Aspen Indigenous Foundation brings dance and drum performance to Wagner Park Saturday |

Aspen Indigenous Foundation brings dance and drum performance to Wagner Park Saturday

Organization aims for awareness, education

Bringing cultural awareness and education about Indigenous peoples through a Native American drum and dance performance is the Aspen Indigenous Foundation’s goal in Aspen this weekend, according to organizers.

The hour-and-a-half-long performance begins at 4 p.m. Saturday at Sister Cities Plaza next to Wagner Park. Among the lineup is about eight dancers (including two-time world champion Fancy Dancer Larry Yazzie), a group of four Lakota drummers, and a Ute elder who will bless the community and express gratitude with a prayer in the Ute language.

“I think people are going to be totally dazzled by the sort of rich culture that they are going to see, because to see that type of performance, you have to go to powwows usually,” said Deanne Vitrac-Kessler, the organization’s executive director. “To have that come to our little community, it’s very special.”

Vitrac-Kessler founded the organization roughly 15 years ago as the Aspen Ute Foundation after meeting Northern Ute elder Loya Arrum-Cesspooch at a dancing and drumming performance at Sunlight Mountain Resort.

The foundation’s work focuses on promoting Indigenous culture, supporting Native American communities and educating the public through performances like the one scheduled Saturday as well as an annual film festival, educational talks and initiatives to provide resources to Native American nations.

The organization expanded its reach around a decade ago to involve members of several different Native American nations, according to Vitrac-Kessler. It has operated as the Aspen Indigenous Foundation since last year.

“We felt there was a big need to educate and bring some awareness about the challenges of Native Americans and to educate the non-Indian world about the true history of the first inhabitants,” she said.

Saturday’s event continues that tradition, with representation from the Meskwaki, Lakota, Ojibwe and Ute nations.

“That’s kind of what powwow style dance is all about — it’s from different tribes that come together,” Vitrac-Kessler said.

That coming together will happen at a distance this year to follow COVID-19 protocols; a similar event happened successfully in October with mask-wearing and distancing in place.

“It will be a safe place to go,” said performer and Aspen Indigenous Foundation cultural advisor Larry Yazzie. “We want to emphasize being cautious and being socially distanced with one another — it is an outside event, so there is room to stand six feet apart around the perimeter of the dance arena.”

A bit of space won’t lessen the impact of the performances, Yazzie said,

“They can expect to be taking away the beauty of our culture: everything from our regalia — everything’s all handmade, one-of-a-kind regalia — to the feathers to the featherwork to the meaning behind the dances, to the stories behind the dances, and what it means to us as Native American people that we still are able to practice our way of life even in the public’s eye and also to showcase our art and to remind the people that we’re still here.” Yazzie said, “We’re still the original inhabitants of this beautiful land here in the United States.”

The event is about more than just enrichment, according to Yazzie.

“It’s more of a broader message to the people — not only to the communities here in Aspen but also to the outside of the community of Aspen — that we as indigenous people, we’re still able to practice our way of life, especially to keep our culture alive, by showing that through music and dance and storytelling,” Yazzie said.

Organizers hope that awareness can extend beyond the foundation’s reach in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley to generate financial support for programs that provide opportunities, money, food and other resources to Native American people.

Experiencing the performance comes at a benefit to the viewer, too, according to Vitrac-Kessler.

“People are always amazed to see … the beauty and the diversity, the colors, the happiness — it brings them some healing, because the songs and the dances, they are prayer offerings,” Vitrac-Kessler said. “And in the time of COVID where everybody’s stressed out, it really brings something very positive and very unique.”

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