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Sage Andrew Romero Uses Hoop Dancing to Create Spirit and Identity Among Owens Valley Paiute

Paiute irrigation ditch overgrown

As the modern dance music begins thumping an infectious beat out across the lawn in front of the Paiute Cultural Center in Bishop, California the dancer announces that this music is to bring up the spirit and energy of the crowd of people there.

He grabs a hoop, his feet moving in quick, rhythmic steps propelling him faster and faster in a circle. His regalia of wrist and ankle bands blur as he swings the hoop over his head around his body and between his legs. He repeats the movements. This time he jumps through with the short fringe on his buckskin boots flapping in sync with the fast beat of the music. The traditional patterns embroidered in his vest and breach cloth echo meaning and the dancer’s life story to those versed with Indian designs.

“Dancing for the Paiute is important in the revitalization of our culture in today’s society. Younger people are starting to bring back the old dances which were done only by older warriors long ago. ..."

Paiute/ Taos Pueblo hoop dancer Sage Andrew Romero continues to add hoops that would trip up any ordinary man. But Romero winds them around in three-dimensional geometric forms until he magically holds up five intertwined hoops like a magician completing a trick. The pulsing music, the syncopated movements, the finesse of the elegant motions come together to form a physical feat of endurance, strength, coordination and inner spirit that announce to the world through demonstration who this 37-year-old man is. He is Paiute and Taos Pueblo Indian, and he is proud and in full support of his brethren up in North Dakota at Standing Rock. He has just returned having volunteered as an EMT there.

This is a fundraising event in Bishop, with music, dance, food and other charity activities. They are just the like the ones that are happening in many other places simultaneously in California and across the nation on the same day. There is a celebratory feeling, one of camaraderie and bonding but also a somber reflection of the struggle faced by many groups today. “Water is life, water is life” – the North Dakota protest chant – echoes occasionally through the day.

Romero explains the importance of dancing in the lives of the Paiute today. “Dancing for the Paiute is important in the revitalization of our culture in today’s society. Younger people are starting to bring back the old dances which were done only by older warriors long ago. Dancing is seen as a way to bring power to the people, as the actions call upon strength of our ancestors and beings of the land.”

In "The Dance of Person & Place: One interpretation of American Indian Philosophy," Thomas M. Norton-Smith quotes a Shawnee Indian from another tribe than the Paiute, “My name is Owl Listening. I am Shawnee and my clan is Turkey. I present one possible interpretation of American Indian philosophy as a dance of person and place by examining four important notions….two world ordering principles, relatedness and circularity, the expansive conception of persons, and the semantic potency of performance."

Sage Romero hoop dancing | AkaMya
Sage Romero hoop dancing | AkaMya

Romero's mother Margaret Romero of Big Pine is a traditional Paiute and his father is Andrew Romero of Taos Pueblo. Sage’s culture is a melding of the two. He says there is quite a difference between the two sides of his culture. “Back there in Taos there is a strong connection with culture and heritage. It is very much alive and still there.” His dancing comes strongly from Taos Indian. “Here in Big Pine our culture has been stripped away by boarding schools and all that. Much has been lost.

“Fortunately for me my grandmother kept the traditional culture alive. She would talk to me in Paiute. She would converse in her own dialect which was different from what was being taught here. People would say ‘but you are saying it wrong.’” He didn’t see the problem and he was proud of what his grandmother was teaching him.

“We suffered from what they call ‘historical trauma.’ People began to bicker among themselves because they were stripped of an identity which made them vulnerable to drugs.” It is these dangers to his people that have shaped Romero’s life, focus and the artistry of his dancing.

He explains that the boarding schools changed how the people thought about themselves. Looking back, that seems to have been the conscious intention of sending the Paiute children away. They were disciplined if they used their traditional language.  They used to speak in Missionary terms, calling themselves “Children of God.” He explains, “They don’t want to be native but want to blend. Some don’t think of themselves as native or members of the tribe. They go to Christianity.”

