Do the Sweetwaters blur the lines of Native American culture?

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.


The Sweetwaters

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.

Entertainment is in their blood. Kenny says he's "carrying on the legacy" of his grandfather, who led the American Indian Tribal Dancers traveling troupe in California. He later ran the Indian Village at Disneyland — complete with Indian burial ground. When Disney discontinued its Indian Village in 1966, reportedly for lack of interest, Kenny's grandfather moved to Colorado, where he put on shows at the Cliff Dwellings Museum in Manitou Springs.

Kenny has been performing since he could walk. At fourteen, he says, he danced on an episode of The Brady Bunch as well as on an episode of Kung Fu, with David Carradine. "Our family's been in the entertainment business forever," he recounts. "And I just picked it up. I just swung right in there. They asked if I wanted to make $800 for dancing on The Brady Bunch...when they went to the Grand Canyon with Jay Silverheels. He and my grandpa were real good friends," he says of the Lone Ranger's original companion. Entertainment "is how I make my living...all my life."

Elvira met Kenny during a performance at the Garden of the Gods in the late 1980s; she boasts that both of their children came into this world to the beat of the drum. Years ago, during their first stint at Rawhide Fur and Leather Co., she hoop-danced while pregnant. Now she's a grandmother and revels in the fact that her granddaughter, Summer Rose, came into the world on that same beat.

After the Sweetwaters are done here on Saturdays, they'll often perform shows — dancing and face painting — at two nearby campgrounds: Colorado Springs KOA campgrounds and the Prospector's RV Resort. Whenever possible, they'll also travel around Indian Country and participate in powwows, competing and socializing. Often they'll perform for free; they once danced for a man terminally ill with cancer who wanted to see the Sweetwaters one last time.

Elvira is also a part-time elementary-school liaison for District 11 in Colorado Springs; during the school year, she works with principals to communicate with parents. And periodically, she'll teach Native American crafts at the local schools. "I get paid through Title VII," she says, referring to a federal Indian education grant that funds school projects teaching Native American culture.

But these performances are "basically our all-around-year job," Elvira says. "Right now we're not doing so well. There's hardly any traffic that goes through there like there used to be."


Theodore Van Alst, a Lakota who's director of the Native American Cultural Center at Yale University, read about the Sweetwaters' performances in an article in the Cañon City Daily Record, and they fall in a "dicey area," he says.

"On the one hand, you've got to make a living," he notes. The Sweetwater family is "playing a role that is an expected one. They're playing a role created by America and the American West, in particular. They're filling a spot."

Still, he explains, it's never acceptable for a Native American to paint the faces of white kids for profit. "There are certain precursory ceremonies to the painting of faces," he says. "So that's problematic. To expect some non-Native family to be able to differentiate between some random geometrics and a pattern that could be related to a particular ceremony is not an easy thing for them to grasp."

Traditional Native American face-painting designs are spiritual and not strictly geometric. The designs are either familial or a representation of the individual who wears them.

The face-painting portion of the Sweetwaters' show "should probably be something that they should stay away from," Van Alst says. "Eating candy and getting your face painted, that's carnival. But don't confuse Indian people with carnival."

Had certain events in history not occurred — for example, had Christopher Columbus not landed here in 1492 — Native Americans today wouldn't be in a position where they sell their culture just to pay a bill, he notes. "Is it entirely on them, or does the legacy of colonialism have a role to play in this?" Van Alst asks. "All of the films, the cartoons, the cultural representation of Native American people has brought us to where we are today."

And today's performances could leave most Americans "confused," he says. The kids whose faces Elvira paints will one day be college students who'll host a cowboys-and-Indians frat party because they'll remember that once, long ago, an Indian painted their faces, and they'll recall how "fun that was!"

"They'll be like, 'I'm honoring you, dude,'" he continues. "It's not okay to dress up as a person. It perpetuates the non-humanity of Native people. This gives them license to do that."

But Elvira disagrees with Van Alst's assessment. "Usually that only comes around, like, on Halloween, you know? For me, it's like an everyday thing," she says. "Halloween is just once a year. And I'm not there to encourage it. You know, I've got more kids that come to me, and you know one of the questions they always ask me is, 'Are you real Indian?' I mean, that's like, come on, you know? Get real. They think cowboys killed all the Indians. That's just the Hollywood persona."

