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Workshops & Residencies
 

INVENTING NATIVE MODERN DANCE: 

A TOUGH TRIP THROUGH PARADISE (2003)

Focus: the pioneering efforts in America  to develop a contemporary dance and theater genre which reflects the aspirations of 20th century native North American people

 

Written
by

Daystar/Rosalie Jones
(Pembina Chippewa)
Founder, Artistic Director,
DAYSTAR: Contemporary Dance-Drama of Indian America

 

Dedication:

 To Lee Udall,
who gave me the gift of expanding my professional horizons and
To Lloyd Kiva New,
who gave generations of native youth the opportunity to become artists.

 

 

A View from the Mountain:

A Journey Begins

 

Institute of American Indian Arts  1960

Juilliard School  1969

Flandreau Indian School  1970

Professional Developments 1972

DAYSTAR:
Contemporary Dance Drama of Indian America  1980

A New Beginning:
Aboriginal Arts Program, Banff  1993

A View from the Prairie:
The Journey Revealed

Postscript 2006:
Coming Full Circle

 

 

A View from the Mountain:

A Journey Begins

 

I was born in the United States on the Blackfeet Reservation in the state of Montana. My ancestry is of the mixed bloods of Blackfeet, Pembina Chippewa, French-Cree, and on my father’s side, Welsh. Growing up on the reservation, we all knew that it was a Blackfeet chief who contributed a portion of the tribe’s traditional territory to the United States, so that Glacier National Park could be created. Glacier is actually an alpine ecological system, the only one of its kind in the lower 48 states. My ancestors knew that terrain - they lived near its lakes and rivers, hunted in its forests, gathered its berries and roots, and endured its winters.  Although Glacier is one of the most beautiful spots on earth, its dangers can be subtle and for that reason, the area can be frightening, overwhelming, and unforgiving.

I have vivid recollections of being camped out with my parents and grandparents. It could be a bright sunny day, green grass, sparkling mountain streams, birds singing.  Then you notice a few soft white flakes drifting down ever so quietly - at that moment, an alarm goes off! Everyone shifts  into double time - sleeping mats are rolled up, the tent comes down,  pots and pans are thrown in the trunk, and the car is on the road, bumping down the mountain, just as fast as you can go. It could be September, or May, or June or August. It doesn’t matter - a storm can boil up at any time. You don’t want to take the chance of  taking a “tough trip through paradise”!

Yet - despite the record number of fatal bear attacks, and drownings in various glacial lakes over the years,  people continue to flock to Glacier National Park. Why? It must be the sheer pristine beauty and mystery of the place. Once you are standing on the  “backbone of the world” - the Continental Divide -  you  crane your neck to look up toward the surrounding mountains that rise even higher from where you are, into the literal “big sky”,  where mountains that are engulfed in clouds and mist can only be described as the ladder to the Creator’s House.                                          

Entering the realm of native performing arts has a similar beauty and  austerity.  The very existence of native people and their land, the dances they dance, and the songs they sing, beckon to many individuals. Some see the beautiful and the eclectic, others recognize the tradition from which it comes, still others want to dissect the whole into its components, in an effort to find the metaphoric root of the blossoming tree.  The long-standing question, looking “in” from the outside is: What is American Indian ritual and performance? My question, looking from the inside out, is: What does  dance and dance performance mean to the American Indian? What does it mean to dance traditional or to dance “modern” and how do these two seemingly contradictory forms co-exist  for the native person? 

It is in this spirit that I compile this document: to create a record of a first person experience from within the practice of native modern dance.  I do not present myself as a scholar, but rather as an artist with a history in the field as I have known it over the past forty years. I will tell this story through my experiences, and the experiences of other native and non-native people who had a vision, climbed some mountains,  survived both squalls and white-outs  in the journey to the summit, a journey still ongoing. We begin our “tough trip through paradise” in the foothills - green, rolling and gentle.

It is best to view the field of native modern dance within a broader context, that of native North American performing arts. In the native world view, one cannot speak of dance without speaking of the drum and the song. In actuality, one cannot dance without the song. In the native world, ceremony is often referred to as “dance”. In the native world view, dance and song are intimately fused to the ceremonials and the ceremonials are tied to the cosmologies, and the cosmologies are tied to the life and being of the Creator.  It is because of the Creator that  we are able to sing and dance and therefore, to give thanks  for his many gifts to us. Giving thanks is one of the most important reasons for traditional song and dance. Other equally important reasons to dance traditional are to cry out for assistance, to fulfill a spiritually-inspired vow or ceremonial cycle, for social interaction, and  to maintain a healthy body and mind.               

