Thursday saw an influx of cultural happenings at the Julian A. McPhee University Union (UU). The Día de los Muertos festivities occurred throughout the day, but as night fell and the decorations for the Mexican holiday were cleaned up, a company of Hupa tribe members spent a fleeting half hour in the spotlight of the UU conference room.
The group, led by Boyd Ferris, called itself the Sweathogs and represented the Hupa (pronounced Hoo-pah) tribe, which has historically lived in northern reaches of California in Humboldt County along the Trinity River. They performed an abridged version of a Brush Dance intended to cure the ill, but it quickly became clear that dances like this are as valuable for the entire tribal community as they are for any sick individual.
“This is one of our ways to come back to our culture and spend time together in a good way,” Ferris said in his explanation of the dance. He went on to mention that engaging in ancient cultural traditions like the dance has helped some members achieve sobriety, partly because of the heightened sense of community the traditions foster.
When the dance was underway, that sense of community shined brightly. This particular Brush Dance involved one member singing a short verse repeatedly, while others chanted to keep a beat while standing in a line (or potentially in a circle when not performing for an audience). Then, one or more of the participants jumped out of line, unleashing fierce shrieks while hopping about and assuming intense warrior positions. The intent here is to literally fight illness, and to do it as a community.
The dancers must work together more than the casual observer might notice. While the ceremony appears standardized and well-practiced, it involves a good deal of improvisation. There is no predetermined choreography or order for who will “jump out” or who will sing. All the participants must acquire an acute sense of unity in order for the ceremony to proceed smoothly. This Brush Dance was defined by the coherence created by an intuitive communal feeling, despite the unconventional setting.
These members of the Hupa tribe were not selected at random to show up at Cal Poly. Ferris’ daughter, Darian, is a kinesiology senior and co-president of the American Indian Student Association (AISA). She wanted to show Cal Poly students that Native American tribes each have distinct cultures, and simply can’t all be classified the same.
“A lot of (people on campus) and in my club are more familiar with powwows and things like that, but a lot of tribes don’t do powwows so I wanted to share our ceremonies with them,” she said.