Each part of Georgia has its distinguishing characteristic. Guria is a region in the western part of Georgia with a rich cultural heritage and traditions, but especially distinguished by its horse-riding and polyphonic songs.
“Gurians are very fast in speech, movement, and work... the adroitness and courage of these people is praised... Gurians are talented, quick and adroit, dexterous, they like to study and are brave in struggle,” wrote Georgian geographer and historian Vakhushti Bagrationi (XVIII century). Their quickness and adroitness are particularly evident in their horse-riding skills, which have amazed even Americans.
Georgians from Guria migrated to America at the end of XIX century, when American soldier, hunter, showman and entrepreneur William Frederick Cody was putting on his famous “Buffalo Bill” cowboy shows in which groups of horseman from all over the world participated. Each demonstrated their own distinctive riding style and colourful costumes. Among them were Georgians (Georgians wore “Chokhas” of different colours made especially for the shows). Visitors to this spectacle would see feats of skill and staged races.
Thomas Oliver, an American commissioner, came to Georgia (at that time Georgia was a part of the Russian Empire) to find riders for the Wild West show in the United States. In Batumi Oliver accidentally met someone, Kirile Jorbenadze, who knew some of the riders in Guria. When Kirile heard about the aim of visit he offered to help and the first group of Gurians, consisting of approximately 150 men, joined the show in London in 1892. They joined the “Buffalo Bill” show there and performed for Queen Victoria. The Queen was elated by the bravery of the Georgians and presented them with an album of photos of their performance with gold engraving.
The next year (1893) the Georgians went to America and continued to participate in “Buffalo Bill” shows to great acclaim. Many of the participants were called "Prince", while most of them were peasants, as a stunt to attract more people to the shows. It should be noted that four female Gurian female riders performed alongside the men.
The Georgian part of the shows began with singing, continued with dancing and then the horse riding tricks were performed. American newspapers commented: “They stand in the saddle, on their feet and on their hands and kick their legs as the horses fly madly around. They ride standing in their saddles with their faces facing their horses' tails and chase each other to capture a handkerchief carried in their mouth…” (from the website of Irakli Makharadze www.georgians.ge).
Gurians sent letters and photos to their families from the USA. Some of these are preserved in the Lanckhuti Local Museum (most of the riders were from Lanchkhuti) and some are in the Georgian State Museum of Theatre, Music, Cinema and Choreography in Tbilisi. These letters were exhibited in the museum of Theatre, Music, Cinema and Choreography on 20 July. They are badly damaged and need restoration, and the two museums have therefore signed a memorandum of cooperation. “Now restoration work is being undertaken in our museum and Lanchkhuti Museum’s materials will also be restored within the framework of the memorandum,” said Giorgi Kalandia, Director of the Theatre, Music, Cinema and Choreography Museum.
Director of Lanchkhuti Museum Nona Imnadze said that most of the letters are from Giorgi Gvardjaladze, sent to his family. “His grandchild brought them to the museum. There are salutations, instructions and sermons in his letters. The riders promise that they will soon be home. After restoration the letters will return to the Lanchkhuti museum,” she said. Restorer Irina Dudauri said that the material has been badly corrupted and only after examining it in detail will it be possible to say how long it will take to restore it.
The letters are sent mostly from California and demonstrate the success of the Georgians riders. The letters describe the life of the Gurians in America. They talk about the towns they live and performed in. It seems that they had a good salary and went to America for this purpose, although preparation for the show was very labour-consuming.
Filmmaker and researcher Irakli Makharadze started to explore this issue a long time ago. For years he has collected information about Georgians in America and began by investigating the history of the Gurian riders. He made the film “Wild West Riders” in 1997 which told their story and then published a book called “Wild West Georgians” in 2002 with Akaki Chkhaidze. Further books, “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Diaries of an Unknown Gurian Rider” and “Georgian riders in America”, were published later. He also set up a website about them.
The Georgians were known in the US as Russian Cossacks. Makharadze says that the organisers declared that the riders came from the southern part of the Russian Caucasus, because Georgia was part of Russian Empire at that time. The Georgians objected to this very much: “Everyone calls us Cossacks. We can't make them understand that we are from Georgia,” they wrote. Irakli Makharadze has been able to correct descriptions in two American museums and now they say that the riders previously were known as Cossacks were actually Georgians from the western part of Georgia.
Many of the Gurian riders stayed in America, Makharadze says, and changed their names, got married and began a new life. Some who returned to Georgia became victims of Bolshevik repression. They were called American spies. Most of them were imprisoned and exiled and their exploits were taboo during Soviet times. Most of the documents concerning their travels in America and Europe were destroyed. For this reason the surviving letters and photos have particular historical importance.
Even today horse races are held in Guria. In Bakhmaro the race day is the most popular social occasion. A lot of guests go there especially to see this competition, with its Gurian Krimanchuli songs and Adjaran Gandagana dances, which is traditionally held on 19 August, the Feast of Transfiguration.
Source: Georgian Times
By Nino Markozia