Plaintive drums and feathered splendor. A day at the Navajo fair

THE drums. They're not like thunder. They're melancholy echoes, moaning with memories. And each beat calls up the past, pulling you into the Indian culture like nothing else can. Powwow music marries heart to drum, and it's pounded out by men called ``singers,'' whose songs sometimes soar without words. Yet, even the no-sense syllables speak plainly, telling of eagle and deer, Mother Earth, Father Sky, and days gone by. The chants can capture you - if you're willing.

In the arena, moccasined feet mimic the cadence with footfalls soft as rain on moss. For sure, Indian dancers wear wings, unseen, on their heels. And their beads, bells, feathers, and fringe make a costume mosaic that shames a rainbow. Their regalia reflects tribes throughout the West, because dancers came from far afield to attend the 41st annual Navajo Nation Fair.

Watching the dancers, singer Millard Clark hunches over a drum constructed from cowhide and a barrel painted white. He shares it with several other singers, and they beat in unison. Fast. Slow. Faster. Faster. Finis. And every dancer stops short, right on beat, as though programmed by a push button. No one falters. No one wobbles. That's a nifty feat, considering there's no choreography, no rehearsals.

``Well,'' Mr. Clark explains, ``we give them a little hint when the end is near,'' but he shares no more about the cues between drummers and dancers.

A Cheyenne-Comanche, Clark drove from Moore, Okla., to take part in the powwows sprinkled throughout the fair. Powwows are social dances, displaying footwork as spectacular as Rogers and Astaire, with an Indian flair.

More than 100,000 Native Americans and Anglos from in and out of Arizona converged on the Navajo capital of Window Rock for the five-day event Sept. 9-13. For miles in four directions, pickup trucks lined the roads like lassos uncoiled. Indispensable for hauling water to flocks and herds, the pickups also served to transport a host of Navajo friends and offspring to the festivities.

Naturally, no fair is a fair without a midway. And there it was: with a fun house, a Ferris wheel, and an all-horse carousel - a too-tame ride for the Navajo tot, who sits in a saddle sooner than a chair.

Holding umbrellas for shade, and balloons for fun, Navajo women made the midway rounds. They sampled the new: blue cotton candy. They partook of the familiar: mutton stew. And their traditional garb of flowing skirts, velveteen blouses, and turquoise jewelry added richness to the midway glitz.

Concessions mounted by Anglos offered everything from purple fake fingernails to satellite dishes at $3,500 with a mere $29 down. (The hitch: exorbitant 26 percent interest.) The Navajo booths mainly handed out information on subjects from AIDS and alcoholism to the conservation of water and forests.

In 10-ring circus style, activities ran simultaneously from noon to night. While Navajo beauties vied for queen title, young children paraded their lambs in the 4-H competition.

And in a pavilion smothered in cedar smoke, adults jammed the grandstands to watch contestants whip up the Navajo staple, frybread, over open fires.

The craft house dripped in turquoise and silver with prices geared to both the frugal and the flush. In the craft competition, however, jewelry was bested by a Navajo rug which captured the Best of Show award. Woven by Evelyn Curley of Ganado, Ariz., in deep red, blue, white, and black, it carried a price tag of $7,500.

While the tamer contestants cooked and created, the wild bunch rode in the rodeo, an event that knows no age and shows skills needed for Navajo survival on the land. Before the rodeo, a prayer for the young riders and the animals was offered in both Navajo and English.

Marvin George of Seba Dalkai, Ariz., is a little guy in a little saddle on a big horse. He races the length of the arena, stops, and dismounts like he's tumbling off a table. After all, it's a long way down to the ground for a six-year-old. He hustles toward a tethered goat, pulling a red ribbon from its tail. All in eight seconds. That won Marvin a ``first'' in the goat tagging.

For the bigger kids, the stakes are riskier. Phil Big Thumb of Dilkon, Ariz., took a tumble from a bull after six seconds. ``I bugged off,'' says the seventh-grader, who was introduced to bull riding via calves when he was 8.

The point of bull riding is to hang in there for eight full seconds - an eternity when the bucking is brutal. The rider holds on with only one hand while the other is held high. To promote a rougher ride, a cow bell is tied around the bull's middle.

``It's really bad in the chute, because sometimes they [the bulls] jump up and fall back on you,'' says Phil.

``But once you're out of the chute, you just roll with 'em,'' he says with the assurance of a pro.

The girls are in there, too, showing their speed when their mounts race around barrels or weave in and out of poles. Braids fly and hats go to the wind, because the girls ride at a run, not a trot or canter.

Tough as all the competitions are, nowhere does sweat pour more than in the jalapeno-eating contest, and nowhere are smiles broader than in the baby parade.

All day long there's something going on somewhere, and most is indelibly Indian. Even in late evening, long after the last crack of crimson leaves the sky, you can still buy frybread and pop, and hear the pounding of the drums.

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