Thursday, February 07, 2008

Asking For Vision (Day 4 , Itsa Ga'an)

Ga'an is an Apache word which has almost no counterpart in English. There are dancers who call themselves ga'an who the white folks call crown dancers. Ok. That's not what they are but if you want to call the elaborate headresses they wear crowns, fine by me, fine by us. Sometimes when trying to talk about a ga'an the proper word is ghost. Although that one caused no small amount of problem. Ghost dancers? No, we don't want anybody thinking about that. Wouvoka, the Paiute shaman, tried to get his Ghost Dance religion started among the Apache. The chief Nana told him to "Never mind, we'll all be ghosts soon enough."

When somebody is dancing as a ga'an it's a strange state. The idea is not so much to try and become what you are dancing, but to allow that entity, be it an animal, a force of nature, or a legendary figure to inhabit you. I don't become a golden eagle when I dance as Itsa (golden eagle) Ga'an, I try to be open enough to let eagle come into me.

My cousin, the brilliant attorney, and I have danced as Itsa Ga'an since we were kids. We grew up pretty much as best friends our whole lives. Not that we have taken the same paths, far from it, but we have always had a trust, a connection, a respect, a bond, and above all, a deep love for each other that has always transcended our differing interests and viewpoints. I trust him with my life, and the lives of my children, and he trusts me back the same way. This connection is what makes it special when we dance. We're both much older now. I'm just a bit shy of 60, my cousin is only two years behind me. We aren't going to wow anybody with our beautiful trim bodies or our effortless muscle control. We won't thrill the critics with our flawless technique. What they will see is a couple of old beat up warriors doing the best they can, dancing together and having a ball.

It takes a while to become Ga'an. It starts with blacking out the lower part of the face with charcoal. Watching your own face disappear behind the blackness is the first step of letting go of yourself. For the rest I like to start at the bottom and go up. I pull on my moccaisins and wrap the leggings around them. These are grass mats that have eagle feathers woven into them. This is followed by a decorated kilt, and a sash trimmed with more eagle feathers. A bustle of tail feathers arranged in a circle straps onto the small of the back. For the wings, there are two supple willow rods that are joined by a rawhide thong, these have flight feathers tied all the way up their length. When the arms are moved the feathers move and twist individually.

Last is a wooden headress. Carved and painted to look like the head of an eagle. This is also trimmed with feathers. Usually around two eagles are needed to get the feathers for a costume. The way it is usually done is that a holy person (men and women do this) will trap a young eagle and keep it for a couple of moulting cycles. They collect the feathers as they come off. Eagles are not killed to make these costumes. That would ruin everything for this dance.

When we have the costumes on my cousin and I paint each other. White and black stripes down the arms, black hands, red and yellow dots on our chests. Then we stand back and look at each other. Sometimes there's some touch up to do, but, at some point we see each other and know. We are still indii (apache humans) but we are also Ga'an. Then we go out.

The drums begin. There are about six drummer/singers to each drum. Silas is leading one drum and he begins to sing.

Si' -Zi' bìyì' éd yùd hiljij di' di' isza'ni' tc' ìndí

(we dance inside a circle of men and women they say)

ìs' à'nà yáii éhd yùd á lzà tc'ìndíi

(long life inside a circle is made they say)

We lean forward and take four short hops to the right. Leaning with our left arms down, right arms up. Then a tight hopping circle to the right.

bìyì' éd yùd híljìj 'ìs' à' nà yái tc' ìndíi

(inside our circle dances long life they say)

Four hops to the left and a circle to the left. Damn this hurt. Blasted damned leg. I can feel the damage being done. It does hurt. I am glad that my face is blackened. I must be stoic. I am Ga'an.

yèxáidèlà gò dèyà keh'èh gòjó zeeh tsálit' tc'ìndíi

(having been prepared, he walks, friends, they say)

Á bìtct'ìd bìt'á ná ná ni sì tsòz

(underneath our blanket rests mother earth)

Now we face each other and begin to dance toward the other. We are mimicing the way eagles meet in the wild. Closing in, darting back. Reaching out with the beak. This lets me favor my bad leg. My cousin also knows this and takes over the lead part. He does most of the moving and allows me some time to recover. One move I have, that almost nobody else can do is because of my fused left ankle. I can plant my heel, and spin on it. I do that now and watch the look of amazement on the face of Tsa-Ka'alim. There are many singers joining in with Silas now. The volume of the voices and the drums is intoxicating. Uplifting. Transporting. I. Am. Ga'an.

nùgùstst'án biìká' dé'ìi tc'òdàsdjà í'

(on top of the earth our people are gathered about)

bìyá tì' jòoní bìnàtsé kè'es jòoní' bìdlùk jòoní

(their talking is in beauty, their thoughts are in beauty, their laughter is beautiful)

We begin to dance closer to each other, with me following my cousin's lead, he is merciful and leads away from my bad side. We begin leaning very low, and start to make an ever widening circle, rising as we circle. We are trying to convey the image of eagles sharing a thermal in a canyon and rising high into the air.

