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Otters for leadership, diamonds for snakes: Dazzling regalia displays hold meaning beyond fashion

The Santa Fe New Mexican - 4/27/2024

Apr. 27—ALBUQUERQUE — You can't just choose to dress like Kelly Grant.

The 60-year-old resident of Ramah in Western New Mexico — an Omaha Tribe member originally from Macy, Neb. — said regalia like his has to be earned.

"You have to pay for your way," Grant said Friday as he watched the Grand Entry of Dancers at the Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque. "You have to make sacrifices."

The river otter turban, for one, signifies leadership in politics, war or community. A U.S. Army veteran who served from 1986 to 1994, Grant said the headpiece points to his military service as well as that of every male relative on his father's side of the family, and some on his mother's side — a three-generation legacy that dates back to World War I.

The bear claws around his neck? Those symbolize hunting prowess, though Grant concedes he didn't kill a now-endangered grizzly bear to get them as men of his tribe did in years past — always in view of a witness to corroborate. (Grant hunts elk and deer for the most part). And the flowers that emblazon his leggings, vest and apron keep alive the memory of the concoction of herbs, stems, roots and flowers Omaha men used to drink to keep their energy up while out on war parties.

"We were the first ones to invent Red Bull," Grant said, laughing.

There were plenty of jeans and T-shirts at Expo New Mexico this weekend during the annual Gathering of Nations, a more than 40-year-old powwow that draws members of tribes nationwide. But mixed into the crowds — and dominating on the arena floor — were the bright array of plumes, furs, beads, patchwork and embroidery of Native regalia that can have numerous meanings. For many like Grant, regalia can mark a deep connection to history and a person's own journey. Themes, designs and colors chosen might hold significance for particular tribes and regions. Creating regalia can be a creative outlet and a family activity.

Whether it's highly traditional or more modern and adapted, Crystal Williams, vice chairperson of the Coushatta Tribe in Elton, La., said regalia is thoughtfully and intentionally assembled.

"Each and every piece is handmade with love," said Williams, who serves on an advisory committee for the Indigenous Fashion Collective, a group set to debut May 2-5 at Native Fashion Week in Santa Fe.

Personality, tributes

Shai Greymountain, Williams' daughter, raided her mother's closet to attend Thursday evening's Miss Indian World traditional talent show — but only for the burgundy blouse. Greymountain, 17, paired it with a ribbon skirt she made herself — the third she's endeavored since she started learning to sew from her grandmother. The rainbow hues of her skirt represent her favorite colors.

"Ribbon skirts are usually like a reflection of personality," Greymountain said.

Greymountain also sported a beaded crown that labeled her as the Coushatta senior princess, a title she'll hold through June after winning the pageant in her community last year. The headpiece is on loan until the next senior princess is crowned.

In the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, more than 400 miles to the north, pageant winners get to keep their crowns.

The tribe's Labor Day festival pageant comes with a forever prize: intricately beaded crowns created by a community elder and customized for the winners, said 22-year-old Aliyah Myers, the current Senior Miss Choctaw Nation.

Myers and her Junior Miss and Little Miss counterparts, 15-year-old Kassidy Lee and 13-year-old Sophia McFarland, turned out Thursday in matching yellow and purple dresses that represent the main colors of their nation's flag. But what really set their dresses apart, Myers said, is the incorporation of a distinctive diamond pattern, a tribute to the eastern diamondback rattlesnake.

"We really appreciated their peaceful nature," Myers said. "They warn first, and then if you kept bothering them, then they would strike, much like the nature of the Choctaw people: Violence was a last resort."

Old regalia, new take

It's a lot of tradition. But there's room in regalia for trends.

Mikayla Wauneka, Navajo, of Cedar City, Utah, said in the last few years she's noticed a lot of lace overskirts for women and girls, the filmy fabric adding texture to simpler skirts underneath. The 24-year-old self-taught seamstress and former dancer included a lace skirt on the bold red fancy dress her sister, 15-year-old Daya Stevens, wore Friday for the Grand Entry of Dancers.

Their third sister, 12-year-old Dayna Stevens, meanwhile, wore a black jingle dress Wauneka sewed to fit her more reserved personality.

Hand-sewing regalia takes serious commitment. The hundreds of bells on Wauneka's young niece's purple jingle dress, for example, are made from tobacco can lids. They're the last thing to go on the dress and take about two hours to assemble.

"I like the ones that have a lot of intricate designs," Wauneka said. "You can tell they put a lot of time into that."

Wauneka said seeing the variety of styles at Gathering of Nations inspires her to try out new things.

When she sees a new look she likes, she's not shy about asking how they achieved it or about taking it home and trying it herself.

"We just learn from word of mouth or with what we have," she said. "Trial and error."

Sometimes modifications are about form. Others are about function.

Tori McConnell, of the Yurok and Káruk tribes in Northern California and the winner of last year's Miss Indian World contest, said her formal regalia traditionally is covered in shells — beautiful, but impossible to sit down in. Using tradition as a guide, McConnell designed a new dress that's elegant and formal but without the full-shell treatment. It also reflects the transformation she's undergone in the last year as she's reconnected with her culture in a new way, McConnell said.

"I had a lot of fun making my regalia," she said. "The regalia represents that personal change."

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