Heading north out of Atlanta, my wife and I made our way across the Dahlonega Gap (where they filmed Deliverance) and into North Carolina’s Cowee Valley, a paradise for modern amateur miners. By mid-afternoon we were river-walking in the Oconoaluftee which flows through isolated gorges in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. The Oconoaluftee also runs through the reservation of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Tribes. To our great surprise, we had arrived at the 2nd Annual Native Peoples Celebration, being hosted by the Cherokee.
Passing through the gate of the festival grounds a towering pole loomed in front of us. After checking the program we realized we were going to have a rare treat: “Aztec” pole flyers were on the schedule. The Juegos de Voladores have been “flying” for more than 2,000 years and have been a steadfast part of the cultural and spiritual landscape of Central Mexico since the time of the Aztec and Mayan Empires. The origin of the Voladores comes from the Gulf Coast of Mexico, where it is said that warriors killed in battle or sacrifice go after their death. As a sacred rite to the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl, the flyers were originally adorned with great plumage from exotic birds representing each of several deities to whom the voladores dedicate their art. In the ceremony, the massive pole represents Tlazoleotl, the goddess of fertility. The flyers each make 13 revolutions around Tlazoleotl, one revolution for each week in the Mayan calendar of 52. As the sun set behind the hills to the west, the Tezcatlipoca Voladores Flyers gathered around the 150-foot pole they would ascend. When the main dancer stood at the very top, he began to turn in acrobatic contortions and death-defying little jumps, first facing east, considered the origin of the world, and then to each remaining direction. As he did so, he played the manxana, a small flute and an ancient drum, the teponaztli. After securing the long ropes attached to Tlazoleotl to their ankles, the voladores dove from the manzana platform, and begin their flowing descent to the ground as the leader continued to play and turn. With the last voladores on the ground, the leader quickly descended freestyle on one of the ropes until he too landed safely on the ground, surrounded by adoring fans.
Up next from White River, Arizona, came singer Joe Tohonnie, Jr and the White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers. The dancers remained at the back of the stage while Tohonnie introduced them. “Our first song is to announce we are here and ask permission to enter.” Tohonnie began to play a small hand drum that provided the tempo for the blessings and the dancers’ movements. The dancers are covered head to toe by a kind of second skin painted with spiritual symbols of the desert cosmology of the Apache. As the group began a new piece, Tohonnie told the near-capacity crowd, “These are not songs for entertainment. They are prayers and sacred wishes for your health and happiness, for a good life.” The audience responded wildly, which energized the dancers, who appeared to “fly” across the stage. Spectacular to see, their headdresses cast off brilliant colors and prisms of light in the stage lighting. Tohonnie explained, “The dancers all wear masks because they are not themselves but the Spirits they represent.” One dancer, his head covered in white, set himself apart from the others. Tohonnie joked, “This one, the one in white. You better be careful ladies. He’s looking for a wife tonight.” Tohonnie broke into a wide grin as the Spirit dancer moved to the front of the stage, beckoning all takers. Their performance ended with a special invocation asking for safe journeys for the coming year for those in attendance.
As night fell, the Tsimshian from Washington State took the stage to close the celebration. Led by David Boxley, the Git Hoan, or People of the Salmon, performed songs with melodic vocals and percussion, using wooden mask