Native American Dance/Performance, Choreographer’s Approach: Early Progress

I have now completed between ten and fifteen hours of research, primarily in the form of reading and taking notes from established literature on the subject of dancing in Native North American tribes. While I have much reading left to do, I feel better situated to embark upon the field trips which I am in the process of planning, and which I hope will constitute the majority of my research experience. However, I had not expected that these few books would go so far towards answering at least the shallower of my initial questions; this is a humbling affirmation of the ignorance with which I began the study, and which underlies some of my original lines of inquiry. However, that I have derived useful knowledge from written literature is encouraging. Perhaps the most important idea I have found, implicitly or explicitly, in these books, is that reading scholarly publications on Native American matters is not a substitute for the real familiarity with the culture that comes from in-person interaction. At the very least, I believe I have added important vocabulary and concepts to my mental toolkit, so that a more thorough understanding of the process and performance of dance in Native North American tribes might become accessible to me.

For instance, it has become apparent that there is more than one way in which Native American dance can be thought of. First, there is the distinction between ritual dance and social dance, and between sacred and representational dance. Furthermore, while in past centuries these types would have all been part of the diverse dance traditions of the Indian Nations of this country, nowadays many of the traditional dances exist only in the memories of a few elders and are not regularly performed. Hence, to study Native American dance as it exists today is a very different undertaking than to study it as it would have been found in the time before European settlers imposed restrictions on dancing and interrupted the traditional lifestyle. This dichotomy is quite evident in the fact that one book I have been reading (published in the 1970s) is full of details about the major genres of dances, from life-cycle celebrations to agricultural rituals to war ceremonies, and how these dances differ among tribes of different regions, while a second book addresses contemporary powwow and the narrower range of dances to be found in that context. To be sure, it appears there are many ways in which powwow is a modern-day manifestation of traditional dance: dancers’ regalia, the prize giveaways, and even the directional orientation of the dancing within the space echo past customs. Nonetheless, I imagine that the answers to my questions regarding the substance of a dance, the roles of the participants and audience, and the teaching and learning of the movement would be significantly different depending upon whether I asked a young competitive powwow dancer or a Cherokee warrior from a century ago. I cannot help but wonder to what extent Native American communities today are troubled, or not troubled, by the diminishment of ritual and social dances that has taken place over the past several hundred years. And furthermore, I wonder whether there is interest in reviving these dances, perhaps even for a performance setting. It could be that there is already widespread action occurring to this end; I hope I will find out more during my travels and future inquiries.

I feel as strongly as ever the worries which have bothered me since the beginning, that my project would be viewed by Native Americans as yet another white person’s attempt to academically describe a culture without really understanding it, and I myself yet another white artist (or aspiring one) with a perverse fascination for Indian-ness. The history of white persons’ less-than-respectful descriptions of Native Americans is impossible to ignore. In fact, it seems that from the first European encounter with Native North Americans all the way to sometime in the twentieth century, all existing accounts of Native dance are written in a white man’s disparaging voice, and as such are far from objective. The contact and conflict with white people remain major parts of contemporary Native Americans’ narrative of their history. This history must be a central consideration for any non-Native artist who is interested in approaching Native persons about their oft-misrepresented artistic heritage. It is a rift which, having been created by misuse of Native Americans and their culture, must be patiently mended by respect, humility and a sincere pursuit of understanding, among other things which I have yet to discover. (But of course, having no experience to speak of, this is all conjecture, and I do not pretend to have authority to advise anyone in Native/non-Native relations.)

To conclude, it seems after these first few weeks of preliminary research that some of my interview questions are more worth asking than others. I still would like to know more about how dance is taught, learned and “rehearsed”, or practiced, both contemporarily for powwow competitions and formerly for social or sacred rituals. Perhaps most importantly, I wish to ask Native Americans about their feelings towards the implementation of their culture in modern dance, in the past, present and potentially in the future. I need to know whether a non-Native choreographer, no matter her intentions, is inherently committing cultural appropriation when drawing from another culture’s dance tradition in her own work, and as I see it, the only way to really know this is to ask.