The first Indian boarding schools were established by either the government or Christian missionaries as a way to destroy the Indian’s culture and social structure. Children sent there were separated from their families and not allowed to see them. For the Owens Valley children, the two nearest schools are Sherman in Riverside and one in Porterville. They are very different now.

The boarding schools, however, also had a positive effect. Mary A. Stout in her bookNative American Boarding Schools writes, “While the original purpose of the boarding school was cultural genocide and began with the use of English only for instruction and interaction within the boarding school, Sally J. McBeth’s research shows it stimulated pan-Indianism and promoted Native American identity.” Romero's family background illustrates this.

Romero's family was active and involved in community events. He learned to dance at the Taos Pueblo, where dancing was celebrated and preserved. He would come home to there from boarding school in the summer and on special events. “When I would come back to the Owens Valley showing my dancing as it developed, I would be called a ‘devil.’” He explains, “Our people need the revitalization of our traditional culture, taking care of each other. It is in limbo because of capitalism, having to have money, to be the richest.”

When asked about the “devil” comment further, Romero explained, “There are contemporary native people that are taught a form of Christianity which teaches their followers our traditional ways are taught by the devil. In turn, when they see people such as me, they immediately assume we are devils for practicing those old ways.”

Despite the differences that differences among the four Owens Valley Paiute tribes, it was water and control of it that have united them. Nothing like a common cause to bring people together and overcome any disagreements or differences. The Bishop and Big Pine Water commission tied everyone in. In the same way, Romero has also found the common threads that tie his Taos and Paiute side together. He understands that his Taos culture gave him dancing, pride and cultural identity. “From my Paiute side I gain humbleness and balance. Spirits humble me and keep me open to others.”

Romero’s experiences and observations led him to form with another tribal member in 1997 to 1998 a group that is now called “AkaMya.” Romero had been at the Santa Fe Indian School and returning to Taos he saw there was a lot of dancing happening. “But it was not happening here.” He and Tanya Montez began working in the local tribal gym. “We were slowly learning to dance in a powwow style and teaching others. Then we opened it to the community and made it a safe area, drug and alcohol free.” His vision was simple really. “It was a place where families could come if they needed to get away from something bad.”

Alcoholism and substance abuse is considered by many a chronic disease among the Paiute. While exact statistics were not available, it is seen as a challenging problem by the Owens Valley tribes. Richard C. Haines and Laurie Coller Hillstrom in their excellent paper on the Southern Paiute write, “By the late twentieth-century, health care facilities were available to some Paiutes often through the federal Indian Health Services (HS)…. In addition to the economic development programs, projects addressing health care were a top priority among the bands. Compounded by poverty, Paiutes suffered high rates of certain diseases, dysfunctional family relations, and substance abuse.”

Families would also come and watch and the number of evenings grew to three a week. There would be fifty to seventy-five people attending at times. “There were all ages and then a drum group started to come from Benton. That was like an hour or more away.” At first the group was called “Red Feather.” They promoted sobriety runs, powwows, red ribbon week, and school assemblies for heritage month.

At the same time Romero’s fame and dancing career took off. He began touring internationally and spent the year living in Spain. When the contract ended, he returned home and was touring periodically. “We wanted to change the name. Indian groups all encompass the word “red” in their name. Dance groups especially used red in their name. We wanted to be called ‘red hand’ but in the Paiute language, AkaMya.

The name has symbolic meaning. “Red is a color for the Paiute people that means power and strength. ‘Hand” represents how we are “hands-on” with our culture. Physically we dance; we make our crafts with our hands; our flute we do it with our hands.”

The AkaMya group has changed over time, but the main focus of culture and alcohol and drug-free remain the same. “But we also provide things for events, like here we are providing the sound equipment. And we are involved with multimedia, slowly learning the skills.”

