Samantha Diaz | Daily 49er
SPECIAL SECTION: Dancing through decades of tradition
Pow Wow Head Man Dancer Shigo Yellow Horse embarks on his journey at Long Beach State.
As the steady sound of drums and singing filled the air, Shigo Biiliilitso, or Yellow Horse felt the music in his heart. Holding his baby in his arms, the 23-year-old Navajo circled the Central Quad along with members of other tribes, all connecting through the music as they stomped on the ground, jingled the bells on their clothing and moved gracefully among one another in a flurry of color and sound.
“This is everything, this is who I am, it’s a way of life,” he said. “I hear a good beat and I’ll feel it in my heart and I’ll hear it in my head and I’ll feel like I’m the only one dancing.”
Despite the whirlwind of color, Biiliilitso stands out in the crowd of dancers in his red and yellow top, large porcupine roach headdress and 1-year-old baby wrapped in a tribal patterned blanket. His calm, rhythmic movements are different than that of most on the grassy field. His movements are leisurely and his face without emotion as he does the men’s prairie chicken dance, one of six men’s dances. The style is more slow paced and deliberate as it’s meant to be a healing and medicine dance from the Northern Plains.
It’s like a runner’s high, Biiliilitso explains, when a really good prairie chicken song comes on; when he hears the boom, boom, boom of the drums and can feel it in line with his heartbeat. It’s something he got to experience at the 49th annual Pow Wow this weekend as he led around 30 various tribes as this year’s Head Man Dancer. On the first day of the event, he ushered in a number of dances, delivered speeches on behalf of his tribe and handed out gifts to respected elders, family members and friends — all responsibilities of Head Man Dancer.
“It’s an honor, I think it’s amazing,” he said. “Out of all these dancers that are here, they chose me which I think is pretty awesome, I love it.”
Biiliilitso was chosen for the role during last year’s Pow Wow celebration because he has extensive knowledge of the various styles of dances and travels throughout the states for dancing competitions. His local connection to Long Beach also made him a clear choice for the role, as his family has been attending Pow Wow for as long as he can remember.
His father, Jorge Lechuga has participated in Long Beach’s Pow Wow for the past 45 years and bringing his kids, who now bring their own kids as a matter of passing down tradition and values.
“It’s like teaching your kid to jump rope, it’s something you teach in mainstream society. For us, we teach our kids how to dance and sing, that’s just part of our lives that’s what we do. Shigo grew up in it,” Lechuga said. “On the reservation this is just common life, but having it [in Long Beach] is important not only for our own purposes to involve the native community in general, but it allows us to connect with each other.”
Biiliilitso is also following in his father’s footsteps by attending Long Beach State, where he was just accepted for fall 2019 as a sports therapy major. Lechuga graduated from the university in 1994, and now two of his three children are attending his alma mater.
The school has special connections for the family. Biiliilitso recalls coming to the university every Friday with friends and family to practice drumming and singing for hours on end.
“That’s probably why I wanted to come here,” he said. “I’ve always kind of been here, it felt like home.”
His family is with him every step of the way, and it shows from head to toe, or more accurately from headdress to moccasin. Each piece of his Pow Wow regalia is homemade or gifted from someone significant in his life. The shirt gifted by his girlfriend, the bead work done by his sister, the moccasins made by his father and apron made by his mother, with a matching one for his son, Chase.
The process to buy all the materials and create the intricate outfit is a monthslong process that costs thousands of dollars for each family. It’s a personal experience, and you can see it in the care and detail put into every piece proudly worn.
Biiliilitso seamlessly switches between the role of Head Man Dancer and father throughout the day, as he takes off his snapback and puts on his headdress to prepare for a dance. His girlfriend straightens out the brown, white and green feathers, fixes his bells and kisses Chase on the forehead as they set out in a steady rhythm with the others in the circle.