  1. Hi Sally,

    As a dancer myself (hip-hop and urban), I think that it’s amazing that you are pursuing a project that extends your experience in dance! I am excited to see the results of your research and interviews.

    I think that you address an incredibly important issue regarding the effect of European encounters on the tradition/perspective of Native American dance, and I appreciate your respect on the subject.

    Regarding research, I know personally there is an immense amount of literature, both primary and secondary, to consider, and this wealth of information can be difficult to pick through. Through your research, do you have any suggestions for being more efficient with note-taking and reading?

    Regarding the interview process, have you made any connections/selected interviewees yet? Do you have a specific group in mind, or do you plan on asking a variety of tribe members? I’m curious as to what different perspectives an elder might have versus a younger dancer if you can find one, or someone who does not participate in performances, as I think they all offer very unique perspectives on the importance of dance in tradition and culture (as you already highlighted the dichotomy of the research you have encountered).

    I am really looking forward to hearing more updates! Keep up the great work.

  2. smmullis says:

    Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate your commentary as a fellow dancer and I’m sure we would have a lot to learn from each other. (I have never really tried hip-hop.)
    You are right about the amount of literature. Especially since I was starting out with very little knowledge on the subject, my focus was rather broad in selecting books. I picked them out at the beginning and have been reading the pertinent sections. For efficiency, I have found that it is very important to identify the parts or chapters of a book that will be most beneficial for one’s research, since sometimes useful information is contained within a work that does not directly address the subject. For instance, one book I checked out from Swem addresses indigenous dance through several examples, including traditional Maya dance in South America and powwow culture in North America. While I know I would find the Maya chapters interesting (and quite possibly useful for my research), I went straight to the part about Native North Americans because I had specified this group as the focus of my inquiry. I guess that’s a pretty obvious thing to do. Also, another book I have been using contains lots of detail about ceremonial dances of various Native American tribes. These details interest me immensely as a “choreographer” (the perspective I’ve adopted for the project), and yet, I resisted the temptation to study such specifics when I could have been doing something more directly relevant. I made notes of the pages so that I could read them later, for my own enjoyment. I’m not sure if I could advise anyone about efficiency in note-taking, because I am probably not very efficient. Often when I read, my goal is to give my full attention to what I am reading so that I will understand and remember the concepts. I make notes whenever I come across concrete information or concise, pertinent statements that I wish to be able to refer to. For example, I took notes about the form and structure of contemporary powwow because I knew this would prepare me for my upcoming powwow visit(s). I did not make notes about the construction of Native identity in powwow because, while important, I was trying to grasp the concepts in my mind, and did not foresee myself making explicit reference to them.
    The interview process is a challenge. I think I’ve discussed briefly in one of my posts the multi-layered difficulty of contacting unfamiliar people to learn about their cultural practices. The fact that I am young and inexperienced has much to do with this difficulty. Anyway, my advisor was kind enough to put me in touch with someone via a relation of hers who works at an Indian school in Minnesota, and I am hoping to do a Skype “interview” with this person sometime soon if she is willing. Also, several William & Mary dance professors have done some work with Native American drumming and/or dance, and I hope I can learn more about their work. I will be attending an ethnic dance performance including Cherokee dance groups in a few weeks, and there I expect I will have the opportunity to ask questions to some performers. Finally, I also know a family through my church with Indian heritage, and think they might be able to talk with me about cultural appropriation. As far as tribal identity, I am narrowing my focus towards the Southeast, especially Cherokee (although the Minnesota contact, if that works out, is outside of this focus). Yes, it would be interesting to compare perspectives of younger and older tribe members on matters such as traditional dance, powwow dance, and use of Native dance material by modern choreographers. I really hope to learn more about how dance is taught to younger people, and if the elders who still have memories of the old-time dances wish to transmit this knowledge or to protect it from further exploitation. But, right now, it seems unlikely that I will be able to interact with Native persons unless I encounter them in an educational setting such as a museum or performance, where discussions of culture are encouraged.

    Thanks again for the encouragement, and I hope this was an adequate response to your questions!