Do the Sweetwaters blur the lines of Native American culture?

Do the Sweetwaters blur the lines of Native American culture?
Anthony Camera

Just off a desolate, two-lane county road outside of Cañon City, four Native American entertainers pile out of their car and onto the dirt-gravel parking lot by the three tipis outside the Rawhide Fur and Leather Co.

It's 1 p.m., and already the temperature has swelled to 90 degrees — but the show must go on. These are tough times, says Kenny Sweetwater, the patriarch of this troupe and a member of the Southern Cheyenne and Osage tribes. Three wildfires — Waldo Canyon, which raged last summer, and the recent Black Forest and Royal Gorge fires — have kept tourists from the area. But times will be tougher this winter if the family doesn't put away some money.

To do so, they'll dance in their traditional regalia for the few tourists who come by, then offer to paint their pale faces. Red, yellow, green and black geometric shapes — none of the traditional images that warriors would paint on their faces before taking on the U.S. Cavalry in those bloody nineteenth-century battles that still stain American soil.

Sky and Elvira Sweetwater dance outside the trading post.
Anthony Camera
Sky and Elvira Sweetwater dance outside the trading post.
Elvira paints a customer’s face.
Anthony Camera
Elvira paints a customer’s face.

This face painting "is more modern and commercialized," says Elvira Sweetwater, who's Diné (Navajo). "It all relates to art."

She charges $4 a face, and says that other Native Americans will demand $18 to do the same. "Mine's not that high. I just share it," she explains. "You know what I mean?"

But academics and activists alike say they wish she wouldn't share the revered practice of face painting with non-Native Americans at all, and would stop putting on these performances so that non-Indian tourists can play cowboys and Indians outside a trading post owned by other non-Indians.

Dale Boysen founded Rawhide Fur and Leather Co. back in 1977, when he started selling rugs out of a tipi just off the county road. Today the trading post is stocked with everything from bows and arrows to jewelry. About 40 percent of the merchandise comes from Native Americans, says Ranell Fox, Boysen's daughter, who now runs the business. The other 60 percent is quintessential Western kitsch.

The Sweetwaters performed here decades ago and just recently returned. "It's nice to have another thing...for the tourists to go to," Fox says. "They're a nice little family business, and we're a nice little family business."

They perform in the middle of a makeshift arena, by a totem pole topped by a faux bald eagle. The totem pole has nothing to do with the tribes that used to live in this area. It's "probably from the Alaska area," Elvira speculates.

She knows a great deal more about Navajo and Pueblo origins. A renowned hoop dancer, she'll perform for tourists and share the history of how hoop dancing originated with the Pueblos in the Southwest as a physical, rather than verbal, way to tell a story. Hoop dancers are known to utilize upward of twenty, even thirty hoops in a single dance; Elvira uses only ten during these performances. But that's enough to take the shape of animals and various indigenous symbols. "It's one of our most spectacular dances," Elvira says.

Kenny "runs the show," as he refers to it. He was born on the Southern Cheyenne reservation in Oklahoma and used to be a fancy dancer. He'd wear two bustles, bedecked in ribbon and feathers, that would bounce on his back as the drum revved up for the glamorous, ornate dance. But when he was 21, he was in the back seat of a car that rolled and pretty much ended his dancing career. "I still dance now and then," he says. But usually he's the emcee for the performances.

While Kenny beats the lone drum, sixteen-year-old Sky Sweetwater will grass dance. His sister, Sunshine, a nineteen-year-old who just had a baby, whips the air with her shawl. They're here to dance for tips and paint faces for bucks. Occasionally, patrons of the trading post will ask the Sweetwaters to pose by the tipis and totem pole for a photo. Elvira and her brood will oblige as an eager parent brandishes a Nikon, tells the kids to get a little closer and snaps the shot. Historically, some Indian nations would not permit photographs because they feared that the camera would capture their spirits; Elvira just fears that the photographers won't be courteous enough to leave a tip.

Kenny and Elvira Sweetwater first performed here almost twenty years ago. After that, they traveled and played shows across the West before landing at the Indian Village at the Flying W Ranch, where they put on regular shows for seven years. But that relationship ended last year, when the tourism venue/cattle ranch was lost to the Waldo Canyon Fire on June 26, 2012.

"Approximately forty structures burned, including the chuckwagon facility that had been open since 1953," says Aaron Winter, executive director of the Flying W Foundation, who'd invited the Sweetwaters to join the show. "They'd perform in our Western town at least seven nights a week in the summertime. They worked primarily for tips...as well as do face painting."