“When the regalia come on, my body and spirit know it is time to move in that good way. It is almost as if my heart clears and lungs broaden. I feel that pride of knowing it is time to get down. When I dance, there have been times where everything around me becomes blurred, and my focus is entirely upon my hoops and the song. ... "

For Romero it all begins with the dancing. His regalia or dancing clothes were designed by him and sewn by his mother Margaret. Because the Hoop Dance has a lot of motion, twisting and turning, the regalia are kept simple, with no cords, yarn or beads hanging down. “My design is based slightly on the fancy dance style. It is the closest form that we do when we are dancing, except without the bustle. The regalia you wear are small with wristbands, the belt, breach cloth, and legging, but no shirt. Many of the designs are based on the Mayan Cross.”

Romero said, “A friend gave me a pan flute when she went down to Machu Picchu. I drew the designs and she said it made her think of me because it is like us with the four corners.” They represent that and have other meanings as well. “There is a three-sided symbol that represent the future, the present and the past all intertwined, They also represent the way we love, and are intertwined in a circle honoring all directions as well. One of the prevailing forms in American Indian art is circularity and it dominates the perception, reality and life philosophy.”

Explaining the colors and other designs he said, “The colors represent my Dad’s side, the turquoise color represents power. The box designs are also from his pueblo.” Basket designs in the regalia represent his Paiute side. The basket designs are seen behind the pueblo signs. “So each dancer’s regalia tells a story, where they come from and their mentality. Mine is the journey I have been on at age 37.”

Dancing is a very physically demanding performance form. “I practice whenever I can to stay in shape. I used to practice all the time but the job mentally exhausts you. Once a week I do something that focuses my dance. I do have my climbing wall at  home in Big Pine.” He wants to develop it into a full dance studio. “The wall helps me with my flexibility and strength. I need a lot of wrist strength for hoop dancing. Sand in a sandpit also requires and develops increased leg strength.  I jog but I am not a fast jogger,” Romero laughed. “Mountain biking, weights now and then. Not too much because building up bulk interferes with the flexibility you need.”

Romero is building a dance studio but it is all coming out of his own pocket “so it is taking a lot of time.” He plans to have the space for dancing inside year-round. He wants an outside dancing area like the one at the cultural center, but he said, “It’s not as nice because we did it ourselves.” He loves to joke at his own expense. “The music is loud so we want to be inside so we are not disruptive.’

The youth of AkaMya | AkaMya
The youth of AkaMya | AkaMya

“I want to train people who ask me so I need a private space. The core of AkaMya is dancing. Dance group, multimedia, events and training in wellness.” Although the tribe is supportive they stress that Romero’s job as Community Outreach Coordinator comes first.

It is important realize that the most sacred dances were not open to me because I am not on a Paiute path so I have not experienced these. Romero did explain the kinds of dances he performs. “Social dances are presentations to the community. Those are the ones we share at powwows. Fandango is a Spanish word and the Paiute word is very long and difficult for non-speakers. Social dances are not really spiritual but they are honored.” He explained that dancers as they grow in their art are rewarded with eagle feathers that can be added to their regalia. “After all the spiritual dancing is over, we would do the hoop dancing at the end of a ceremony which is why we can do it as performance at events like this. It is a high honor and it is also done for healing but it varies from region to region.”

“You will know for which purpose it is being performed when and if you see it. They have to use the red willow hoops which are real thin, flexible. That is a big thing when you know it is being done for spiritual affect. Here today I am performing it to raise energy and it can be done to contemporary music.” There are about 100 powwow dancers in the Owens Valley. “It’s growing now. The dancers do Paiute war, ribbon and basket. There is also a jingle dancer here today.”

One of the best insights into his dancing was given by Romero in an interview done by Dr. Dawn Karima, Native American Culture editor for an on-line site powwow.com. When she asked Romero what is felt like to dance, he responded, “When the regalia come on, my body and spirit know it is time to move in that good way. It is almost as if my heart clears and lungs broaden. I feel that pride of knowing it is time to get down. When I dance, there have been times where everything around me becomes blurred, and my focus is entirely upon my hoops and the song. The crowd around me becomes a constant hum and the lights wheel about me as I share my story. It is a feeling that is truly unmatched at times, and I find myself constantly wanting to back to that place in null times.”

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