Simon Moya-Smith: Indian family accused of marketing culture

Is an Indian family exploiting their own culture for money? Simon Moya-Smith reports on the Sweetwaters in Colorado:
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.

Get the Story:
Simon Moya-Smith: Do the Sweetwaters blur the lines of Native American culture? (Westword 8/8)

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