First of all, some definitions: native modern dance. The term was coined by Dr. Charlotte Heth, Cherokee ethnomusicologist, when she titled the chapter that I was to write for the an article to be published in  the 1992 Smithsonian publication, Native American Dance: Ceremonies and Social Traditions. 1 That book became the first official publication of the new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.   Dr. Heth, in asking me to write the essay, wanted me to formulate a written impression of what was being done by native peoples in the performing arts, especially dance, in the latter half of the 20th century. Dr. Heth suggested the title: “Native Modern Dance: Beyond Tribe and Tradition”.  This  gave me pause.  It was the first time I had heard a native person  admit that there was such a performing  art form in the United States, that native peoples were evolving it and practicing it, and that the art form was actually moving “beyond tribe and tradition”.

From the beginning of my professional career, and even now, I ask myself the question: Should we be doing such a thing? It can be agreed that, because of governmental or personal relocation in America over the past 500 years, many native peoples no longer live with their tribes, at least not on an ongoing physical basis. But does this mean that we are also moving beyond tradition? And more importantly, if that is happening,  where is it taking us?  Because native modern dance has been brought into being primarily by the younger generations of native peoples, and because my career of teaching young native people existed and still exists in tandem with native communities,  much of my material will be drawn as well from their contribution to this on-going, developing art form.    

           

INSTITUTE OF AMERICAN INDIAN ARTS  1960

My actual work in this aspect of the field began as I was working on a Master’s degree in dance at the University of Utah in 1966. The call came from Roland Meinholtz, then Director of Theater at the Institute of American Indian arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was looking for someone to choreograph a main stage production using native performers - dancers, actors, singers, and musicians - that would be performed at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Washington, D.C. The Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, and his wife, Lee, were very interested in having IAIA showcase their student talent before a Washington audience of Congressional cabinet members. Funding for the school was the end purpose of the project.  The superintendent of the Institute later told me that they had approached Agnes DeMille to choreograph, but she declined with the phrase “I wouldn’t touch that with a forty-foot pole!”  I give her credit for that - she realized that there was more to choreographing an “Indian”, i.e., native production, than beads and feathers.  I was honored to step in for Ms. DeMille.

IAIA was founded in 1962 in large part, through the vision and political lobbying of the late Lloyd Kiva New,  well known native textile artist of Scottsdale, Arizona. The main thrust of the school was the visual arts, but the theater program also was well-organized. The school was known for its innovative use of native cultural material and perspective in developing those usual courses such as acting, voice and movement training, costuming, set design and performance.  The school also encouraged original student playwriting. The Carter Barron production, however, had to be seen as  a special instance; it needed  spectacle - a certain largeness and authenticity that would get IAIA the funding it needed to continue to pursue its vision as the only national school of its kind for native artists. 

  Sipapu: A Drama of Authentic Dance and Chants of Indian America, was conceived around Coyote trickster stories of the Southwest,  with a core acting ensemble created with the  IAIA theater students.  Dr. Louis Ballard,  internationally known Cherokee/Quapaw composer , pianist and teacher on the IAIA faculty,  would write an original symphonic and choral score, to be performed by the IAIA Chorus and the Washington Symphony Orchestra. Once in Washington, the core group was joined by almost 200 native traditional dancers and singers from tribes across America.

The script had been conceived in such a way as to utilize various tribal, intertribal and  social dances which would contribute to the dramatic line of action.  The amalgam of the 200 traditional dancers represented  dancers and dance styles from all regions in the U.S. Included were Oklahoma plains dancers, Seminole stomp dancers,  Alaskan Northwest Coast Haida and Tlingit dancers,  Iroquois and Pueblo dancers,  to name but a few. For the first time on a stage in America, the Hopi Butterfly Dance appeared in full regalia, as the final scene. And what of the modern dance? The dance elements were treated as an integral part of the dramatic elements - character movement for Coyote and the Skookum Hags and other characters, and as a way to illustrate the action-based scenes, such as “the building of the pueblo”.

