American Indians in Colorado – and the nation as a whole – have endured centuries of cultural diminishment via genocide, a heritage stripped away and forgotten. Changing that history is impossible, but shaping a new one is imperative.
Creating positive change is exactly what the Denver American Indian Festival, DAIF, is looking to do for the greater Denver community. Each year DAIF partners with a non-profit organization to bring awareness into the larger community and support young people within the American-Indian community.
“The purpose of the festival is to affirm the value and role of tradition and culture of Native Americans living in harmony within our community,” says DAIF President Lynne Holman.
Holman has worked with DAIF since it began. Her efforts to preserve and celebrate Native culture have not gone unnoticed by her community. In 2017, Holman was awarded the outstanding Cherokee Elder of the year for her work with the festival by the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in Denver. Her efforts have helped ensure that American-Indians and Alaskan Natives from all tribes can benefit from the money raised by DAIF.
This year DAIF partnered with the Denver Indian Family Rescue Center, DIFRC, as part of their charity outreach initiative. The rescue center is currently working towards creating a “Christmas in September” by collecting puzzles, balls, clothing, and toys for all ages. All the gifts brought to the festival (yes, you can and should bring gifts to the festival) will go towards the 35 vulnerable American Indian and Alaskan Native families who receive supplies from the DIFRC.
Colorado is home to over 100,000 American Indians from many different tribes. This festival creates a safe place for these groups to come together and share their unique culture for fun and education. In 2017 over 200 American Indians from 48 tribes came out to share their food, dance, and tribal arts.
Each year the festival features live performances from Native singers and dancers as well as crafts and wares from local Native artists who sell their designs at an affordable price. This year educator, dancer, and spoken word artist Fabian Fontenelle will be performing as part of The Shelley MorningSong Band.
Fontenelle is known for his traditional dance routines which speak to his Zuni / Omaha roots. During his performances he shares the spoken word of his ancestors in his Native Zuni language. His shows are known for captivating audiences with displays of ancient sacred songs, dancing, drumming, and hand-crafted regalia adorned with intricate hand-beading.
His work as an artist has also spilled over into public service where Fontenelle serves as a consultant and educator for museums and public schools. As the great-great-great-grandson of Chief Big Elk of the Omaha nation, he is very connected to his culture and his craft. His knowledge of Native America has been used to inform shows on the History Channel, the film Into the West produced by Steven Spielberg, and other productions.
Connecting with Native culture is one of the main goals of DAIF and part of a larger effort to make Native people more visible in Denver. Cultural staples like food, music, and ritual dance create an easy way for the public to understand and connect with the ancient and rich indigenous history in this state.
One of the many well known attractions the festival brings annually are the over two dozen Native vendors who set up tents to sell their crafts. Everything from simple trinkets to fine art is available for purchase. DAIF assists Native artisans by creating signs to better advertise their items and teaching more timid artists business communication skills.
While Native arts may be the most visible method of sharing culture and improving the community it’s far from the only tactic. In collaboration with churches and the City of Thornton DAIF also works to address food insecurity and educate the youth.
Through a partnership with Shepherd United Methodist Church the festival has secured eight gardening plots to create a community garden for Natives. From about May 1st through September this each plot provides anywhere between 40 to 60 vegetables for American Indian families.
Additional contributions from the West Denver Fishing Club allows DAIF to donate 100 poles and reels to Native families this summer. Something as simple as a fishing rod can help young people reconnect with old ways and give them another means of providing for themselves.
Hosting the festival in Thornton has been essential to making sure the resources reach the people who need them the most. Adams County, where the festival is held each year, is home to about 1200 Native children. Holman says that while she can’t fix everything this festival goes a long way towards benefitting the next generation of American Indians.
“I cannot build homes, or put roofs on buildings, but I can give my race my gifts of love, understanding, respect, fun, joy, food, clothing, 5K in gifts for children, [and] money for blankets for graduating seniors in Adams County High Schools,” Holman said.
While the festival is open to everyone, bridging the gap between young Native people and the old ways of American Indian culture has always been an important part of DAIF.
The purpose of arts and dance, besides education, is to strengthen American Indians’ connection to the past. Intertribal performances, like the hoop dance, honor a person or group with songs and require traditional regalia and hundreds of hours to perfect. Which is why the first performance someone does is always considered sacred by all tribes.
During a hoop dance performers sing old tales in their native tongue about hunts, war, marriages, birth, and life. The drums used during the dance represent a mother’s heartbeat which is said to be the beat that guides one through life. This performance is an opportunity to teach the youth tradition and history with laughter and a light-hearted atmosphere.
One way that DAIF has ensured that the event is able to be a safe is by involving community first responders and law enforcement. Children at the festival have the chance to interact with the U.S Army, Thornton Police, and the Thornton Fire Department in a fun learning environment.Casual communications give the public a chance to interact with Police, and Firefighters outside of an emergency situation and build trust within the community.
September 2018 marks the fifth anniversary of DAIF establishing this event to support the Native community in the Denver-metro area.
Catch this year’s festival Sept. 29-30 at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Thornton. The festival runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and opens 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. For any questions or concerns contact Lynne Holman via email at Fest15Chief@comcast.net or call at 303-423-6682.