Dance expo new addition to Totah Festival

Mike Easterling

FARMINGTON — Every year, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people make their way to the annual Totah Festival over Labor Day weekend to immerse themselves in Native arts and culture.

Alex Willie helps his son Ayden Willie get dressed last year before participating in a dance at the Totah Festival at the Farmington Civic Center. The event returns this weekend.

And Farmington Museum Director Bart Wilsey is hoping to improve those numbers at this year’s festival, which takes place Friday, Sept. 2 through Sunday, Sept. 4.

The festival always draws its biggest crowd on Saturdays, Wilsey said. So organizers are adding a new attraction, a cultural dance expo, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday in the theater at the Farmington Civic Center this year in an effort to persuade some of those spectators to come back for a second day.

“Several different Native American troupes will perform,” he said, adding that the White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers are scheduled to take part, as well as a Hopi group.

“We’re trying to add a little different flavor this year,” Wilsey said.

The three-day festival is one of the city’s largest annual events and is known for attracting a sizable crowd of out-of-town collectors, most of whom come to take part in the Navajo Rug Auction that will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday in the civic center theater. Weavers will begin checking in their rugs Friday morning at the Farmington Museum, and Wilsey said no matter how many other last-minute tasks he has that are related to running the festival, he makes a point of being present for the auction.

“It’s actually an incredibly exciting time,” he said of the rug check-in. “Every year I do it, I look forward to it like Christmas morning. I want to be there to see what comes in, how creative people have been and see the high skill level it takes to do those. I’m in continuous awe of what those weavers can do. I’m a lifelong aficionado.”

A shawl dancer participates in the grand entry last year during the Totah Festival at the Farmington Civic Center.

The auction typically attracts 250 to 300 rugs in various sizes. While some of the rugs have been known to fetch prices of $15,000 to $20,000, there are also smaller rugs that are available at much lower prices.

Wilsey said that’s true of all the art at the festival, which features dozens of Native artists working in such media as paintings, pottery, sculpture and photography.

“There’s a huge range of art at the Totah Festival,” he said. “There’s everything from $20 jewelry to multi-thousand-dollar sculpture, paintings and weavings. It’s really got something for everyone. I encourage people to go talk to the artists, to look at their work and to learn to appreciate it. If you’re in the market, you’ll find something beautiful at a great price.”

Best of all, Wilsey said, buyers can be sure they’re getting the genuine article.

“We guarantee authenticity,” he said. “There are no fake stones being used. When you’re purchasing something there, you know it’s the real deal.”

Wilsey said the event is so highly regarded by collectors of Native art that he knows people from as far away as Delaware who come to the Totah Festival each year to shop.

But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole the event as strictly a commercial enterprise. Admission is free, and between the contest pow-wow and the dance expo, visitors will be treated to continuous entertainment.

Jingle dancer Edna Williams waits to be judged last year after competing in the women's golden age contemporary style contest during the Totah Festival at the Farmington Civic Center.

Wilsey said one of the nice things about the event is the fact that it attracts plenty of people from both the Native and non-Native communities.

“It’s really a mix, and that’s kind of the beauty of it,” he said. “We want people to intermingle and learn about Native cultures and what that’s all about.”

Those kinds of cultural and commercial exchanges are extremely valuable to Farmington, Wilsey said.

“I think it’s extremely important, especially in these tough economic times,” he said. “For a lot of these (Native) families, this is their second income, if not their first income. And, of course, we try to get the best prices we can for them. We want to make it a destination for buyers.”

The festival gets underway Friday with an awards presentation and reception for the juried art competition at the museum. Wilsey said that provides collectors with their first chance to see and purchase the art.

The contest pow-wow is one of the prime attractions at the annual Totah Festival, which returns this weekend to the Farmington Civic Center.

The event moves to the civic center on Saturday and Sunday, with the art and rugs being displayed inside, and the pow-wow taking place on the lawn.

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: The 28th annual Totah Festival

When and where: 5 to 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 2 at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, 3041 E. Main St.; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 3 at the Farmington Civic Center, 200 W. Arrington St., and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Farmington Civic Center

For more information: Call 505-599-1400 or 505-599-1174, or visit