Here the Old West Reaches a Climax, Sort Of

This Is My Town?

Tooele Old West Festival 'You're not going to feel the positive effects from a dream catcher unless you believe in them first,' said Nancy, from Mapleton, who was selling dream catchers, spirit catchers, and worry dolls from her small booth at Tooele's annual pow-wow, rock and gem show, and mountain man rendezvous. 'Just like anything,' she continued, 'if you don't believe in them, they don't work.'

'Yes. I mean, no,' I told her. 'You're right. But if it doesn't work, then I won't believe in it.' The dream catcher, for those of you who grew up in stuffy, no-nonsense homes, is a small wooden hoop with feathers hanging from it. The inside of the hoop is criss-crossed with what looks like a spider web of yarn, and there is usually a rock thrown in there, too. The idea here is that if you hang the dream catcher up in your bedroom, the catcher will catch the bad dreams, the dreams that are not helpful in your daily life. What I was asking Nancy - and I'm not sure she understood me all the way - was, did the dream catcher catch the dreams before they were created, or only afterwards, meaning the bad dreams happened, but you simply did not remember them. It mattered to me because I felt that if your psyche was still creating bad dreams, then that's what I wanted to focus my efforts on - correcting the psyche - rather than just sweeping the bad dreams under the carpet of our minds, so to speak.

Nancy, however, thought I was being a bit heretical about the dream catcher thing.

'Maybe you would like one of my worry dolls,' she said. 'They are in the yellow boxes.' The worry doll was a half-inch tall stick figure with a tiny shirt and tiny pants or a skirt. They are made in Guatemala, Nancy said, and the idea here is that before you go to bed you tell the worry doll all about your worries and in the morning they - the worries - will be gone. Logically, I asked Nancy if the worry dolls ever sort of fill up with worries, or what would happen if you gave a worry doll to a friend. Would the doll be as receptive, or more receptive, to another person's worries? And are some dolls better suited to some worries than others? Nancy diverted her attention to other customers.

I was at Tooele's annual festival this weekend because it is one of the best attended, most colorful gatherings of its kind in Utah, and Tooele puts on three events at once seamlessly. Plus, it was only a block and a half from my new basement apartment! Locals here call the three-day festival simply the festival of the Old West, and for good reason. The Old West festival represents everything most people have come to associate with the West: Indians, rocks, and people who don't shower very often.

Back from Nancy was a whole village of canvas tents and teepees where otherwise perfectly normal-looking men, women and children were wearing head-to-toe buckskin. That was the mountain man section and it was flanked by people selling furs, things carved from bones, and three-foot long peace pipes - not exactly the sort of fare you find at Fashion Place Mall, if you know what I mean. Inside the Tooele City Complex was the gem and mineral show, where people were talking about cut rocks as though they were lovers, and back out on a thick green lawn was the pow-wow, where people wear feathers, dance around in circles and wail. More or less.

And What's Up With All These People?

Tooele Gem and MineralFor Carl Timmerman, who was here representing the Murray, Utah-based Western Military History Association, the Old West festival was more than simply a good reason to dress in funny clothes and get away with it. The festivals, Tooele's and those that take place across the West, are a practice in digging into history, dissecting it, and putting it back together. Timmerman was playing the part of his great-grandfather, a Confederate soldier from Virginia. He was wearing home-tailored wool pants, a thin long-sleeved shirt, Army-issue field shoes, and a soldier's cap, and played the part of his ancestor - down to the Virginia accent - with practiced precision. The West, he said, was settled in large part by Civil War veterans, a theory I had heard once but never fully understood. Confederate soldiers returned home to a devastated land, both environmentally and economically, Timmerman explained. Families were torn, fields slashed, towns burned, and the Confederate war bonds - bonds which many put their fortunes into - were, of course, worthless. Furthermore, the carpetbaggers who ran the south after the Civil War ran it as though it were a conquered territory, Timmerman said, and life in general was not very fun. Union soldiers found more of the same, in addition to now suffocatingly-crowded cities. The West, from the Mississippi to the Pacific, held the promise of free land - all you had to do was build a home and sow crops to get 160 acres from the Feds - freedom, challenge and equality.

But it was not just Civil War vets who planted themselves under the wide-open skies of the West. It was, in fact, an amalgamation of people from around the world. French trappers came from Canada, Spaniards and Mexicans came from the south, Brits came from the East, and Scots and Irish came fleeing famine and oppressive rule. When it came time to do the real work of carving a livable place from the land - building roads, dams, rail roads, mines and towns - in came the Chinese, Greeks, Swedes and Germans, among others. Many of those groups are represented at the festival, from Scottish highlanders wearing kilts to the French and their saucy accents. But outnumbered by them all were the mountain men, the men who came west under the guise of exploration or fur-trapping but were really after the unraveling thread of mystery of a new, exotic, and hard-to-tame landscape. These were the ones in the buckskin at the festival, trading moccasins, carving knives, sewing bone buttons onto their shirts, and making juniper fires for no apparent reason.

