Native American fair is a source of great pride and tourist potential NAVAJO COUNTRY

November 20, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Sun Staff Correspondent

WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. — Window Rock, Ariz.--The Navajo start lining the 4 1/2 -mile parade route through the Redstone rock monuments here many hours, even days in advance.

They come in their pickups and RVs and 4-by-4 vans so they can camp out all night to assure a good spot. They bring folding chairs for the old folks and blankets for the kids. Entrepreneurs set up snow-cone and soft-drink stands every few hundred feet along the dry, desert parade route.

This is the main event of the largest Indian gathering anywhere in North America: a gigantic celebration and renewal of Native American culture. It draws a crowd numbering more than half the 200,000 residents of the Navajo nation -- a country within a country that sprawls across 26,000 square miles in four states.

But the parade is also an intimate family affair -- a time for cheering school bands and rodeo princesses, an opportunity for children to show their parents they have learned the ancient rituals, an occasion for everyone to dress up in their finest silver concha belts and turquoise bolos.

This is one parade where the crowd is nearly as colorful as the floats, especially the elderly "grammas" in their long-sleeved velvet blouses and silky taffeta skirts. The grammas are a favorite of Rep. Bill Richardson, one of several politicians taking part in the parade. The New Mexico Democrat seeks out the grammas for a hug and leaves them with a lap full of candy.

Only a few outsiders attended the 48th annual Navajo Nation Fair and parade this year, which was held as usual on the first weekend after Labor Day. But many Navajo would like to see the event, and other ceremonial occasions throughout the year, become bigger tourist attractions.

"It's a matter of pride," said Pearl Sunrise, a member of the New Mexico Arts Commission and a Navajo performer accomplished enough to have her own float in the parade. "We want outsiders to come and see what we're doing."

It's also a matter of money.

Tourism represents a major, but still relatively untapped source of revenue not only for the Navajo but the dozens of Pueblo and other Indian tribes in the American Southwest, who are trying to cope with the growing needs of their members.

"We want to be self-sufficient, not depending on someone else to build the highways and other infrastructure we need," said Calvin Tafoya, a Santa Clara Pueblo and director of Indian Tourism for the state of New Mexico.

By virtue of their mere presence -- a distinct culture within the increasingly homogenized United States -- the Indians have long been one of the leading reasons that tourists come to New Mexico and other spots in the Southwest. "We are about inundated with visitors," Mr. Tafoya said.

But unless they are running the tourist facilities -- hotels, restaurants, recreational centers -- the Indians themselves don't make any money from it.

Although there is currently a drive under way to increase Indian revenue through casino gambling, J. Michael Cerletti, state secretary of tourism for New Mexico, worries that some tribes may be "putting all their eggs in the gambling basket."

Certainly there is ambivalence among the Navajo about how far to go in encouraging visitors.

"Some people want to turn over the place to tourists, invite them to go anywhere they want on the reservation," said Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah, who was defeated this month in his bid for re-election. "The other side says there should be no tourists at all. We're trying to strike a happy medium."

One option is to copy the Mescalero Apache, who operate a posh resort complex -- including an 18-hole golf course -- on a mountaintop in Ruidoso, N.M., about 250 miles southeast of Window Rock. But the Navajo are seeking a more delicate balance.

They want visitors from other American cultures to be exposed to Navajo traditions; but they do not want to be treated like foreigners in their own country, Mr. Zah said.

Encouraging tourists to attend specific events, such as the Navajo Nation Fair, allows some measure of control and protection, Mr. Zah said, for Indians who fear outsiders will interfere with their lifestyle.

For tourists, the Navajo wariness of outside influences presents an opportunity to visit some of the most spectacular landscape in the country while it is still mostly unscarred by discount malls and fast-food joints. But visitors have to come on the Navajo's terms.

Hotel space, for instance, is almost non-existent. Window Rock, capital of the Navajo Nation, boasts one hotel, which is quickly booked for major events. Rooms in Gallup, N.M., and other nearby cities also sell out quickly.

Mr. Zah suggests that tourists "do as the Romans do" -- or in this case, the Navajo -- and make their trip to the reservation a camp-out. There are seven campgrounds on the Navajo nation and many more throughout the Southwest.

Tourists are also occasionally annoyed by the Navajo prohibition against selling alcoholic beverages on the reservation, Mr. Cerletti said.

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