This was 1966, and the production Sipapu was a complete success, both culturally and financially. IAIA did get its funding, but the money was not given to the theater program alone - as is often the case in political strategies. The performing arts had been used  as a vehicle to garner funds not for its own program only, but for the school as a whole. The trek through paradise just got tougher.  It would only be years later, after I had climbed a few summits of my own, that I would realize how often this particular stratagem  is employed in the larger world. Native performing artists are, on a regular basis, asked to bring out their talents, hard won by discipline, cultural integrity and creativity, in the support of others not of their field, albeit for very worthy causes.     

I was to see, in my next few years of teaching at IAIA, a caring faculty with a good curriculum, who were training talented students to ask the question: can there be a native theater and dance form, and if so, what could it, and should it, be?  These young people were drawing from both tribe and tradition and from the experience of their own lives. Their generation was making a solid beginning in the process of  creating their own theater.  This is no small matter. The performing arts program as it was being developed in the 1960’s at the Institute of American Indian Arts, was the beginning of theater and dance training for native peoples, in  North America. That fact that IAIA has not been able to fulfill the scope of professional training in the performing arts arena, as it did in the visual arts arena, is one of the  tragic chapters in American native performing arts. This storm cloud would gather, not suddenly, but slowly and deliberately,  over the years.      


JUILLIARD SCHOOL  1969

Meanwhile, the alpine sun continued rising for me, as I pursued my own development, thanks to the interest and support of largely one woman, Lee Udall.  As wife of the Secretary of the Interior, she had taken a special interest in the training of native people in the performing arts and created an organization called The Center for Arts of Indian America. Under that auspices, she created a regimen of sending two people each year - for almost ten years - to New York City, for further training.   I was chosen for such a scholarship in 1969, and spent a year at the Juilliard School, studying with Jose Limon, Betty Jones, Erick Hawkins - all exponents of the Jose Limon and Martha Graham techniques, and pioneers of the American modern dance movement.

Jose Limon became both a mentor and friend to the native modern dance movement. He had transformed himself from newly-Americanized immigrant from Mexico  in the early 1940’s, into a painter and then  dancer and choreographer and assistant and finally artistic director to Doris Humphrey, herself an early modern dance pioneer.  Being of mixed blood himself, Spanish and Indian, he had a blood rapport with those of us who were struggling with the issues of how to handle the choreographic material for native expression.  Another influential aspect of being at Juilliard was being in New York. We were told to see everything we could, from off-Broadway to Broadway to Opera to modern dance to ballet - and the tickets were gratis, courtesy of the Udall project budget.  We studied and observed, and began the upward climb in earnest.
                                                     

FLANDREAU INDIAN SCHOOL  1970

My work with native young people began  that next fall, when I was sent to teach at Flandreau Indian High School in South Dakota. “Center” Scholarship recipients were to spend one year teaching out in the field, and through Mrs. Udall’s contacts in Indian country,  Flandreau Indian High School accepted her invitation to have a  native dance teacher and choreographer sent out  to work with students. We would see where the experiment would take us.  

White Buffalo Calf Pipe Woman. I came to know her at Flandreau Indian High School in South Dakota.  This story from the Lakota oral tradition represents  a highly respected, almost ceremonial story relating how the gift of the Pipe was given by the Creator to the Lakota people. Seven gifts were given in all, and those gifts were candidly described by holy man Ben Black Elk, in his book The Sacred Pipe, as recorded and edited by Joseph Epes Brown, for the 1953 publication of the same name. It was significant to me, that upon this first invitation to introduce modern dance into a native school, that one of the most  traditional and sacred  stories would be brought out for interpretation - and that it would be brought to attention by the younger generation of the Lakota, who were  my students.

Because the story was not  spoken of in everyday conversation,  or spoken of casually, those unfamiliar with tribal behaviors would assume therefore that the story was of little meaning or consequence.  Just the opposite was true. In the process of the work, I realized that here was a story which most of the Lakota students knew intimately. As if of one voice, they were able to realize a strong, poetic  and respectful presence on stage.  Another aspect: I found that I had almost equal numbers of boys and girls in the class - not at all what one would find in a conventional   western-world dance class. To this day, this attribute remains one of the consistent elements of native modern dance – that men dance, and always with great spirit, pride and finesse.  I also discovered two  elements that allowed inexperienced students to feel secure in the theatrical process: wearing masks and not having to memorize lines! Therefore, we settled on a format of  the storyteller and the dancer/actor.  An elder or teaching adult became the storyteller, with student dancers, some masked for character work and others without mask. In addition, there would be a contingent of traditional dancers, of all ages, ready to dance. and who could be called upon to provide the musical framework. And, as is always the case, a drum group, with singers, was  available to create traditional drum and song for either the traditional or modern dancers.