The Flying W may reopen next summer. But for now, the Sweetwaters make the 75-minute drive to Cañon City five days a week, weather permitting, to hang out by the tipis from 1 to 8:30 p.m., putting on fifteen-to-twenty-minute shows for the tourists who come by.

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22 comments
martonluv
martonluv

I am devistated to hear this article speek such things about my family name!! This is awful! These people are doing what they love to do and ill be damned if some fuckerheads are going to come around and call them sellouts! The real sellouts are the bitter ones. the bitter ones who have sold out to their own haterd.

buffaloberriez
buffaloberriez

Uh, Zeke, there is a HUGE difference between what these people are doing AND a pow-wow. First of all, yes there are bleachers at pow-wows, but who is sitting in them? Mostly natives. The audience at pow-wows consist of natives, and the random tourist or two who leave when it gets late. Huge difference. Secondly, pow-wows usually occur where there is a large native population, not some dusty spot on the side of the road with stereotypical 'native paraphernalia' visited by non-natives. Thirdly, people don't dance for tips...not everyone contests, they dance because its an expression of their culture. Dancing for tips is reflective of the Sweetwaters and their true character. So don't insult my intelligence or knowledge by throwing out your pathetic excuse for these sell-outs behavior.

buffaloberriez
buffaloberriez

The Sweetwaters are culture whores, selling native culture for a few nickles and dimes. Get a real job and quit painting lil kids faces. These people are rude and tactless, they look like clowns next to the real natives when they take their dog and pony show to pow-wows...strippers on the tipi pole, working it hard. Shut them down

x0001
x0001

Ok just to add to the division let me say as a Pueblo person she should not be saying much about pueblo traditions if she is Navajo. However what they are doing is harmless. Even the face painting is so trivial its hard to see why so many are getting worked up over this. Its not like she is marking them up then saying "you great warrior now go on warpath UGH". 

Its amazing people will blow a gasket over this yet have they ever been to Cherokee NC? The entire town is set up this way! Old men sitting in front of tipis posing for photos for 10 dollar "donations".  Shop after shop selling trinkets made overseas, mexican rugs, persian baskets. All so the tourists can buy something 'indian' and its all run by the mighty Cherokees.

fishypond
fishypond

I find it hypocritical of Mr. Theodore Van Alst to point an old Yale office finger and call foul upon the Sweetwater clan for their life choices.  How many dances does he travel to monthly?  How many little ones hands does he hold and watch the twinkle grow in their eyes?  Add on the other listed professionals who think they alone define the indian experience.  And everyone these days knows that Indian cultures of today can not be compared to the peoples of another bygone era.  Otherwise we'd have to ask them to resort to stone axes for their dinner meat preparation.  Reality is many native people go to work and come home and pop a beer, sit down and check facebook.  Don't believe me?  Go to any powwow and watch all the people behind their goods for sale surfing on smart phones.  My point is folks are diverse, accept the others beside you or go home and watch TV, you are safe in your box.   Who am I?  Not a friend of the Sweetwater's never heard of them 'til now.  Native American?  Nope just a good friend of people from many nations.  Stomp dance used to be a dance of friendship not stepping upon one another.

314to407
314to407

Speaking as a family member to the Sweetwater’s, I am truly saddened by the way this article is portraying them. They’re the hardest working people I know. Besides being a mother and grandmother; my Aunt has worked hard all her life and she enjoys doing what she loves and that is dancing & sharing her culture with everyone (no matter if they are white, black, purple or blue).

I recall growing up with my brother & participating in different events around Colorado Springs with my family. We did not do it because it was a job but because the idea behind the group was to spread awareness of our culture to our community. From Territory Days in Manitou Springs, to the Olympic Ice Skating performance, being in the presence of President Bill Clinton, & being featured on TV. It was never about the fame to us if anything the biggest life lesson they taught us was, “Be proud of who you are! Love everyone! & Finish your education!” and that is what they teach to all the viewers.

In 2007 I got married and my aunt graced me & my guests to her amazing hoop dancing, as well as a big round dance which symbolized joy, happiness, and harmony among all of us on my special day. With saying all that, this article isn’t about what they are “doing wrong” in the eyes of one person because of some “face painting”; to me that is stupid and poor journalism. I suggest before you judge them, keep in mind they are working for TIPS not for minimum wage or even getting paid hourly. They do this because this is what they love and it’s their passion.

L.Billings

nicosia410
nicosia410

Anyone who has had the privilege of seeing the Sweetwaters entertain knows that they educate their audiences at every opportunity.  When done in such a way, combined with the hospitality for which this family is known, allies in the non-native community are formed---friends who learn to honor and respect these traditions and speak out against misappropriations.  I am fortunate to be counted as one of their friends.

