Friday, 26 June 2015


The aspect of the American continent which first caught my attention with sufficient seriosity as to implant the idea that I might one day live here was the history of its first people. By America's first people I hope it is clear that I refer to those so often dubiously identified as Indians, the descendants of the settlers who came across the Bering Strait from northern China way back whenever. Anyone inclined to muttering about ginger-haired skeletons, Leif Erikson, or an Arizona petroglyph apparently depicting Egbert of Wessex should at this juncture feel free to take their eyeballs elsewhere.

It was pre-Columbian Mexico which first drew my interest. Initially I studied its cultures more or less in isolation, before inevitably discovering that beyond a certain level of attention, any specific focus ceases to remain useful given that no pre-Columbian Mexican culture existed in isolation; and eventually one inevitably ends up noticing parallels between - for example - the Central Mexican practice of flower war and the potlatch ceremonies of the Tlinglit and others up in Alaska and the far north. Such parallels are always interesting, and often useful in the formulation of a broader, more thorough picture.

I've met Huichol and Tarahumara people in Mexico, and others most likely descended from the Mexica, but the realisation - as I moved here - that I would at some point encounter those native to this corner of the Americas seemed a different prospect. For one, their legend had been with me since I was a child reading Riders of the Range in my dad's old Eagle annuals, as opposed to something approached with a more open and hopefully elevated mind in recent years. Secondly, even given no group of people ever having been conquered for the better, the colonial history of Mexico went quite differently to that of the country on this side of the Río Bravo del Norte. I had read about the indigenous peoples of the United States, and at least some of what has befallen them in the years since the arrival of my lot, often characterised as a slow genocide and unfortunately with some justification. I even spent time on a First Nations bulletin board in an effort to engage with representatives of the cultures I found so fascinating, and to engage by means which wouldn't relegate them to a detail of history, or reduce them to ethnic mascots.

I had always imagined that were I of Native American heritage, I would either hate all white people, or at least want as little as possible to do with their fat, over-entitled asses. This seemed to me an understandable position considering all the massacres, betrayals, and political cards played with loaded decks.

Happily, most Native Americans I encountered online have tended to take a more philosophical view, having had little choice but to accept that simply getting angry with the world never really made it a better place. They are, in my limited experience, nice people, but I have felt that the weight of history has sometimes made meaningful dialogue difficult, or at least uncomfortable from my point of view. The bulletin board was subject to frequent visits from young, mostly white teenagers interested in this or that detail of native life, generally those new-agey types who, despite the best will in the world, can sometimes come across as a little patronising. I had no wish to be identified with such people, or even to add to the increasing volume of essentially Caucasian voices on a forum dedicated to an entirely different group who, I imagined, might possibly have appreciated the chance to talk without persons such as myself butting in.

There was a joke told on the forum, something about the white visitor who is taken back to the generic teepee to meet my wife, my son, and my anthropologist. After all, it could be that a Native American might not even wish to discuss his or her close relationship with nature, or how it feels to be Native American - at least not all of the time. So eventually I dropped out of the forum, for once doubting whether I was really justified in joining the sort of club which would welcome me as a member.

My part of Texas was historically inhabited by numerous indigenous groups of nomads now collectively identified as Coahuiltec prior to the arrival of Europeans, but others came later, passing through as they were driven south by the settlers. There are three reservations in Texas, and none anywhere near San Antonio; but given Texas having been part of Mexico up until 1836, and that the population of San Antonio is predominantly identified as Hispanic, then it seems likely that I encounter persons of at least some indigenous heritage on a possibly daily basis. Many of the women working in my local supermarket are of a distinct facial type which reminds me very much of the profiles carved on Mayan stelae and ceramic ware - strong noses, high cheekbones, and not much going on in the eyebrow department. Having grown up in England, it still seems incredible to me that our two cultures should now meet over my purchase of cat food and bratwurst.

Each Spring, the city of San Antonio is host to Fiesta, a week long cycle of events and celebrations commemorating the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto. One such event is an official Native American Powwow billed as promoting the traditions and culture of the American Indian in the most positive manner possible providing Indian people the opportunity to participate, practice, teach and exchange tribal traditions among all tribes and enlighten the non-Indian about the history and culture of America’s first inhabitants. I had already seen men in feathered garments dancing for pesos in Mexico, and had never been sure what to make of it, quite where the tradition ended or where the holding the tourist upside down and giving him a shake began; but this seemed to be something potentially very different.

