BELTON — The Texas Indian Hobbyist Association’s 58th annual Summer Powwow kicks off at 9 a.m. today at the Bell County Expo Center.

The event, which is designed to promote Native American heritage while providing free family entertainment, has drawn its share of critics and defenders throughout the area.

Among the group’s most outspoken critics is Rafael “Tallbear” Montez, an Apache tribesman who lives in Belton.

“With everything they do, they contradict what we believe in,” Montez said. “Being an American Indian isn’t a hobby.”

Montez is the president of the Tribal American Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people about Native American culture and heritage through speaking engagements, music, storytelling and intertribal dance demonstrations.

Tribal American Network’s founder and previous president Franklin Swimmer-McLemore asked Montez to investigate the Hobbyist Association. Montez said his investigation left him unimpressed.

“It was a big joke,” Montez said. “They didn’t have anything traditional. It was all vendors selling crap, most of which was made in China.”

Montez is not shy about what he hopes will happen when the gates of the Expo Center open today.

“The American Indian Movement disapproves of hobbyist associations,” Montez said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if AIM shuts them down.”

The American Indian Movement is a Native American advocacy group founded in 1968 that rose to national prominence in the early 1970s with the seizure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in 1972 and a 71-day armed standoff with federal forces at Wounded Knee, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1973.

Attempts to contact the American Indian Movement’s Grand Governing Council’s Ministry of Information were not returned by press time.

Montez said his brief visit to a hobbyist powwow — he said he left within an hour of arriving — left him disgusted.

“They had a guy dressed up like General George Custer at the thing,” Montez said. “That’s like someone dressing up as Hitler at a Jewish gathering.”

Members of the Hobbyist Association countered Montez’s interpretation.

“I’ve never seen someone dressed as Custer at one of our events,” said Scott Lollar, who is one of the coordinators of this year’s summer powwow.

Teresa LaGesse, a longtime Hobbyist Association member, indicated that Montez might have been confused about some of the group’s members.

One or two of the association’s members have long white hair, wear riding boots and a fringe jacket, she said.

“Someone may have thought that they look like General Custer, but it’s not intentional,” LaGesse said. “That’s just the way they dress.”

Lollar, who has been involved in the hobbyist community since he was a child, said that he understands Montez’s concerns, specifically those relating to the word “hobbyist.”

“When the organization was founded 58 years ago, hobbyist didn’t have as many negative connotations,” Lollar said. “There has been some talk about changing the name to something like Texas Indian Heritage Association, but there are traditions in the group.”

The Hobbyist Association is extending an open invitation to all members of the Central Texas Native American community to go to the event and help start a dialogue, Lollar said.

“We want people to understand that this isn’t about trivializing anything. It’s about celebrating,” he said. “This is about putting on the regalia that someone showed you how to put on when you 12 or 13 and doing a dance they taught you in the most respectful way you can.”

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