'The West is a cold, hungry place,' said a failed trapper. 'But the land is free where any man can pursue a dream.' Liberty and freedom, he added, create prosperity. Clinton would smile broadly, I bet. 'In the West, people learned from each other,' said Timmerman. 'You can make your own life. It is the last chance to be free and be your own person instead of working for another person, sweating all day long in a sweat shop.' He seemed to be speaking as much about settler times as today.

The history of America and the history of the American West are intertwined, said Timmerman, and share themes. Another theme that runs each way across the West, one that is inescapable in a land of mountains and cut canyons, are rocks. In Utah, the earth is naked and exposed more often than it is clothed with shrubs and soil, and to walk is to naturally look at the rocks beneath you. Some places have more interesting rocks that others, and there are people who have tailored their entire lives to looking for the most interesting rocks of all - and then cleaning them, cutting them, polishing them and selling them. The Tooele City Complex building, a putrid windowless affair adjacent to the mountain man town, was full of people - men, mostly - who have taken rock collecting to a higher plane, so to speak.

'It is kind of like fishing,' said a vendor from Idaho who travels the rock-show circuit most of the summer. 'You go out to your favorite spot and look all afternoon, and sometimes you find some pretty good specimens, and other times you don't find anything any good at all, but you had a nice time looking. Definitely, yes, it's addictive. But this isn't for money making. It is just until I can get on social security.'

Vendors were selling everything from painted pet rocks to amazing iridescent opaline gems to rocks that had been carved to look like dolphins, bears, cowboys and trains. One man, with a crowd of about a dozen around him, was caring an eight-inch long arrowhead. Another man was showing off a machine that was grinding rocks into perfect spheres. 'I was a rocket engineer before I started this,' said Ray, the sphere-maker and designer of his own sphere-making machine. 'No, they aren't related at all,' he replied when I asked. 'But this is fun, anyhow, I guess.'

The Singing, Though, That Was My Favorite Part

Tooele Pow WowThe pow-wow has traditionally been a time for Native Americans to meet, join in dancing and singing, renew old friendships and make new ones. They have also become the impromptu preservers of Indian culture and heritage, and their popularity is exploding.

Pow-wows began, historians believed, when Native Americans were forced onto reservations and the government made them perform for the public; or they may have formed as a sort of meeting of the tribes. The backbone of the festival is the drum - drums that echo through the night - followed by dancing, singing and costumes. The dancing can represent war, religion, or social activities. The singing uses traditional languages or 'vocables,' sounds meant to represent words but which all tribes can understand. There are thousands of songs. Finally, the dancing and dance clothing are constantly-evolving representations meant to complement the dancing and singing.

This pow-wow was the sixth annual Eastern Great Basin Gathering and was, as most are, dedicated to honoring war veterans, who hold an esteemed place in Native American culture. There are hundreds of pow-wows across the country and in Canada each year. These days, most are 'intertribals,' where members of all tribes are welcome, and Tooele's festival had both local tribes and those from around the West and even the Midwest. The dancing consists of intertribal dances, where everyone participates, and contest dancing, which feature dancing broken down by age and gender, then type: traditional, fancy, grass, jingle dress and shawl. Though to the casual observer each song, dance and costume seem basically the same they are in fact separate, distinct and laden with symbolism and symbolic imagery. Some songs test a dancer's skill by speeding up or taking unexpected breaks or stops. Others are written to complement a particular dance style, such as the grass or jingle dress. The contesting is regularly broken with intertribal dances to get everyone back on their feet.

Most songs follow the same format, sort of like a church hymn. There is a lead, chorus, honor beats, more chorus, and an ending. The lead is sung by a lead singer (duh) to introduce a song, and then the other singers follow suit. They are all seated around a single drum that is several feet across. They each use just one drum stick. The chorus is the part of the song that carries the theme, and is sung by all members of the drum circle. The honor beats are three accented beats occurring between the choruses, and some have said they are meant to represent gunshots. This form of lead, chorus and honor beat is called a push, and the normal song has four or five pushes, but during the beginning of the pow-wow or on special occasions, there can be a dozen or more pushes. Generally, the get louder and faster as they progress.

Beyond a simple physical description of the songs, I find them to be enigmas. The music itself is completely unique - I do not believe there is any other music like it in the world. To me, it is both unsettling and placating, scary and comforting. The wailing is both a call for help and a battle cry. The songs sound meant to be sung for the sunset, the midnight, the sunrise, and the middle of the day. The lead poses a question, perhaps, and the others answer him. It is music that speaks to the land, yet it is spiritual, and far above us. It is at once disturbing and calming, of the world and not of it, but ultimately, I think, it is a music that transcends humanity and spirituality and, eventually, fuses both together.

The pounding music echoed across the park to nearby homes and up into the mountains, red and yellow with autumn. The sun was just about set, and spotlights were turned on. Native American culture is not dead or propped up in a museum, as one participant told me. It is a living culture that retains its heritage but also advances with time. I walked the block and a half back to my apartment, thinking about sleep but still not believing in dream catchers.

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