Admittance was free, and the event - which had been going on for three or four hours before my wife and I showed our faces with Junior in tow - was held in a gymnasium. The bleachers lining one side of the venue were full of spectators, but the crowd was not excessive. The main court was occupied by a large oval of individuals, those in native dress mingling with spectators who had decided to join in. A large drum was slowly beaten somewhere at the centre of this, scoring the rhythm for many pairs of feet engaged in the same slow, sideways shuffle.

'They're doing the Mario,' I told my wife.

The Mario is a dance requiring that one swing one's arms from side to side whilst performing a similar action with the feet, as described in the closing theme song of the Super Mario Brothers Super Show. As one YouTube commentator observed, the Mario is actually a lot like walking, and it was this observation which cemented the thing into my imagination, such as it is.

The dance ended and everybody gradually returned to their seats, some pausing for photographs taken with representatives of the tribes in all of their finery. From the website I gather that those assembled included Navajo, Choctaw, Osage, and Cherokee, amongst others, so this was logically some modern synthesis of older, presumably variant traditions, something intended to speak to people here in the year 2015, and in which capacity it was a success. Drummers were assembled at the centre of the hall, and the dancers worked around them. The moves seemed vaguely familiar from endless imitation under customarily more hokey circumstances - dancers hopping from foot to foot, arms spread wide to mimic the flight of birds, feathers bobbing behind. The difference was that this felt subtly different to anything I had seen before. The choreography was forceful and dramatic rather than graceful or necessarily meticulous. It was conducted to its own purpose, and as such appeared to have nothing to prove, just as the composite indigenous tradition of music and dance as I understand it so rarely seems to even acknowledge the concept of a passive spectator because it generally involves everyone present. So what we were seeing, it could be argued, was no invocation of times passed, not even so much a spectacle as the real thing, the act itself, the act on this occasion being communication - if that doesn't sound too horribly pretentious.

That which was communicated was, so it seemed to me, nothing more profound than we are still here, which maybe wasn't anything deep, but was nevertheless good to know. I would have liked to have learned a little more than was communicated by the distorted voice introducing each dance over the speaker system, but then this was, after all, a primarily visual event. We watched for a while, and left once we felt we had seen enough, impressed that men and women in such flamboyant and colourful dress could be part of one of the most profoundly dignified ceremonial performances I have witnessed.

Fiesta continued for the rest of the week, expressing itself through different events at different times and places, and for our part culminating with the Coronation of the Queen of the Order of the Alamo at the Majestic Theatre. Each year the Coronation of the Fiesta Queen - or at least the Fiesta Queen of the Order of the Alamo - follows a different theme, and this year the theme was the Court of Captivating Islands.

Me neither.

The Majestic Theatre was built in 1929 and, roughly speaking, equates to the world's most ludicrously ornate wedding cake turned inside out. Brightly painted columns, balconies, architectural peacocks, and related eccentric flourishes beneath a ceiling purporting to represent the star-spangled heavens make perfect sense as a product of the era of Gaudí, Surrealism, and Le Palais Idéal of Ferdinand Cheval. Majestic does not seem an overstatement, and although the baroque décor skates perilously close to its own Disneyfication, it falls mercifully short of actual camp, and thus as a venue seemed apposite to the event we had come to see.

As the lights went down and a flock of young pages fluttered  across the stage to take their places, the scene was set by our narrator, the Lord High Chamberlain, a nautical character describing his numerous voyages across the oceans of the world, and all the magnificent sights he didst see - all very seventeenth century. The curtain rose upon an array of twenty-six unoccupied plinths in pseudo-classical style, and we met our first contestant, floating on ethereal and iridescent wings of the Madagascan sunset moth, Her Grace Jewel Osborn of the House of Croswell, the Duchess of Eternal Threads - as she was introduced. Jewel made her way towards the stage trailing ten or more feet of glittering ceremonial cape, or what is known as a cathedral train in dressmaking terms. The garment was of such length as to require manual assistance from the pages as Jewel ascended the steps to the plinth on which she would presumably remain seated for the rest of the performance. The garments are covered in coloured sequins and Swarovski crystals sewn into patterns purportedly illustrating that which the Lord High Chamberlain had been telling us of the wonders he hadst done did seeneth in Madagascar.