As a testimony to the strength and courage of Elvira, I first met her during her healing from a kitchen grease fire several years back in which her hands were horribly burned... she was hoop dancing before the year was out!  She is a woman of commitment with a passion for what she has to share, and a great blessing to her community and beyond.

Fr. Michael Nicosia

cheryld60
cheryld60

I totally understand what's being said, however, you need to think about the Powwow circuit these days, Native American's perform at these for contest monies, etc.  What was mentioned in this article I see absolutely NO difference in those than what the Sweetwaters are doing, except that they are the only ones there.  In some families the Powwow circuit is there main job for the year.

So, does this mean that the Powwow's need to be closed down or just closed to those who can't prove they are Native American?!

Isolationism at it's best - WWII internment camps -- Oh yeah and Reservations!  Remember those - we all need to get over the sterotyping and learn to help people so that no one has to experience the feeling of "selling" themselves or their culture.  This has been happening for decades.  Figure out how society can work for everyone so that there are "poor" people instead of blockading those who share their culture and themselves in order to be able to survive.

_ZEKE_
_ZEKE_

I don't know the Sweetwaters at all.  I do know that the final sentence of the story describes them as "entertainers."  Given that, their only measurement criteria should be whether or not they are entertaining.


If some folks, Native or not, find their acts offensive?  Then don't frequent their show.


Any bets that the loudest Indian whiners here -- and elsewhere -- have been paid to perform during their lives?  What the Hell do you think a contest powwow is?

denniszotigh
denniszotigh

So many dancers and singers who are so called "traditional" have gone on cultural tours and got paid for it. It has been going on since the early 1800's. Why pick on the Sweetwaters. There are much bigger fish who have done this as well in the Indian world.

benwornouthorn
benwornouthorn

This heavily biased article by Moya-Smith is written to encourage opposition to the Sweetwaters. Readers have to look to the comments to get a more balanced viewpoint on the subject of Native American cultural sharing.

For Moya-Smith, Theodore Van Alst and others who are apparently not aware, this kind of cultural sharing being offered by the Sweetwaters is called tourism. These types of practices by Native Americans are offered every day throughout the United States and Canada.

The Sweetwaters appear to be informing and entertaining their guests at the same time. They make no attempt to associate spirituality or traditional ceremony with a few colored lines painted on tourists' faces. 

The Sweetwaters are a hard-working family trying their best to make a living using the skills and knowledge they know best. They are not violating anyone's rights, cultural or otherwise, by demonstrating songs and dances that can be observed anywhere in this country at a public powwow.

The tourists likely go away feeling good about the experience with the Sweetwaters. They have learned a little more about Native Americans from authentic Indians, including the sweet hospitality of the family.

The Sweetwaters are cultural assets of our Native American community, and we should appreciate them as such.

Ben Wornouthorn

kainaisteve
kainaisteve

GET OVER IT!   Anyone familiar with the front range Indian community (Ft Collins/Denver/Co Spgs/Pueblo) is well aware of the sometimes strained relations between the "mighty" Lakota (of which I'm not) and the members of other "lesser" tribes, especially the Dine' (of which I'm not).  The Sweetwaters are a very well respected family that has been nothing but positive in our communities.  Apparently some people thrive on jealosy when it comes to seeing others suceed.  Reminds me of life on the rez, where those who continue to wallow in self pity and misery, can do nothing but inflict negative and hurtful damage towards any of their own who are attempting to make a better life for themselves and their families through education and enterprise.   BTW...I know many members of the Lakota Nation who live in Colorado, and they do the exact things the Sweetwaters are doing.  I don't hear any complaints about them.  There is nothing wrong with sharing culture at any level.  I don't hear anyone complaining about the fine folks at Tocabe, for being sellouts by sharing awesome fry bread and Indian tacos witht the Denver community.  Do yourself a favor and pay them a visit..

If you get a chance, catch a performance by the Sweetwater family.  You'll be treated to a good show, and treated as a if you were a family friend, which you are.  They even like Lakotas.

reddaryl
reddaryl

So Johnny Depp puts a freaking dead stuffed crow on his head, a caricature he readily admits to completely fabricating after clicking around on the Internet for a while, and goes to the Reservations and tells them that this and his seen-all-around-the-world movie honors them, and they readily accept this assertion apparently because he's a Great White Hollywood Star and if he says that a dead bird on the head and talking like a caveman is an honorable depiction of the Tribes then it must be so - but an actual First Families family works for tips at a souvenir stand along the highway and this is a searing shameful travesty against all that's righteous and holy to the Native People's of this land? One that's totally unacceptable and must be stopped? Where was the outcry against Disney? Leave this family alone.

