Neatly lettered signs along the highways that sweep through the Southwest announce the boundaries of 50 Indian reservations, each a distinct and thriving nation within a larger nation. Other signs advertise Indian-run casinos, galleries overflowing with Indian artwork and cafes selling Indian food. At highway rest areas, quiet children sell cedar-bead necklaces at homemade stands.
Many Native Americans in the Southwest still live in their sacred homelands, though their cultures continue to change and adapt. Yet, to non-Indians, citizens of these reservations remain largely a mystery, a people shrouded in centuries-old stereotypes and misconceptions.
The best way for a non-Indian traveler to reach past the old romanticism and the new gloss of franchise culture to the heart of what it means to be an American Indian is to venture into gatherings of native people.
At these public occasions -- powwows, fairs and dances -- nearly all Southwestern tribes welcome outsiders. It is said that the power of dances and prayers increases with the numbers of people of good heart attending. Conversations start easily -- over food, crafts or kids. Prepare to be teased and joshed, too, for Indian people do not live up to their stoic stereotype. They don't worry about being politically correct either; nearly everyone uses the old term "Indian" without apology.
Whatever the event, the People (as the members of nearly every tribe call themselves) treasure what they describe to outsiders as "Indian doings." Pride in ethnicity and a sense of connection to ancestors make these the grand events of Indian country.
Powwows often are the easiest entry point for outsiders. Flamboyant and seductive, the powwow is an intertribal melting pot. A Plains Indian tradition, these celebrations of dance, song, costume, family, military service, patriotism and community now occur wherever American Indians live; these celebrations are crucial for urban Indians far from their own tribal traditions but in need of some way to nourish their ethnicity.
In the Southwest, powwows often occur in conjunction with more traditional gatherings, like the June Ute Mountain Bear Dance in Towaoc, Colo., or the initiation into adulthood of young Mescalero Apache women at their July 4 Rodeo in Mescalero, N.M.
At powwows, family pride spills over into stories. At one dance, Mike Santistevan, a young Southern Ute, showed me his heirloom beaded belt, worn by Chief Antonio Buck in a Sun Dance almost a century ago.
Be inconspicuous, dress modestly, but sit as close as you can to the dancers and the drum groups, close enough to feel the swish of the fringes and the rhythm of the drum. That drumbeat is the heartbeat of the Earth, transporting dancers and watchers into a realm of joy, uniting them with the powers of land and animal and spirit.
Watch the dancers' Grand Entry from high seats in an indoor arena or in the makeshift stands at an outdoor powwow, beginning with flags, an honor guard and powwow "princesses," a competitive honor for young women. Dancers move to the elemental thrum of the bass drum struck in unison by the drum group, who also sing in falsetto chorus.
The men dancers lead, their attire matching their specialty: buckskins and beads of traditional dancers, bustles and roached hair of fancy dancers and acrylic-dyed yarn fringes of gyrating grass dancers.
Women come next; some wearing traditional costumes with extraordinary beadwork. These women dance with great dignity, while others take flight as fancy dancers with shawls swirling and still others move with the sensuous tinkle of jingle dancers, wearing rows of metal cones shaped from the lids of chewing tobacco cans.
Dancers may compete for prize money, but most come for the camaraderie and sense of spiritual elation. This becomes apparent when thousands of Indian people from around the country fill the huge basketball arena at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque at the annual Gathering of Nations Powwow in April -- one of several powwows claiming to be the biggest of all.
In the Southwest, many tribes -- especially the more dispersed peoples like Navajo, Ute and Apache -- have incorporated
powwows into their annual tribal fair, a combination of carnival midway, tribal dance, entertainment, rodeo and harvest festival.
Fairs typically happen in spring or fall. More tribally specific than powwows, they provide another entry point for non-Indians visiting Indian country.
Biggest by far is the Navajo Nation Fair, held each September in Window Rock, Ariz. It attracts 200,000 people, some 85 percent of them Navajo. Leo Watchman Jr., manager of the 1996 fair, sums up the spirit of the event as, "crowds and smiles."
"The fair is a chance to see Navajo people at their best," says Jonathan Dover, a Navajo security officer along the midway. The same could be said for each tribe and its fair.