Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fest celebrates Native American culture

New Orleans Jazz Fest celebrates American Indian music, culture

By Sheila Stroup, The Times-Picayune 
Think of the Cultural Exchange Pavilion as the heart of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival this year. It celebrates  American Indian culture, and it's in the center of the Fair Grounds, surrounded by Food Area I, Food Area II and the African Marketplace.
"We're right in the middle, in a high traffic area," Valerie Guillet, pavilion coordinator, says. "People won't miss us."
You can happily spend hours there, watching performances by nationally known musicians and dancers; taking in living history presentations; watching artists turn a blank wall into a mural; seeing creative weavers and carvers at work; and purchasing fine art and jewelry from around the country.
"We have 10 artists with booths each weekend, and we'll have master craftsmen demonstrating their crafts," Guillet says.
You'll see a teepee, representing the Plains Indians, and a cedar building like Native Americans of the Northwest would build. And, if it rains, you can step inside the one-room houseGrayHawk Perkins made out of 650 palmettos last week.
"It's dry inside," he says, checking it out after Wednesday's deluge.
GrayHawk, a Houma-Choctaw educator, storyteller and musician who lives in Mandeville, started the Native American Village at Jazz Fest in 2000 and and turned it into an annual tribute to the tribes of Louisiana. 
"We've had a Louisiana presence," Guillet says. "This year, we're bringing in Native Americans from all over, and it will be a national presence."
If you talk to Native Americans from Alaska and Canada, New Mexico, Arizona, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin, and watch their dances and listen to their music, you'll begin to understand how rich and diverse their culture is. That's what GrayHawk hopes you'll take away from the experience.
"We're not just 'Native Americans,'" he says. "We have different beliefs, traditions and lifestyles. We're unique and individual within our own nations."
He also wants to help eliminate stereotypes. "I come from a mound-building culture," he says. "We knew about agriculture, astronomy, medicine. We didn't just walk around in loin cloths."
You can see the unique talents and traditions of Native Americans, not just in the Pavilion area, but throughout the 2013 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell. "Our goal every year is to infuse the whole festival with the culture we're celebrating," Guillet says.
This weekend includes a series of nine panel discussions in the Louisiana Folklife Village near the Fais-Do-Do Stage. The discussions cover such subjects as "Confronting Stereotypes," "Native American Women as Culture Bearers," "African-Native Americans," and "Environmental Challenges for Native American Communities."
"We tried to get topics non-Indian people don't usually hear about," GrayHawk says.
The United Houma Nation will serve fry bread, maque choux and Indian tacos at its usual food booth adjacent to the Native Nations tent in the Folklife Village. And at the Food Heritage Stage and Cajun Cabin Stage the first weekend, Loretta Barret Oden, host of the PBS series "Seasoned with Spirit," will have food demonstrations and samplings of traditional Native American dishes from around the country. You can try such dishes as possum grape dumplings, alligator sauce piquante and spicy green chile stew.
In the Grandstand exhibit area, see "Native Nations of Louisiana:  A Traveling Exhibit by the Louisiana State Museum," plus an art installation by San Carlos Apache artist Douglas Miles, who also will also create a live mural with Thomas "Breeze" Marcus in the Pavilion and have a booth where you can check out his Apache skateboards both weekends.
The Kids Area will feature Native American stories, musical performances and dances. "And kids can help build a palmetto house," GrayHawk says.
Renowned Native American singers, dancers and bands perform on various stages throughout the fest. "We have a pretty amazing roster of artists coming through," Guillet says. "It's a mix of those who have appeared here before and new ones."
The first weekend features the Stoney Creek Singers, the Yellow Bird Indian Dancers, hoop dancer Lowery Begay and A Tribe called Red, a Canadian group with a signature style called powwowstep that combines traditional powwow vocals and drumming with electronic music.
"They're very popular with young people in Canada," Guillet says.
Also appearing the first weekend is Martha Redbone, an acclaimed blues and soul singer who is Cherokee, Shawnee, Choctaw and African-American. In the past, "Redbone" was sometimes used as a derogatory term for someone of mixed heritage. "She claimed it as a stage name," Guillet says. "She said 'This is who I am, and I'm proud of it.'"
The second weekend will feature singer and songwriter Bill Miller, flutist Robert Mirabel, singer Pura Fe and the Native Nations Intertribal, all popular Jazz Fest veterans.
"Native Nations has been coming for as long as I have," GrayHawk says. "They'll have dancers from all over. They'll do different dances and explain what they are, and they'll get the crowd involved."
Making their first appearance will be the Oneida Longhouse Dancers from Wisconsin, who will perform energetic earth dances and smoke dances.
What's great is that all the artists performing on various Jazz Fest stages will also do a second show in the Cultural Exchange Pavilion tent.
"It's a small intimate space where we've asked them to do an acoustic unplugged show," Guillet says. "The audience will get to see them up close. It will be a real treat."
GrayHawk, 56, will be all over the place during Jazz Fest. The first weekend he'll be on two panels and he'll be telling stories in the Kids Tent, and the second weekend, he'll perform with the GrayHawk Band.
He epitomizes the uniqueness he wants us to see in Native Americans. He describes himself as an "Indian boy who grew up in New Orleans."
His mother was from Terrebonne Parish, but he was born at Baptist Hospital. The kind of music he plays has been called "tribal funk." "I've always written my own music. It's uniquely New Orleans and Southeastern Native American," he says.
He remembers his mother telling him, "Don't say you're Indian when you go to school," but he never denied his heritage. "I was always proud of who I was and where I came from," he says.
When he was growing up, his family moved to Jefferson Parish, and he calls Lester Wright, his band director at Worley Middle School, an early influence. "He was very strict and demanding, but he was a very nice guy," GrayHawk says. "I was always a percussionist, and he was always encouraging me to take up other instruments."
Another influence was Miss Anderson at West Jefferson High School. "She really encouraged me. She told me, 'You need to learn about your own history,'" he says.
His grandparents filled him up with Native American stories, and inspired him to write a song called "Listen to the Words," about a wide-eyed boy listening to his grandmother. "They made me want to be a storyteller," he says.
He was always fascinated by the Mobilian trade language, an old language used by Southeastern tribes, slaves and French settlers to communicate with each other. His grandmother spoke it and passed it down to him, and in 2010, he began writing a series of songs in Mobilian. He called the series "13 Moons" and recorded some of the songs so he could listen to them. His CD got passed around.
"Then the French consulate (in New Orleans) called me and told me some musicians in France had heard my songs and would like to work with me," he says.
He sent the Mezcal Jazz Unit seven of his songs, and they arranged them in French progressive jazz. In 2012, the French government sent the group to New Orleans to perform with GrayHawk. "We played in Lafayette, at Cafe Instanbul and at the Dewdrop in Mandeville," he says.
Then, in early 2013, he was invited to France to collaborate with the modern jazz group, so he took some time off from his Jazz Fest gig and spent February performing, touring and recording with the Mezcak Jazz Unit. "The whole thing was like a fairy tale," he says.
If you go see the GrayHawk Band perform, you'll have a chance to listen to some of his memorable songs from "13 Moons." It's Native American music like you've never heard it before, and you'll want to hear it again.
"I want people to look at how wide this culture called Native American culture is," he says. "I want them to see how different we are, and how special."
Contact Sheila Stroup at or at 985.898.4831.

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