As we worked on the project, certain priorities established themselves. The elders would work with us as we prepared the material. They would be  our guides as to what portions of the story could be told and which portions were inappropriate and restricted from the general public.  By the close of a semester’s work,  these Lakota students created and performed in a theatrical modern dance context the work we called “The Sacred Pipe”, based on a script written specifically for the project, by Cordell Morsette, young Lakota writer and teacher.  This initial native modern dance project taught me an important paradigm in the teaching of native students. What other story should they do? What other material would work as well for them, than the material from the ancestry and beliefs of their own cultural heritage?  I realized that such work reinforces tribal  and personal identity, which in turn instills confidence and belonging.  On another level, such work can be seen as a contemporary vehicle for the re-enforcing of the art of storytelling and its place in the culture.   

Martha Hill, at that time Director of Dance at the Juilliard School in New York city,  and Jose Limon, one of two stellar dancers (along with Martha Graham) teaching at Juilliard,  arrived at the school as special guests. The visitation was a direct outcome to the training program for native dancers at Juilliard, an assessment of the program thus far realized.  An unprecedented moment was about to take place: Jose Limon, world-renowned pioneer of the modern dance in America, would lead the final rehearsal of fledgling native dancer/actors as they presented a staging of one of the most sacred stories from their oral tradition; in the audience sat Martha Hill, former Graham dancer. It was a moment  to remember. Mr. Limon addressed the student body at the close of the performance.  I paraphrase his remarks: “You are being held in reserve for the contributions that you can make to the future of your people.”  What none of us knew at the time, was that Jose Limon was  dying of cancer.  He had taken the train from New York City, gaining some extra hours of sleep before rejoining the Jose Limon Company on tour in California.  We would not see him again. Cancer would overtake a choreographer and teacher of truly exceptional poetry and humanity.


PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENTS   1972

In the meantime, other native theater and dance hopefuls were starting their climb to the summit.  The year was 1972, and a young Kiowa playwright named Hanay Geiogamah managed to pull the native theater rabbit out of  the reservation hat! The first professional native theater company in American was being created, with the assistance of  that great lady of New York theater,  Ellen Stewart, founder and director of the La Mama Experimental Theater Club in New York City. It was she who helped Mr. Geiogamah secure necessary startup money from the NEA, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, to create NATE - the Native American Theater Ensemble. 2

Out of a pool of two hundred audition hopefuls,  Mr. Geiogamah selected  sixteen native actors.   Some of those are well established today as professionals: playwrights Bruce King (Oneida) and Gerald Bruce Miller (Skokomish), comedian-actor Charlie Hill (Oneida), poet, novelist and musician Joy Harjo, and writer Debbie Finley Snyder.  Out of the sixteen, only one was already a working New York actress - Marie Antoinette Rogers. Of special interest to native theater development, was that seven from the list of the chosen sixteen, were graduates of the Institute of American Indian Arts, and had performed in the Carter Barron production. One individual, Jane Lind (Aleut) went on to become a seasoned New York professional doing both theater and film. Geraldine Keams and Timothy Clashin went on to teach and establish a theater troupe at Navaho Community College, and to work in the Los Angeles film industry. Bernadette Track returned to the Taos Pueblo to teach children’s performing arts, and in the 1990’s,  to perform with my company, DAYSTAR.  And of special note was  Navajo Robert Shorty, also a fine sculptor, who had created the original Coyote character for Sipapu. Until disbanding in the 1980’s, NATE performed extensively in the United States and Europe.  Mr. Geiogamah has since become a full professor of Theater and Native American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. 3


DAYSTAR:

Contemporary Dance Drama of Indian America  1980
Flash forward ten years.  The experiences at  Flandreau Indian School in South Dakota and at the Institute of American Indian Arts  implanted in me a desire to share with native people, the possibilities of modern dance and theater in education and as a profession.  I now had some ideas about native modern performing art, some experience, and the youthful energy to pursue it.

I traveled to every school interested, from South Dakota to North Dakota to Wisconsin to Minnesota to Montana to Colorado to New Mexico. I  conducted workshops, held residencies, and performed a one-woman production that I called DAYSTAR: An American Indian Woman Dances. IMAGE 3 On stage, I became Napi, the Blackfeet trickster in stories such as the, “The Creation of the World,” “The Origin of Death”, “Napi and the Rock”, and “Napi Tries to Get Married”.  I found that I was also writing original short scripts utilizing recorded voice-overs, simulating the storyteller’s position. Character work was expanded as I wove masks, costuming, set design and music together to create a world with which I now felt familiar - the mythic theatrical world of native oral tradition.

