Native American Dance Performance: My First Field Trip

About a week ago I went to Cherokee, North Carolina to attend part of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation’s Annual Powwow. Much can be – and surely has been – said about the “authenticity” of Cherokee; the town is clearly a tourist destination, abounding with stereotyped representations of Indian-ness that appeal to non-Native travelers*. While the Powwow was advertised on and on posters throughout the town as an event open to the public, it did not feel dominated by the presence of tourists. I certainly cannot testify to the “authenticity” of anything, but it seemed to me that in watching the powwow dancers, I was able to glimpse an example of contemporary Native American self-representation through dance.

I had made a set of questions to guide my observation, some of which were more answerable than others. The (seemingly) individualized nature of the powwow contest dances, compared to traditional dances, rendered my questions about group dynamics largely irrelevant. Also, as an outsider, I am unable to judge how much, and what sort of, “expression” is involved in the dance experience. It appeared that each dancer had his/her own style, and through this style expressed an interior state such as enjoyment of the dance or reverence for tradition. But that gets into another discussion.

I was able to make some useful observations about the music. Each dance corresponds to a specific type of song. A song may consist of a section which is repeated four (or two or three) times. Alignment between a dancer’s movements and the beat of the drum is very important; he/she must stop exactly at the end of the song and always be in rhythm. Tempo is usually constant throughout a dance, and there are cues in the song at which the dancers might respond with certain movements. I noticed this especially in the women’s dances. It appears that dancers respond to the music, not the other way around; thus, it is a mark of great skill when a dancer (and the mobile parts of her/his regalia) moves in perfect rhythm.

On one hand, the powwow resembled “performing arts” culture as I know it. I saw girls close to my age putting on makeup and walking around in anticipation of their turn to dance. The audience applauded after each dance to recognize the participants. Yet, there were elements of Native American tradition such that the powwow had its moments of what might be called “ritual”. The grand entry of all the dancers, the honoring of war veterans, the playing of a victory song, the recognition of powwow royalty, the high esteem given to the Golden Age women**, and the awarding of money to dancers are examples of powwow rituals.

Aside from the powwow, I visited the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. This served to affirm and consolidate some things I had learned about the Cherokee through my reading, and was quite informative, even if outside the scope of my research. There were displays of masks used in a Cherokee dance that imitated the white men – the Booger dance. I also enjoyed learning a little more about the seven clans.

Since this first field trip I have restructured my priorities somewhat. Having watched powwow dance firsthand, I would really like to know whether traditional dance is still practiced at all among the Cherokee or other tribes like it. The community social and ritual dances, from which I understand powwow dances to be derived, hold the most interest for me as a dancer and choreographer (as they have for many before me): that is, I am interested, more than anything, in form. However, these traditional dances also happen to be the most inaccessible to non-Natives, and I do not intend to make myself a nuisance as have numerous white choreographers and ethnographers of the past century. But, powwow culture suggests that Native American communities do practice dance in a semi-“performing-arts” setting. Could such a setting, apparently secular but infused with ritual, be applied to group dances of the old times? Some performance groups are doing this, I believe, and I am going to see a show in a few weeks which should be very enlightening.

Additionally, there remains the question of cultural appropriation, on which I will be seeking perspectives from a few interview subjects. I will continue to organize my information thus-far-collected, with the hopes of starting to compile it into a coherent report. Lastly, I hope that throughout this next phase of field trips I will allow myself to think as a choreographer (even if unjustly). After all, it was an ignorant but well-meant interest in Native American “choreography” that started me on this project, and I hope to quash the ignorance without diminishing the interest.


*This is a complex issue. White settlers helped proliferate a stereotyped version of the American Indian which the Indians then conformed to in certain ways. This has contributed to the more homogeneous “Indian” identity across tribes, despite regional differences that used to be more pronounced. A certain lack of “authenticity” may well be justified for the Cherokee if it helps to bring in income from tourism. But who am I to say what is authentic?

** ”Golden Age” is the title of the age class of 55 years and older in powwow contests. As in other age classes, it is divided into Golden Age Men and Golden Age Women.