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Native Americans celebrate Pioneer Day their own way

Published July 24, 2013 10:04 pm

People from tribes throughout West join in harmony at annual event, then buckle down for dance contest.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A formality like the opening ceremonies proved to be emotional for Iraq war veteran Kelly Holmes.

She held her head high as she marched the Utah flag through the colors presentation at the Native American Celebration in Liberty Park. Afterward, the 21-year veteran, now on the far side of a tough struggle with post traumatic stress disorder, recalled what a surprisingly proud and happy moment it had been for her.

"I just felt so blessed that they recognized us," said Holmes, an Iroquois who wore a Utah Intertribal Veterans patch on her cowboy hat near her U.S. Army combat wings. "It just felt so good that I was accepted."

When he started the Pioneer Day celebration 19 years ago, Cal Nez was aiming for

just this sort of spirit — a family celebration in true Utah tradition, with the whole Native American family gathering to celebrate together.

"It's a family day," said Nez, a Navajo. It's an opportunity "to reach out and welcome the world in the spirit of peace and love."

On Wednesday, as the morning parade crowd streamed from Liberty Park, and as fireworks enthusiasts staked out their patches for the night's pyrotechnics, the pow-wow was getting under way in a fenced-off area.

People from tribes from throughout the West came out to dance, to support dancers and just to experience the dancing, drumming and song. Though there would be competition to come, it all started with a procession of dancers of all ages, wearing the full spectrum of brilliant colors in beads, feathers, bells and buckskin.

Emcee Emerson Bill gave shoutouts to the tribal family members near and far, including the antsy children whose parade garb jingled through the long benediction and veterans who couldn't be present to dance among them.

"Don't forget the elders," he reminded them. "They still have a lot to teach us [through] dancing."

Lita Matthews, a Pueblo, prepared for the dancing contest to come.

Old enough to be "in the senior category now" after 29 years of dancing, she relaxed in a nylon camp chair as she waited to be called out for the "Northern Traditional" contest. Her skin glowing in the midday light, she wore a handmade beaded buckskin dress in canary yellow, designed by her husband Derek and decorated with a variety of Native American symbols, such as medicine wheels, roses and a Sioux star.

She tells how dancing has helped her get through some challenges, like the liver transplant she received a few years back.

"I dance because I can," she said. "It's what has kept me going."

fahys@sltrib.com

Twitter: @judyfutah