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.

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