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Preserving a Tradition

These California families celebrate their Native American heritage with songs and dances passed down for generations.

June 04, 1998|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like most 15-year-olds, Tawny Hale and Cuauhtli Arvizu like to dance, listen to music and hang out with friends. On weekends, though, these youngsters are not your typical teenagers. Both grew up learning the rhythms and songs that have been passed down for generations by their ancestors; for Hale, the Navajos of the Southwest, for Arvizu, the Aztec Indians of Mexico.

The Hale family, of Pico Rivera, and the Arvizus, of Garden Grove, spend almost every weekend performing indigenous dances at schools, powwows and public events. The Arvizus go by the name Xipe Totec, which means "new life in honor of springtime." The Hales, led by Tawny's father, Ben, are known as the Eagle Spirit Dancers.

Cuauhtli Arvizu's mother, Virginia Carmelo, initially taught all six of her children, ages 12 to 25, to dance, sing and drum. She believes that involving the children has not only given them an understanding of their heritage but also an opportunity to clear up misunderstandings about indigenous people.

"We go to schools and young kids will say, 'We thought all the Indians were dead,' " Carmelo said. "What we hope to do is to share the culture--the historical part but also where we are today."

The same is true for the Hales. One of the Eagle Spirit Dancers' signature pieces features Tawny and her sister Leya, 14, doing the "Swan Dance." As the girls dance in silence, their father, Ben, explains to the audience how the dance honors the grace and beauty of both the swan and of women. Beside Ben Hale, 40, stands his father, Henry Hale, 62, who sings and drums along with assorted aunts, uncles and cousins.

Tawny Hale, a sophomore at Pico Rivera High School, doesn't believe she's missing out when she forgoes a weekend with friends to appear with her family; in fact, she believes it is an honor. "When I have a chance to participate in the traditions and ceremonies, I appreciate it," she said.

Among the most arduous tasks for groups such as theirs, said Ben Hale, is to try to dispel the negative images of Native Americans that are reinforced by TV and movies. "They depict Indians as having no values, of running around wild and killing people," he said. "We are actually very spiritual people."

The effort to change that image and to preserve Indian culture, both Hale and Carmelo agree, is in the hands of Native American youth. Both families say their children were dancing almost as soon as they could walk. They've been learning the lessons of their ancestors from the elders--and from one another--at powwows, conferences and Native American gatherings.

At a recent conference in San Diego, more than 1,000 young Native Americans participated in a tribute to an elder. He had made it his mission to pass his knowledge down to Native American youth. Tawny Hale, president of the Intertribal Student Council of the Southern California Indian Center, was among the attendees. She sees it as a privilege to be given the opportunity to learn from the elders.

"I have a lot to learn about my culture," she said, "but representing Native American youth makes me feel good. I feel that I want to be a role model."

It's not always easy, though, for a youth to honor family traditions when their natural instinct is to follow the current trend. So when family traditions call for a youngster to look and act differently or use a different language, it can be even harder. Still, many find it worth the trouble.

"When I was little, I used to get embarrassed about it because of what we had to wear to dance," said Arvizu, a sophomore at Rancho Alamitos High School. "But now it doesn't really affect me."

Arvizu, who has a knack for drawing, now designs and sews his own performance outfits. One of his designs is a regal silver and black creation that he made, he said, to honor Mictlantecutli, the "lord of the underworld."

Despite their cultural exhibitions, the Arvizu children are like any other average Southern California kids. The difference, their mother believes, is that they have a unique opportunity: Not only are they learning about their heritage but they are also learning responsibility, cooperation and respect.

"On one level, it's a sibling thing, on another it's an artistic thing," Carmelo said.

Although her children grew up with exposure to their culture, Carmelo did not. While earning a bachelor's degree in ethnic studies at Cal State Fullerton, she was introduced to Native American dance. From there, her interest in her own heritage snowballed.

As to whether or not the children will continue to share the traditions of their ancestors, Carmelo is confident. "I think it goes through stages. They want to do other things, and that's OK. . . . But I really think at this point their base is so strong, I hope it will always be a part of them."

BE THERE

"Honoring Our Youth and Education Powwow," June 13, Chumash Interpretive Center, 3290 Lang Ranch Parkway, Thousand Oaks. Free admission. 11 a.m.-dusk. (213) 728-8844.

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