Sunday, July 27, 2008

NAJA Convention Begins Unconventionally

NAJA Convention Begins Unconventionally


NAJA Convention Begins Unconventionally

Just look how progressive Indian Country can be.

New members of the Native American Journalists Association were welcomed at a reception last night at the Viejas Casino, about 25 miles east of San Diego. The crowd was Native, but the fare wasn't. Example: Caviar on artichoke hearts.

Cocktail waitresses sauntered between the tables. Canapes were passed 'round but the diners each seemed to silently agree on how to handle the toasty appetizers: Smell 'em and put 'em back down.

Later, the lights dimmed in the casino's Dreamcatcher Lounge as the opening ceremonies of the 18th annual NAJA convention began. Traditional elders of the Kumeyaay spoke, welcoming their guests to their territory.

Then, the Campo New Bird Singers, a group of young men from various bands of the Kumeyaay, told stories through their bird-singing.

They stood side-by-side, their voices resonating through the large lounge in deep, rich tones. Each held a wooden rattle in his right hand. Shake. Shake. Roooollll. Their song was hypnotic.

The leader of songs, a young man wearing a red shirt that read "What's Your Fancy?" stood in the middle of his peers. As he began each song, the men to his right and left joined in, the tone swelling as voices were added down the line.

The syncopated rhythm of their songs quickly switched, with the youths deftly following the beat set by the leader.

Women are not allowed to sing the songs, but the young men don't know why. It's just the way it is.

Then, a young girl in cut-off jeans and a black jacket mysteriously appeared in front of the singers, her back to the audience. She swayed from side-to-side but kept her head down and her eyes averted from the men before her. They adopted her side-step movements.

An older woman joined the girl, her older body mimicking the younger.

"Anyone can get up and dance," Joseph Castelol, one of the singers, said after the performance.

"The songs all tell a story," interjected Marcos Cuero, another member. "The songs are about when the stars are coming out until the coming of the dawn."

Another singer and Cuero's cousin, James Cuero, added: "We sing because the people who have gone before us are now with us. It's time for everyone to get up and dance."

After a host of speakers addressed convention-goers, the vice chairman of the Sycuan band took the stage. Danny Tucker, wearing a silver-sequined vest over his white button-down shirt, danced and kicked a la Barry Manilow, belting out the words to Copacabana and other lounge tunes.

It was like going from the 1670s to the 1970s in the span of two hours.

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