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The pinball symphony of 400 slot machines morphs into the thump and wail of a Yavapai-Apache drum circle as I leave the dim, eau d'ashtray interior of the Cliff Castle Casino and step 30 yards to a bull-riding ring, site of the sixth annual Verde Valley Powwow. I smell burning sage, roasted corn and beef on the grill.
At the gate, I hand six dollars to an Apache named John -- "Like John Wayne."
John Like John Wayne stamps a bear on my arm and waves me through. I follow his gesture, and this is what I see: three young, Yavapai-Apache men, in full U.S. military dress, dancing, Native American-style, in a circle. With them are a dozen other Yavapai-Apache men who wear bone armor, feather headdresses and ceremonial garb with beadwork in the colors of turquoise, pine trees, prickly-pear fruit, the sun and fresh blood.
The drumming ceases. Each of the three military men picks up a flag. One carries the banner of the Yavapai-Apache Nation. The second grabs the Arizona state flag, and the third lofts the Stars and Stripes -- the flag under which all three now serve. The same flag under which, a century ago, their ancestors were slaughtered -- the foul irony being that many of the best cavalry commanders and troops who fought for the Union in the Civil War, ostensibly to free the slaves, were then sent west with orders to kill Indians.
Two of the Yavapai-Apache flag bearers are Marines, on leave from Camp Pendleton, a base outside San Diego. The third is a recently recruited Army private stationed at Fort Ord, near Monterey, California. Fort Ord is named after U.S. Army General O.C. Ord, who was asked in December 1870 to give his opinion of our country's policy of extermination toward the Yavapai-Apache of the Verde Valley.
(The Yavapai and Apache were once two distinct tribes who shared customs and a creation myth, yet spoke different languages. U.S. soldiers seeking payback for Apache attacks confused the Yavapai for Apache and pulled the more peaceful Yavapai into the war. Eventually, the Yavapai and Apache were grouped together on one reservation, creating the Yavapai-Apache nation of today.)
At the time of Ord's statement, the Apache had massacred hundreds of white men, women and children and were engaged in a brutal guerrilla war with U.S. Army troops who had been stationed in north-central Arizona in an effort to protect the settlers and miners flocking into the territory.
"I believe the hostile Indians of Arizona should be destroyed," Ord said. "And I encourage troops to capture and root out Indians by every means, and hunt them down as wild animals."
Thirty miles west of the powwow is Skull Valley, so named for the sun-blasted bones of 40 Yavapai who came there for a peace conference on April 13, 1866, carrying a letter of protection from Arizona's superintendent of Indian affairs.
U.S. Army troops set an ambush and cut them down with Gatling guns.
Fifteen miles south is Skeleton Cave, where in 1872, a band of 100 Yavapai men, women, elders and children hid to avoid internment on a reservation. Three days after Christmas that same year, U.S. soldiers quietly surrounded the cave and opened fire as the Yavapai ate breakfast.
Some of the worst butchery on both sides of Arizona's bloody Indian War went down within a half-hour drive of where I stand today, calmly munching fry bread with honey, surrounded by Apache who pay me no mind. If I'd entered their midst 125 years ago, they likely would have killed me on the spot, or, worse, dragged me screaming back to a hidden camp in the red rocks and handed me over to the widows of dead warriors, who would have flayed me alive or hanged me headfirst over a fire to roast my brains.
But today, I'm no enemy. Just a sightseer.
A teenage boy in blue jeans and an Ozzfest '99 tee shirt walks purposefully to a ring of drums behind a six-stack of amplifiers, sits down and strikes up a somber, solitary beat. In answer, the trio of military men marches slowly across the grass field, as the Ozzfest kid keeps the beat going with one hand, and pinches his throat with the other, shaking it back and forth as he sings, to gain a ghostly vibrato. As the procession comes to its end, I notice that, contrary to what I was taught in Cub Scouts, the flags of the Yavapai-Apache Nation and Arizona are never lowered in deference to Old Glory.
When I entered the powwow, I'd asked John Like John Wayne for a schedule of events. He looked at me as if I'd just asked for the white buffalo petting zoo, then replied, "This is a powwow. . . . Powwows don't have schedules."
Point being, I have no idea what's going to happen next, until the powwow emcee begins to perform a send-up of comedian Jeff Foxworthy's "You-might-be-a-redneck-if" standup routine.
"If you go to A.A. meetings because there's no coffee at home, you might be a redskin."
"If you know how to fillet bologna, you might be a redskin, hey."