bínà lzé' 'í t' à' dá' jò dí dò bé' ó ltà' gò'

(their wealth is of all kinds, good, uncountable)

yèxáidèlà gò dèyà tc'ìndíi

(having been prepared, he walks, they say)

We now are making a circuit of the space. Moving our arms very slightly to give the impressions of flight. Like eagles, we mainly hold our wings cupped slightly, soaring. My leg is still complaining. I don't care. I. Am. Ga'an.

djùnà' ái bè bì' ò' gùnòyè ì' yèh

(sun beside them, before them forms mirage)

bi'ò gùnòyè gò' deyàh tc'ìndìi

(mirage forms before them as they walk they say)

We tighten our circles, weaving in and out of each other's line and path. We tighten and lessen the length of our steps. We straighten fully erect as we twitch our wrists to mimic the landing of eagles.

'ìs' à' nàyái k'èh gòjó gò' yèxáidèlà gò dèyàh tc'ìndíi

(long life, good is theirs, having been prepared, he walks they say)

We stand very still. Very. Still. The silence of the people is huge. We cover our faces to leave the circle. We hide because we are just humans again. The Ga'an has left the building, so to speak. We don't want to spoil the illusion by letting them see our human faces.

We take off our costumes in complete silence. Finally, the last step is to clean our faces. We haven't spoken a word. My cousin's face says to me "How are you doing?" I croak out "Ice. I need ice."

My sister, my new niece, Girl Who is Loved by the Ravens, come into the room. Silas is with them. They all have ice.



Blogger Sherry Pasquarello said...

i think the fact that you and your cousin are older makes it better.

makes it more beautiful and meaningful, on many different levels.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I agree with Sherry and I would have loved to have seen the dance. I loved your description of the way you allow the eagle to come into you. I have never heard it expressed in this way but that is how it has felt when I have shape shifted. It feels very natural to me but people who have seen it are amazed.

10:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ice is good. Your descriptions are very beautiful moving but I kept imagining how much it must hurt (my knees felt your pain, as it were). I have one question for you: why the hell aren't you writing a book?

11:18 AM  
Blogger jurassicpork said...

Would these guys qualify as fancy dancers? My wife and I saw them once about 11-12 years ago at a pow-pow in Rhode Island.

2:56 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

sometimes ga'an might be classified as fancy dancers, although that is more of a plains nation thing. usually, itsa ga'an, is done as a demonstration and not put in for judging or competition.

my cousin tsa-ka'alim is spending most of this month at the viejas casino outside of san diego with his troupe NightFire. that is a fucking show and a half.

3:04 PM  
Blogger Batocchio said...

Awesome. Thanks.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Friðvin said...

Seeing the dance would be good but for me, I'm fascinated by the language -- so foreign to me, and yet I reside on the soil where it's native.

I would love to hear the words spoken (or sung).

5:00 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

the jicarilla and the lipan apaches both ranged through texas. along with our cousins the comanche. we could never put off fighting one another long enough to make an allied resistance to the white man. had that ever happened you would have been hearing the language every day.

5:06 PM  
Blogger Friðvin said...

and it would have been my pleasure.

Theoretically speaking I guess. :lol:

It kinda sounds like our current political environment. My, how things don't change.

6:48 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...


I followed every word. This is quite a beautiful ceremony, quite moving. I am just digesting it.

6:56 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Will she take a different name when she is older? the Woman Who is Loved by the Ravens?

8:07 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

we have many names. the medicine name, which is the one she was given, is the name that is used in council. there is also the "white" name. because the indian agents had a hard time comprehending the naming system we have, and then a hell of a time pronouncing them, they gave up and just assigned everybody names. that's why we have family names of peaches, tobacco, whiskey, john, mary and the like. there is a name that is given to you when you are invested in a warrior society. then there's the name everybody calls you. it's confusing to an outsider, and i think that's one of the attractions it has for us.

her name could change anytime she wants it to. she could have a vision, someone else could have a vision. it's not up to us anymore.

9:35 PM  
Blogger Deborah Newell said...

I'm drying my eyes as I type, MB. This was a transporting experience as much for me, in my way, as it was for you and your cousin.

Really, I have no words to express the colorful pictures, the sense of pain I shared as you described your bad leg, the lightness I felt thinking about actual eagles (we have them here at our property, from time to time, I mean--they visit and we drop everything to watch them).

Yes, I have that thing the brain doctors call "synesthesia", but this was more than that, and I thank you for inviting me in, not only to watch, but to participate in spirit.


P.S. I second the comment about your needing to write a book. Perhaps gather together your posts, as essays, and keep adding to them, to present as an anthology?

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful always, and need I add ...BOOK please ...

7:32 AM  
Blogger Liz Blondsense said...

As always Minstrel, thank you so much for the trip into your special world.

6:21 AM  
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