Storyteller highlights Washoe festival
It’s not unusual for Art Cavanaugh to stay up all night singing and playing, from 10 p.m. until sunrise. His fans join in the fun, dancing and carrying on until, exhausted, they finally stumble home to get some sleep.
These young rock stars – won’t they ever learn?
Well, call Cavanaugh a descendant of North America’s first rock stars; Native American storytellers who pass on their culture and identity through song and dance.
Cavanaugh, 70, is a member of the Shoshone Paiute tribe, a native of Winnemucca, Nev., who is one of the pre-eminent singer-storytellers in Native American culture today.
“Art is a living treasure,” said Janelle Conway, the Cultural Resource
Specialist for the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. “He’s been singing traditional songs for decades; keeping alive our culture through song and dance. He’s a powerful voice for our people.”
Cavanaugh was one of the featured performers at Wa She Shu It Deh – or “Washoe People’s Land,” a Native American arts festival held at the Tallac Historic Site in South Lake Tahoe, near Camp Richardson. The festival, now in its ninth year, has grown from a small basket-weaving competition to a flourishing celebration of Native American arts, craftsmanship and dancing exhibitions.
The festival is held at Tallac because that is one of the traditional meeting sites of the Washoe people, who lived in the Tahoe Basin for an estimated 15,000 years before European settlers began driving them out in the mid-19th century.
It is that history of heartache and perseverance of all Native American
peoples that is reflected in the “Ghost Dance,” which Cavanaugh performed on Saturday at the festival – with the help of about 20 men, women and children. All joined hands and stepped rhythmically in a circle, led by Cavanaugh, who sang and played a handmade drum.
“It is a healing dance,” said Cavanaugh, dressed in tan cowboy jeans and a crisp collared shirt. “It’s what people back East call Ghost Dance, but here we call it Round Dance.
Traditionally, people come and join in the dance to be healed. You come and dance and leave all your cares behind.”
To Native Americans, people such as Cavanaugh are a rare artists –
storytellers who have received a gift from down through the generations.
“I began singing when I was about 6 years old,” Cavanaugh said. “You have to have an interest in it, first of all. It takes a lot of time and energy, so you have to stick with it. I suppose it’s a gift.
“It’s hard to describe; it isn’t English. It requires visualization. It’s
stories about how our people see the world. It’s all related to healing and ceremony and our love and respect for the environment; for nature and everything God has made.”
A retired cattle rancher and miner who has lived all his life in Nevada,
Cavanaugh has traveled all over the United States to perform the Ghost Dance, including Washington D.C. He has even performed with Michael Martin Murphy at a concert at Mammoth Mountain.
“When the tribal elders heard that Art was available, they asked specifically for me to try and get him here,” said Conway. “He’s a wonderful man. Sadly, his talents won’t be here forever. There are fewer and fewer who are learning the traditional songs.
“When I first met him, Art put his hand on my shoulder and said ‘Let me heal you.’ Can you imagine? A person I didn’t even know, and he wants to heal me. He’s a very special man.”
There were a host of other exhibition dance groups on hand over the weekend, including performances by Miwok and Maidu dance groups. There were also basket competitions, fine arts and craft sales and history exhibitions.
The festival was sponsored by the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit and the Tallac Association. In addition, each year, Camp Richardson provides campground areas for tribal members from out of the region to spend the weekend.
“It’s a wonderful way to celebrate our heritage,” said Art Martinez, a
descendant of the Chumash Tribe from the Santa Barbara area. Martinez now lives in Gardnerville. “It’s a gathering of the families, like they used to have here in the old days. This is my second time here. I feel it’s important to support this event.”
This is Art Cavanaugh’s first Wa She Shu It Deh.
“It’s wonderful,” he said. “I’d like to come back, and sing all night long.”
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