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.

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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