Now I understood why Bess hadn't bothered trying to describe any of this to me. It was something along the lines of a beauty pageant, perhaps with ceremony replacing the more conspicuously competitive aspect, and each year it was themed to some different and presumably arbitrary concept. Each girl would be introduced with a preamble of our host inviting us to imagine the wonders of one exotic island or another - Hawaii, Greenland, Cuba, Manhattan or wherever - and on she would come, pulling her glittering train of rhinestones shaped into patterns depicting pineapples, exotic birds, or in one case a volcano. Thematically they kept it light, so Cuba was expressly identified as old Cuba, unfortunately denying us the spectacle of a rhinestoned Che smoking a cigar. I kept my fingers crossed for the Isle of Dogs bringing us a glittering vision of skinheads, Terry Hurlock, and Stanley Kubrick filming bits of Full Metal Jacket, but I was fairly sure I would be disappointed.

Jewel was followed by Her Grace Elizabeth Adriana of the House of Garza, the Duchess of Romanov Reflection, whatever that is, and I realised that this was probably going to last hours until each of the twenty-six plinths had been occupied. After about six more girls, as we gradually worked up to the introduction of Princesses and I suppose the Queen, a new detail was added. Now each Duchess would perform a full bow before her similarly teenage Duke in preface to his leading her by the hand to her plinth. The full bow entailed each girl going down on her knees, lowering her head almost to the floor before turning to bestow a wide, slightly discomfiting smile upon the audience. Even from our seats way up in the balcony, it seemed a peculiarly awkward moment, conveying the sort of pleasure staged whilst looking directly into the camera for productions traditionally featuring something called a money shot.

The girls all seemed to be from wealthy Texas families, and my wife told me that each individually sewn train might cost up to fifty-thousand dollars. The Order of the Alamo is a conglomeration of wealthy families and businessmen, and is thus upper class in the American sense of the term. I'm sure the Order of the Alamo must be a noble institute, doubtless with all sorts of charitable functions to its name, but it quickly dawned on me that the Coronation was about spectacle, prestige, and swimming pools full of wonga. Neither America nor Texas has a royal family, and so instead it has this sort of deal, and typically fumbles the ball in attempting to communicate the idea of an elite - it's wealth, but vulgar wealth with a heavy hint of Liberace, and whilst the orchestra scores the arrival of each Duchess with an individual classical flourish, some get Bach or Prokofiev, whilst others arrive to the themes from ET and Jurassic Park; and the Duchess of Heavenly Illuminations ends up with something written by some guy called Gustav Hoist, according to the programme.

The Coronation spares no expense, and it tries hard, and it means well, but ultimately it's the whitest thing I've ever seen. This occurred to me as we were introduced to the Duchess of Delicate Winged Beauty, because nothing says Trinidad and Tobago like a bejewelled débutante who makes Britney Spears look like Nina Simone. I asked my wife, and apparently this event represents the Coronation of just one symbolic regent, and others are available should you be of either Latino or African-American lineage. The latter pageant is called the Queen of Soul, and whilst I've no doubt that a good time is had by all, I can't help but wonder if this variety somehow defeats the spirit of Fiesta, the carnival, the celebration in which all peoples come together to admit that living here in San Antonio is a pretty sweet deal, generally speaking.

We watch about two hours of one teenage Duchess after another and the stage is still half empty, so my wife tells me, 'it's okay - we can go now if you want.'

It's been an experience, if not one that I would necessarily care to repeat in a hurry, but ultimately it seems strange to see so much money blown on something of so little obvious value beyond its own sense of occasion, the repetition and reiteration of whatever the hell it was all for. The wealth is deemed old money, but I'm from England and it really doesn't seem that old to me, and genuinely old money is fairly easy to identify, being nothing if not dignified. The Coronation was style, and sadly not even great style, without substance; and it seems oddly ironic how it all felt kind of cheap when compared to the hooting and hollering of the Powwow, which is at least conducted by people who understand that ritual should always mean something.

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