Being a good tribal leader today means being able to enrich the native community by fostering the growth and education of its youth.
For many young Kumeyaay in San Diego County, that inspiration came from Paul Cuero Jr.
Former Nation President Campo Kumeyaay was honored Saturday at the 34th Annual Balboa Park Pow Wow.
Dozens of native dancers, vendors and hundreds of spectators gathered in the park for the first day of the powwow, which draws tribal members from across the country.
Each year, the San Diego American Indian Health Center, which hosts the powwow, chooses to honor local Indigenous people for the contributions they have made to their community.
On Saturday afternoon, the committee honored Cuero for his commitment to his tribe, his advocacy on behalf of the indigenous community, and his dedication to preserving Kumeyaay traditions through his work with tribal youth.
Cuero was sick in the hospital with an infection and couldn’t attend the powwow, so his friend, Steve Banegas of the Barona Band of Mission Indians, spoke on his behalf before singing bird songs Kumeyaay with a group of men.
Having learned side by side under the same Kumeyaay elders, Banegas described Cuero as being spiritually closer to a brother than a friend. He credits Cuero with the reason so many young Kumeyaay today participate in their traditional practices, which helps to reiterate the message that the tribal community is still alive and well.
“Even though it’s been against us in our spirituality and our beliefs, it’s still embedded in some of us in the next generation,” Banegas said. “It’s like planting a seed — it’s going to start, but you have to have good soil, then it has to have just the right amount of water, and it does.
“(Cuero is) kind of like that good soil, that good water, that good sunlight, it’s all good so he can hold on and be firm.”
On Sunday afternoon, the committee will honor Randy Edmonds of the Kiowa and Caddo Nations, who is also the master of ceremonies for this year’s powwow.
Edmonds started the annual powwow at Balboa Park 35 years ago, which the health center took over after its retirement about nine years ago, said Paula Brim, powwow chair and board chair. administration of the SDAIHC of the Oklahoma Choctaw Nation.
Even in retirement, Brim said Edmunds remained a spiritual and community leader in San Diego. Last year, Edmunds hosted a blessing ceremony at the opening of the San Diego Symphony’s new Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, and he is an advisor for SDAIHC.
“He’s an exceptional person and he has an amazing sense of humor,” Brim said. “He always leads by example – he’s one of those people who brings people together.”
In addition to being a place to honor members of the community, powwows are also a spiritual and social gathering for Indigenous peoples.
In a brief speech before dancing in the powwow circle, Pamela James of the Chickasaw, Santee Sioux and Menominee Nations shared the importance of dancing in jingle attire as a form of medicine.
James said the women’s dance style was said to have been brought to a chief of the Ojibwe tribe – from southern Canada and the northern Midwestern United States – in a vision when many members of his tribe, including his daughter, had tuberculosis. In the dream, four women were dancing in dresses covered with deer hooves and tree bark, which made noise as the dancers moved to the beat of the drum.
Today, dresses are covered in jingles made by rolling cone-shaped metal discs, which are then attached to the dress so that they ring against each other as the woman dances. The dance continues to be recognized as a dance used to facilitate healing, which James said is especially important today given all the turmoil going on in the world.
“When we dance, we pray for everyone who can’t dance here, people who can’t be here today and for everything that’s happening with Ukraine, the pandemic,” she said. . “We always pray and dance to heal, to give people life, to give people happiness.”
Many children and teenagers also attended on Saturday, including Mya Begay, a high school student from the Diné people of northern New Mexico who is a rising senior as Miss Sherman for the Sherman Indian High School Court.
The 17-year-old won her title by speaking in the Diné language and performing a traditional hand drum song in a competition at her school, which is an off-reserve boarding school for Native American students. Being at powwows, she says, is a way to stay in touch with her culture and her community.
“Hearing the drum can be medicine – it’s the heartbeat of Mother Earth – and so it’s good to hear that she is still in touch with you,” Begay said. “When you hear the music, sometimes it helps your soul.”