Flying ribbon fringes in the women's fancy shawl dance, at the Indigenous Red Market in Fruitvale on May 2, 2021. Credit: Amir Aziz

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After a 14-month hibernation, the Indigenous Red Market, a celebration of Native artists, vendors, music, dance, and food came roaring back to life this month at the Native American Health Center parking lot on International Boulevard in Fruitvale. The rich culture and community connections offered by the event, which took place on May 2, were sorely missed, judging by the long lines of community members who waited to get in. Some who were still waiting at 4 p.m. when the market was getting ready to close, even had to be turned away.  

COVID protocols were being closely followed at the event, which used to attract up to 2,000 people in pre-pandemic times. Attendees had their temperatures checked at the entrance and were given wristbands, and the number of visitors allowed inside the lot at one time was capped at 600. 

Once inside, those lucky enough to be there were not anxious to leave.

Oakland resident Rochelle Lopez-Sandoval (Navajo and Apache) was one of the people waiting patiently in line, along with her children and mother. It was the family’s first time attending the market: After it was announced that the Stanford Powwow would be virtual for a second year in a row, Lopez-Sandoval was looking for some other way to connect in-person with her culture and community. 

“I’ve really missed the drumming and music. Doing it virtually just didn’t make it,” said Lopez-Sandoval. “The powwows give kids their culture,” she added, looking at her 6-year-old daughter Isabella (who appeared just as excited as her mom to hear the music and watch the dancing). “It was stripped from us once, and I appreciate this effort to bring it back.”

The Indigenous Red Market provides a place for youth from different tribes to gather and connect. Credit: Amir Aziz

Barbara Chavez-Sandoval, Lopez-Sandoval’s mother, came to the market with a different purpose. “My mother just passed,” she said, “and I came to speak to the elders. I am looking to find dancers or drummers for her celebration of life event.” Chavez-Sandoval, who admits she makes a mean Indian taco (fry bread stuffed with bison, plus beans and all the fixings), also was looking forward to checking out the food at Bigfoot Indian Tacos, one of the market vendors.

Noah Gallo (Ysleta Pueblo), a coordinator at the Native American Health Center and one of the event’s organizers, said the Red Market had been held on the first Sunday of every month (with the exception of a couple months due to rain) since it began in the fall of 2018, until the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“It’s a place for us to connect and celebrate our culture, and the general public is also invited,” said Gallo. The resumption of the market was special, he added, “because the community was able to gather, pray, and honor Native American community members who have passed away. Our community and the grieving families were thankful. Unfortunately, our community lost some very special elders, some of whom were part of the original Native American Oakland relocation program, young Native American individuals, community activists, and advocates.” 

Among the community members who passed away, noted Gallo, were Helen Devore Waukazoo, founder and CEO of the Friendship House Association of American Indians, Joe Myers, founder of the Native American Indian Law Library at UC Berkeley, and most recently, Aaron Littlemoon, an All Nations drummer who Gallo said “would have been here singing and drumming at the Red Market.”

As people entered the fenced-off parking lot, they were greeted by live art taking shape. Well known Oakland artist Francisco “Amend” Sanchez was spray painting a huge art piece, entitled “Protect the Sacred,” which depicted two large hands—one hand of an elder, being lovingly clasped by a younger, stronger hand. Smaller images around the hands honored sacred relationships with the land, water, and the drum. Many posed for photos in front of the artwork during the course of the afternoon, including one family of four generations.

A second food vendor, Chef Crystal Wahpepah (Kickapoo) of Wahpepah’s Kitchen was thrilled to be back at the Red Market and sold out everything she and her crew of five cooked up, including her Kickapoo Chili, blueberry bison meatballs, corn cakes in berry sauce, and blackberry sage tea. Chef Wahpepah, who before COVID often traveled around the country to cater Native events, was happy to share her first in-person event since last spring in the heart of her Oakland Native community. “It is healing to see the joy on the faces of the youth and elders, plus the jewelry, music, art, and dancers all in one place,” she said.

Over two dozen vendors ringed the yard, selling beaded jewelry, clothing, blankets, artwork, beauty products, and more. 