Mani_tou
Mani_tou

Damn, all this talk about "real Indians" and not a word. About Ward Churchill or Elizabeth Warren?

Some folks are trying to make a living and get racked over the coals by AIM members while the real desiccation gets a pass.

svictoria29
svictoria29

Really?  Why can't First Nations stand to see others succeed?  This article was written with a complete slant.  It's the same argument against casinos -- the lack of tradition.  Why do we have to beat each other down instead of supporting each other? I know the Sweetwaters.  They are amazing, positive members of the Colorado Indian community.  We live in a global society. We need to survive.  They aren't just making money exploiting the community.  They are vibrant members who do a lot for us.   Ask anyone around who knows them.  Well, those who aren't jealous of their success (which, BTW, is completely relative.)

thefemaleofthespecies
thefemaleofthespecies

All you we-are-so-spiritual-and-sacred type native folks need to get the fuck over yourselves, much bigger bread to fry don't you think?  Like maybe bettering  the tribe as a whole so we're not immersed in third world living conditions?! Clutching the children so close to your chest that you refuse to let them go out into the world and educate themselves!?! Because we cant have our children tainted by the 'white man' can we!!! Stupid fuckers, have fun wallowing in tradition and poverty because you refuse to accept change and progress.

-Yaqui Traveler

aicapgroup
aicapgroup

 Shallow, strange and meaingless. Tribal dance, historically, was never related in any way to entertainment...it was instead ceremonial and spiritually serious form of empowerment and an expression of ritual energy across the generations. Everything these people do, and most pow-wows in general, demeans, misdirects and denigrates the truth of American Indian spiritual truth. It is tragic that these lost and clueless people believe this is an honest work. American Indians suffer tremendous harm from all the bad information, incorrect information that stains the predominant public record. When tribal members themselves descend through desperation and ignorance to ridicule and profit and cheapen the root vales of the sacred ceremonial teachings, they bring only shame and ridicule to all American Indians. This is a desperately shameless group of people, everyone involved in this debacle.

yraunaj
yraunaj

One of the proven methods for making money is to think up new products to offer.

I would gladly pay someone to teach me how to erect a tepee from start to finish.
Not one of those small ones either - I mean a full size, full feature, dwelling model.
This is a Native American activity which has been practiced millions of times and
most people don't have the slightest clue what is involved (me included). I think a
surprising number would be willing to pay to be shown how it is done and to get the
privilege of participating.

Optional Activities:
- build a fire in the tepee and learn to "manage it"
- enjoy a meal in the tepee
- enjoy a brief nap in the tepee
- be willing to disassemble the tepee (maybe for a modest discount)

This is a simple way to share an integral part of your culture that so many people
have never experienced. Give them this experience and they will be happy to reward
you in return.

Best wishes for prosperity,

Seven Clans

_ZEKE_
_ZEKE_

@buffaloberriez So, basically, you don't have an answer?  (Or, you're just unable to express yourself well?)

First, there is absolutely no difference between dog-and-pony show (and non-traditional!) powwows and what the Sweetwaters are doing unless you're codifying whether it matters if spectators are white or not.  (And, if it does matter to your racially defined psuedo argument, there's even LESS to be concerned with!)

Second, if you believe people dance as an "expression of their culture" as opposed to for tips, as a show, and contest $$$ then you are as romanticist and naive as you CLAIM the Sweetwaters to be.  The fact is that modern powwows are developments of Wild West shows, they are not traditional and, de facto, cannot be expressions of culture as -- in their current form -- they are no more tied to our culture than county fairs.

As for insulting your "intelligence," the vapid weakness of your argument has already done so without the least need for my intervention.  I've merely bothered to explain to you how embarrassing that should be for you.

 As a guess, you won't get it.  (sigh)

_ZEKE_
_ZEKE_

@buffaloberriez"The Sweetwaters are culture whores, selling native culture for a few nickles and dimes."

Believing that is just dumb unless you're willing to deduce that about EVERY contest powwow in existence that features bleachers.

Let me guess, you're just mad you hadn't thought of it first?

You sound like that KiowaKat crazy lady in St. Louis...


CVP86
CVP86

@yraunaj You're not even spelling it correctly. It's tipi. This is probably a sign that you shouldn't treat Native culture as something that could be sold and traded as a commodity. Please don't ever go to a sundance. Ever. 

aicapgroup
aicapgroup

@yraunaj....Google "The Indian Tipi", an awesome book, forget the author, but Google it and it is there. tells you clearly everything about the tip and tipi life, respectfully. Don't need an "Indian" to show you that information....

 
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