Sycuan Gathering Pow wow 2004

By Roy Cook

Sycuan Tribal land is the Southern California location of this three-day gathering of traditional Yuman singing and dance. The Sycuan people hosted visitors and friends to their Fifthteenth annual Pow wow. This weekend is a blessing from the Creator. All we can desire, need and enjoy was evident in the company of the most beautiful people in the world: Tribal People. Danny Tucker, Sycuan Tribal Chairman, is attentive and happy to see so many visitors attending. Arlene Galvan and her crew are justifiably proud of this years pow wow organization. George Prieto, Sycuan tribal member and Korean War veteran is this year's designated Honored Indian Flag staff bearer. All around the arena we see children smiling in play, Grandparents being protective and instructive to all children. Also, most evident, the women are always first in tribal country. Wonderful butterflies of color we see the dancers in the arena, bouncing and dipping in response to the songs. The songs, Yuman song styles, Tucuk "Bird song". Most will agree many of the songs have a distinct identity with the Mohave presentation series. Yet at the same time each is identifiable to the region singing the song: Northern or River or Tipai Kumeyaay.

Saturday, late afternoon, and it is still warm and sunny in the arena. Ron Christman and his competition-judging members announce the beginning of the dance and song singer competition. This long time resident of the Viejas reservation is often called upon to establish the proper event orientation. He has long been a supporter of local Native American events and he has been influential in organizing the first Sycuan Pow wow. Many Bird singers are on the list to warm up and sing three songs before the contest. This assemblage is inspiring to experience. There are so many young singers swinging gourds and participating! Teasing the girls, playing roughly and laughing as in years gone by. Believe me, many have been waiting forty or more years to see this Tribal renaissance emerge. For too many years it is been difficult to see beyond a survival mode regarding the traditional CA singing and language. We need to acknowledge the individual Tribal summer workshops and language programs like the ones sponsored by Kumeyaay Community College.  Past students and instructors in culture and language have laid the groundwork for this new hope. Of particular note this afternoon is the stirring tribute to two Tribal culture bearers by Barbara Levy, Quechan. She acknowledged, by example, the role of women in the singing tradition and the survival of the songs. She sang a beautiful song with respectful support by all the male singers.

Please do not misunderstand what I am trying to say, I deplore the concept of the "Vanishing American" and most of the romantic notions associated with that concept but the critical survival of culture issue in Southern CA has been nervously evident for a number of generations. However, today is a day to dispel all lingering worries. It is wonderful to experience this energy and vitality in the continuity of culture. I am very glad I was there this afternoon!

 Yuman song style is very often is generally labeled Bird songs. There are from 12 to 14 variations of the Yuman song style. Yuman or Bird Song singers are a vital element in the Kumeyaay custom and tradition within the local Native American social structure.  Bird Singers occupy responsible roles. Traditionally, early in life, potential singers are introduced to established lead singers. During these associations young singers are evaluated to determine: commitment, capacity to learn, and qualities essential to group singing as opposed to individual performance.

 Essentially, the Yuman or Bird songs are a series of epic song cycles in the oral tradition. These songs also fulfill a social role as entertainment and many times are sung just for the joy of the occasion. Further, these Bird songs may also be sung as a Kumeyaay Traditional Community presentation. At these occasions protocol is formally defined and one must get up and dance when the proper song is sung.

There are regional variations in Yuman song but essentially the lead singer and helpers or singers begin standing or seated in a row. After a series of songs, variable to the occasion, the lead singer will rise and dance forward in a series of small steps. Then they will dance backward until they contact the seats or close proximity to the starting point.

A facing row of dancers will often assemble, mostly female, and guided by the gourd rattle and song complete the balance and the presentation. The dancing is often inspiring to the moment and lead singer song selection.

 So often I have over heard comments on Bird Singing from observers to the culture, "They all sound alike." also "They just go back and forth, over and over." Yet to the informed observer, these songs are a complex sophistication of multiple related songs. The singer may or may not elect to bring out double step, or triple step songs, spins or turns.

 Mike Burgess, Comanche, is selected for this years Emcee again. His wit and knowledge adds immeasurably to the diplomacy necessary to facilitate the Native American Intertribal Pow wow today. This was a goot one! It is good to hear Millard Clark, Cheyenne/Comanche, at the drum again. Maybe we will see you at the next American Indian event. Thank you, Aho, Mehan.