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Completing the Circle With Dance, Drumming

Artist and tribal elder Franklin Fireshaker will bless the ground at the Lake Casitas Powwow this weekend.


When the Lake Casitas Powwow gets underway this weekend, hundreds of Native American dancers in full ceremonial dress will first gather in a circle to hear Franklin Fireshaker bless the ground.

Not many will understand the 77-year-old Ojai man, a full-blooded Ponca, as he speaks in his native language. But the meaning will be clear.

"Indians never dance on ground without a blessing first," said Fireshaker, a well-known artist and tribal elder. "We believe in the circle--it keeps us together. The powwow brings back people to celebrate being Indian and surviving what we had to go through."

This is the sixth annual powwow at the lake near Ojai, and the sixth at which Fireshaker has blessed the ground for the dancers. This is no little gathering--last year's event drew more than 10,000 people who watched the dancing, sampled buffalo burgers and bought jewelry and art.

This year the powwow runs 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. On Friday, students from throughout the county will spend the day by the lake learning about Native American culture through a special program put together by Visions in Time, nonprofit sponsors of the powwow.


According to organizer Dick Wixon, the two-day event has gained respect as one of the top powwows in the country, attracting Native Americans from all over the Southwest. About 50 tribes will be represented, along with 300 to 400 dancers--men, women and children--competing for $10,000 in prize money. Among them will be the White Tail Singers from Nebraska, the top drum group in the country, Wixon said.

The dancing and drumming are the big draw for the powwow, but it's also a chance to pick up Indian artifacts: Navajo turquoise and silver jewelry, Hopi pottery, Apache baskets and Sioux beadwork. Visitors can also taste some Native American dishes, such as Indian fry bread.

Fireshaker is an old hand at powwows. He was born in a tepee at one attended by his parents in Oklahoma. His tribe, the Poncas, number about 2,000 today, and perhaps 900 of them, researchers estimate, speak the language.

"I speak it fluently, even though I've been away from the tribe for 40 years," he said. "I think in my language."

His art hangs in museums and in private collections. Seven years ago he donated an 8-foot by 4-foot painting to the Ojai Valley School that had taken him two years to paint.

His paintings, done in acrylic, reflect the legends of the Poncas, their history and ceremonies. They have a magical, mystical quality, almost dreamlike. He undertakes them after much prayer, study and consultation with the elders of the tribe.

His art reflects his deep spirituality, but he takes no credit for his work. "God holds my hand and lets me be the artist," he said. Because of that, few enter his studio in Ojai, where he has lived since the 1950s with his wife. They raised two daughters, one of them an artist in her own right, Quannah Fireshaker Karvar.

Fireshaker, a slight, gentle man, is also known as a prayer man. In addition to giving the invocation at powwows, he will, when called upon, sometimes pray for people in need. "I've been praying since I was a little boy," he said. As a child he listened to the prayers of his people. Later, he spent time at the side of a Ponca healer. He insists he is not a healer himself, but simply a prayer man.

At the powwow, Fireshaker's prayer occurs during the grand entry, when the traditionally attired dancers, led by flag bearers, enter the arena in a colorful procession before dancing. The entry takes place at 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday, and again at 1 p.m. Sunday.

On Saturday, Fireshaker will receive a special honor. He will don a blue and red blanket that once belonged to a chieftain, velvet sash, turquoise bracelet, beaded gourd, and bone and turquoise bandoleer for induction into the Gourd Dance Society. Although the society generally invites only veterans to join, an exception is being made for Fireshaker, who will dance the group's solemn dance because of the respect he has earned through his art and other deeds.


* WHAT: Sixth annual Lake Casitas Powwow.

* WHEN: Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

* WHERE: Lake Casitas, off California 150 near Ojai.

* HOW MUCH: $6 for adults, $4 for seniors and children younger than 11, free for children younger than 3; parking, $2.

* FYI: 496-6036.

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