within these walls.”

The holiday spirit prevailed in the hoots of good-natured merriment at some unsuspecting elder’s expense across the room, in the intertribal ribbing, and in the faces of those who were able to provide some enjoyment to people they like and respect.

“A-ho,” thank you, they were told, as the elders filed out of the hall carrying bags of goodies.