According to Elvira, she's never heard of anyone disapproving of her face-painting practice. It's not intended to offend; she'd prefer not to get political, she says.

Van Alst is not alone in his disapproval of these performances with props and face painting, however. Tessa McLean, a member of the American Indian Movement Colorado chapter, says the Sweetwater family business "is problematic because they make money off the culture.

"If you're doing it for profit, that's not okay," she says. "It's not good to sell our culture or to sell things that we do. It's like a sideshow. It's like Buffalo Bill. It's kind of like that, and I don't like that idea."

What the Sweetwaters are doing is not culturally appropriate, adds McLean, who is Anishinabe and a pupil of revered activist Winona LaDuke. "I was taught to protect who we are. Protect your way of life. That means you don't share with people who wouldn't understand. You wouldn't share with someone who has an entrepreneurial way of thinking. We protect who we are."

"The performances also educate the audience," Elvira stresses, noting that she spends countless hours teaching about Native American culture. "I work with kids," she says "I do a lot of after-school programs. I do things like beadwork, making shawls. I teach all the cultural stuff to the kids. Most are Native kids. Some are half-breeds."

While McLean says that work is admirable, she still finds the Sweetwater performances and face painting troubling. "When you do things like that, when you share your culture with people, you have to educate, and you have to educate the people who want to learn," she says. "You can't educate people who are just there for the show."

Or the face painting. That's "given to you through ceremony," she adds. "When you see dancers in their regalia, like at a powwow, when they put that makeup on their face, in the old days, if you were going to war, if you died in [that] war, the paint was so that you looked your best. So when you went to the other side, you looked your best. [Elvira's] making light of the face painting, which is pretty sacred to us."

McLean emphasizes that this is her opinion, not necessarily the position of AIM's Colorado chapter. And like Van Alst, she does not want to completely write off what the Sweetwaters do as Indians profiting off of their culture. "Our people should not be on display in a zoo, so that's why I don't approve," she says. "I don't like them capitalizing off our culture, but if they need food on their table, how do I respond so harshly? Never in that twenty or thirty years they couldn't find another job?"

Like Elvira, Kenny does not want to get into political discussions, since the Sweetwaters "love everybody," he says.

Which is a commendable sentiment, says Maka Black Elk, the great-great-great-grandson of lauded holy man Black Elk. But while it's good that they love everyone, he adds, there's a larger social question at play here.

This isn't the first time Native Americans have profited from their culture, explains Black Elk, a recent graduate of Columbia University and a teacher at the Red Cloud Indian High School on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. "And it certainly won't be the last...

"We should always be able to criticize despite the condition. Poverty isn't an excuse for misinformation, but it does play into misinformation about who Indians are, how Indians are modern."

The Sweetwaters' show is particularly bothersome because it plays into the "fantasy," he continues. For kids, "this might be the only experience they'll have with Indians their whole life." For "young people in general, children especially, the world is still full of innocence, and getting their face painted anywhere, in any situation, is not going to be traumatizing, per se, it might be a fun memory, but I think for white children, they're not going to understand the consequences until they're much older. It will have effects for these white children later on. It depends on their own level of understanding and their own experience with Indian people."

This "playing Indian" can be dangerous, Black Elk says. "This could potentially give the validation for, you know, 'I'm going to wear an Indian headdress and take a photo in a field' type of folk who rant about how it's art as opposed to culture and therefore open to appropriation."

Indian peoples have a responsibility to protect their culture and to keep it authentic, Black Elk says, but that duty has clashed with the modern interpretation of Native American culture, and it's "constantly transferred and borrowed" in mainstream American society.

What Native Americans have today "was nearly robbed from us completely," he says, which punctuates the need to defend Indian ways, especially traditions: "What is fashion? What is sharable and what is not?" he continues. "In this case, when we're approached by these stereotypes, the cowboy versus the Indian, the [Sweetwaters] are political...even if they don't want to be, and they're already making a statement by participating in that kind of work."

But the Sweetwaters disagree. They don't want to be political. They just want to help the community, Elvira says, educate people and make it through the winter themselves. And come next summer, they'll pick up where they left off: on this dusty road outside of Cañon City. They're entertainers, after all, and the show must go on.

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