Community herbalist, Batul True Heart, makes herbal flower medicine to heal, among other things, sorrow and loss. Credit: Amir Aziz

Batul True Heart (Yo’eme/Yaqui) stood behind a table labeled Maaso Medicina draped with a flowered cloth and set with many little bottles. “This is herbal flower medicine,” said True Heart, “to heal ancestral, generational, and personal pain. This one,” they said, holding up a brown bottle, “cleanses difficult energies; you spray it around and clap three times.” True Heart pointed to a row of tinier bottles. “Those are flower remedials, one to three drops to take internally. This one for sadness has borage, bougainvillea, and lavender. And that one for sorrow, ending, and loss, has bleeding heart, rose, and carnation.” True Heart is a community herbalist and grows most of the flowers in their Oakland backyard. They were trained by curanderas and healers in Mexico and now teach at the Ancestral Apothecary School.

True Heart has been on their own healing road for 16 years. After “a childhood of pain and disconnection due to white supremacy that separated us from our indigenous culture,” they experienced their first sweat lodge at age 27 which they say, “changed everything.”

Nancy Mendonca at her Red Thredz booth sews dance clothes for Native youth that becomes part of their regalia. Credit: Amir Aziz

A booth called Red Thredz, featured brightly colored ribbon skirts, fringed shawls and dresses specifically made for dancing, as well as sweat lodge dresses, and other children’s clothing, all sewn by Nancy Mendonca (Apache/Taos Pueblo). “I didn’t grow up with my Native culture,” she said, “but got back into my culture with my grandkids, when they started dancing at the Intertribal Friendship House. I took sewing classes there and learned from the elders.” Her granddaughter Kiona, 15, dressed in a bright yellow satin dress with purple and orange accents, is getting ready to perform dances with the other youth from IFH classes. Her grandmother has been making her dance clothes since she was eight.

“Sewing is a lost art,” says Mendonca, who admits there were many things she was unaware of when she finally reconnected with her culture. “When you sew,” she said, “you must have good intentions to transfer to the person who wears your clothes. We’re not supposed to make anything if we are not feeling well or have bad thoughts.”

Every Red Market has a community education component, such as voting rights or health issues; this one had a tent focused on helping entrepreneurs with information and various application forms. The Indigenous Entrepreneurs Pavilion was recognized by the city of Oakland as the opening event for the 2021 Oakland Small Business Week. 

After several dancers and hip-hop artists performed on the stage, the highlight of the afternoon for many was the dance performances by the Intertribal Dancers, community youth, who were all younger than 16. MC Manny Lieras, (Navajo/Commanche) informed the audience that after a year of meeting online, this was the first time they have danced together in-person in Oakland in 14 months.

The All Nations drum group playing at the Indigenous Red Market. Drums are said to express the heartbeat of Mother Earth. Credit: Amir Aziz

Seven men from the All Nations Drum Group sat in a circle around a large drum, beating out a strong steady rhythm. Then they added their voices. Lieras reminded the crowd that the drum is important because it is the first voice, and it affects everyone by vibrating the water in our bodies.

As the men took to the floor with twirls and jumps, the multicolored streamers and feathered bustles of their outfits put on a hypnotizing display. Lieras explained the meaning behind the dances being performed, such as the Men’s Fancy dance and the Sneak Up dance, which was a way of waging war by showing off moves instead of fighting, since the point of conflict was not to annihilate your enemy but to demonstrate that you could have.   

Dancers at the Indigenous Red Market in Fruitvale on May 2, 2021. Credit: Amir Aziz

When the women took the stage, Lieras recounted that, traditionally, only the men performed dances to show off their strength and fortitude. Women used to move more sedately with their shawls draped over one arm. But in the 1950s, women wanted to show off their own strength and fortitude. They took their fringed and beaded shawls from their backs, holding them stretched out in a more active dance form. “This,” Lieras said, “shows the fluidity of culture.”

The last dance, called the round dance, was a simpler step and open for everyone to join the circle. “The circle is always welcoming,” said Lieras, inviting onlookers. Many people joined in, as the circle got bigger. They stepped around the circle together to the accompaniment of the drumbeats, including Rochelle Lopez-Sandoval and her 6-year-old daughter, Isabella, whose face was shining.

Although the current plan is to continue having the Indigenous Red Market on the first Sunday of the month, there may be changes in dates or locations, so check their Instagram @IndigenousRedMarket for updates.

Anna Mindess

Anna Mindess has two professions. She is a freelance journalist who focuses on food, culture, immigrants and travel. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, AFAR, Lonely Planet, Oakland Magazine, Edible East Bay, and Berkeleyside. In 2018, her essay about 1951 Coffee Company was awarded First Place by the Association of Food Journalists. Anna also works as an American Sign Language interpreter and is the author of Reading Between the Signs, a book used to train sign language interpreters around the world.