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Native American Lakota star Gathering of Nations Native American Lakota star
April 22-24, 2010
UNM Football Stadium

Avenida Cesar Chavez Blvd. SE (Hwy. 25, exit #223)

Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA

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Native American Lakota star Traveling to the Beat of A Different Drum ArticleNative American Lakota star
Keeping Time With the Namesake of the Zotigh Singers
Story by Rick Huff - Pueblo Journal correspondent

Please respect this copyrighted material. It is not to be duplicated for any purpose without explicit written permission from the copyright holder.
ALBUQUERQUE—His group’s CD’s and tapes of over 50 original songs are in communities from sea to sea and pretty nearly Pole to Pole.  Their songs are sung at gatherings and powwows all across the U.S. and much of Canada. 

His Zotigh (“Zoe-tie,” or more correctly “Zode-deh”) Singers were asked to be Southern Host Drum at the Fort Duchesne, UT, celebration July 1-4, 2004, the San Felipe Casino Powwow July 30-August 1, 2004, and they are invited to compete in the world championship drum contest at Schemitzun, Ledyard, CT, August 26-29, 2004.  But the dean of New Mexico Southern Style has some interesting criteria for picking new singers for his drum.  “I want a person who’s never hit a drum before and doesn’t know how to sing!”

Of course the operative word here is “dean.”  Ralph Zotigh is very much an educator in the College of On-The-Job Training.  When it comes to Powwow and Intertribal, his mission is to teach and spread Southern Style singing and drumming.  “We’ve just released our fourth CD and it’s my fourth drum group,” Zotigh says with satisfaction.  And he’s already looking toward his fifth . . . of both!  “We’ll always be the Zotigh Singers and we’ll always be contenders,” he grins.Ralph Zotigh

 “The first version of the Zotigh Singers I had went on to form another group that’s pretty well-known now – Southern Slam.  They were on our first album.  The second version of the Zotigh Singers were mostly Plains tribal members from around Albuquerque and they recorded the second CD ‘Live at Schemitzun.’  On the third album, ‘Millenium,’ the group was half Plains and half Pueblos.  Now I have 14 singers and all but three are Navajos!”

Zotigh smiles as he speaks of the great potential of Zotigh Singers Incarnation #4.  “It takes a long time.  Practice is every Wednesday.  But at this past Gathering of Nations they were noticed and got compliments on their singing from some guys in other drum groups who’d been singing all their lives,” Zotigh beams with pride in his students.  “Not tooting my own horn but I guess I’m doing my job.”  Indian House just released:  “Bay Pbay Taay – Have Courage,” the Zotigh Singers’ fourth album of original songs.

Since moving to New Mexico from his native Oklahoma 46 years ago - his wife Maxine is San Juan Pueblo - Ralph Zotigh has been known for his singing and has been invited to be Head Singer at gatherings from New York to California.  The popular, elegant Kiowa gentleman  provided a powerful naturally operatic quality to the vocals, but for many years he traveled and worked the events alone.  “Then Northern drum groups sort of converged on the Southwest,” Zotigh recalls.  “When drum groups began to form here, I decided to do it so I could teach lots of new people the Southern Style, to help perpetuate it, so when I die there will be a lot of Southern singers!”

Most people in the know would state with assurance that Ralph Zotigh brought powwows to New Mexico.  It’s a claim Zotigh tends to sidestep:  “I was here all that time but it took a lot of people.  From 1970 to 78 I belonged to a powwow club in Albuquerque.  We used to put on our powwows at the old Albuquerque Indian School campus.  We would import a head staff from out-of-town . . . California . . . Oklahoma . . . and we would invite some people who were connected to the Gourd Dance.  Originally we weren’t allowed to do it outside of Oklahoma and actually,” Zotigh grins a little shyly, “ I’m not absolutely sure we were supposed to have been doing it or not, but people encouraged us.  The California Kiowas who were here decided to take it back home with them and it spread.  It’s really catching on with the Navajos too.  I didn’t realize it until I was invited in 2002 to be Head Gourd Singer at the Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial and a Gourd Clan of over 100 Navajos came!”Zotigh Drum

Many of the people now embracing Gourd Dancing don’t understand its protocol.  It’s rapid spread and growing popularity across the U.S., Canada and even Europe is causing some don’ts to be done, which is troubling to elders and traditionalists.  And while Ralph Zotigh is not disposed to point waggling fingers and criticize, he admits that many times he has been asked by concerned elders to step to the microphone and tell the correct way of the Gourd Dance.  Beyond his knowledge of the songs and the fact that Gourd Singing is his actual specialty, telling the way of it may be an unpleasant task that falls to Ralph Zotigh by blood.  His grandfather Harry Hall was instrumental in returning the Gourd Dance to the Kiowas. 

“It’s the emcee’s job to talk to the people at powwows, but sometimes they don’t know,” Ralph sighs.  “Sometimes you see things like peyote gourds showing up in Gourd Dancing.  There’s Peyote Clan and there’s Gourd Clan.  It’s like mixing religions to mix them together.  Only cans as gourd rattles should be used.  Sometimes what people wear is disrespectful.  They just don’t know.  And since Gourd Dancing is an honoring of warriors and of veterans that pre-dates WWI when women finally joined the Armed Forces, by tradition women only participate by standing behind the drum and outside the circle if they have lost a husband, son, father, brother or other male relative in combat.  They never use a gourd shaker or stand in front of the rows of men.  And there are 200 to 300 gourd songs.  Some family songs are right under certain circumstances and not others, tempos progress from slow to fast across the course of the event not to be mixed.  There’s a lot to know!”

As Zotigh tells it Gourd Dancing evolved from the original Plains Tribes’ Ghost Dance, banned by the overbearing U.S. government as pagan and inflammatory.  Some tribes publicly stopped it, as did the Kiowas.  But fortunately certain elders retained and passed down some of the songs and the stories of what the dance did for the people.  Among the Kiowas it became known as (closest English spelling) the Tiapiah (“Tye-a-peh”) or Red Berry Dance.  It has an old story connected to it about a wounded Kiowa warrior making his way home when a wolf sang to him telling him what the dance was called and telling him to take it back to the people. 

http://www.geocities.com/zotighsingers

 Zotigh is also aware and mindful of appropriateness and effect when it comes to his powwow singing and that of his Zotigh Singers.  “I could sing hard for four days and not get hoarse.  It’s because I don’t think about how I sound or feel.  I think about what I’m singing.  I think about someone who has come not feeling well or with the weight of the world on their shoulders.  If they feel better because of the music, that’s what I and the singers in our group need to focus on.”  His music is his message and his message is his life.  But the introduction of powwow singing to new regions hasn’t always been met with universally open arms. 

            “We were invited up to New Brunswick three hours into Canada from the border.  Because the people knew our songs and liked them, some people were interested in working with us to get a powwow started.  But the elders resisted it saying it’s not our way.  I understand that.  It’s so important to maintain your culture.”  That thought brings on a pleasant memory for Ralph concerning some of his Zotigh singers who were Pueblo but had learned his Southern Style songs.

            “I was invited to a feast day up at one of the pueblos that was home to some of my singers.  The ceremony began and here they came, participating and dressed in their traditional garb.  I felt so proud of them!  That’s wonderful, the way it should be . . . learn the new, but always hold true to what’s yours.”

Thanks and Credit:
Photos by Le Andra Peters (NMPWS.com) and http://www.geocities.com/zotighsingers

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