Traditional, i.e. intertribal dance, had always been a part of my life.  Now I began to entertain the idea of  interfacing native dance movement into a modern context.  I asked myself obvious but crucial questions: In the use of space and time -  is it necessary to always dance in a circle,  clockwise from left to right, and to always start with the song, and to always end with the song? In the use of movement quality and shape:  how would a character in this story, at this moment, move, and with what quality and for what purpose? During this period, I was dancing primarily for Indian audiences.   As native communities began to see a native persons performing native stories as  theater,  in a stage space,  audience members began to sense the elements of universality within their stories. “Oh, we have a story like that”, many would say.  “Oh, I’d like to perform this kind of dance”, said a young girl. “Where can I go to learn to do this” from yet another.  The conceptual elements of native modern dance were finding recognition and acceptance, and at the same time,  I was finding a form and a style and a process that would continue, ultimately, into the work that I would create for my own company.

In Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, the time and place presented itself. I found a mentor. Thomas Davis was not native, but he resided on the Menominee Reservation, and had worked with native people for a considerable number of years. He assisted me in gathering a first  Board of Directors, and the Company was incorporated in 1980. DAYSTAR: Contemporary Dance-Drama of Indian America:  it was named to reflect the scope that I hoped would become self-fulfilling  - a theatrical dance company shining light on some of the vast possibilities for the future of native modern dance.

Over the following twenty years, cast members would change as young people were trained to perform with Daystar, with new members taking their places as people moved on to more training or other companies, or into teaching. With few exceptions, the company performers are primarily Native North American, from a wide variety of tribal affiliations - Cherokee, Creek, Blackfeet, Lakota, Pueblo, Umatilla, Apache, among others. Many have been of mixed heritage, including Spanish and Metis. Some have also been trained in other disciplines such as ballet, the martial arts, gymnastics.  Whenever possible, Daystar productions are enhanced by the work of native musicians, set designers and costumers. 

The touchstone of Daystar performance is storytelling manifested within such theatrical devices of persona, movement and mask. Performance material, in the beginning, was drawn largely from the oral tradition of native peoples.  Almost always, the dance-dramas were developed in association with the community of its origin, with their elders or consultants. In some instances, stories were reinterpreted from written and published narratives. In other instances,  Daystar has  gone beyond oral tradition, into personal and tribal histories, even anecdotes.  A short list of Daystar repertoire includes, among others: Napi: Tales of Old Man (Blackfeet),  Sacred Woman, Sacred Earth (Lakota), The Corn Mother (Eastern Cherokee), Malinche: The Woman with Three Names (Aztec/Mayan/historical), Wolf: A Transformation (Anishinaabe), and Prayer of the First Dancer (intertribal fancy, hoop dance/shawl dance and modern dance).

The most recent production of Daystar is No Home But The Heart. The process through which this work evolved is a departure for the Daystar Company, as the material did not come strictly from tribal oral tradition.  Rather than referencing material from ancient story now existing as oral tradition,  I turned to stories and memories passed down within my own family.  From an early age, I was intrigued by the stories my mother told me about  growing up on the Blackfeet Reservation.  The stories were random, intense revelations about family and tribal life on the reservation, from the smallpox epidemic of 1837, through the turn of the century, and into the modern day.  In developing the script,  I drew from selected events in the lives of my great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother, and tied these episodes to historical events which affected the settlement of native peoples in the Northern Plains of the United States and Canada.  In the dance-drama, the Daughter (myself) living in the present day, passes through scenes from the past, in which embodiments of the ancestors play out selected events in their lives.

The play has twelve short scenes, to be performed continuously without an intermission, with a storyteller and three dancer/actresses. Because my family's ancestry stems from the displaced French-Cree/Chippewa peoples from the "north", I feel that this work acknowledges the search of us all for identity, family, and homeland. The script has been published in an anthology of plays under the title, Keepers of the Morning Star: An Anthology of Native Women’s Theater (UCLA American Indian Studies Center 2003). The inclusion of No Home But The Heart in this publication, speaks volumes for native theater: the editors allowed choreographed segments to be written as a “suggested text”, thereby handling such sequences as an essential element of the written script.

 

A NEW BEGINNING:

ABORIGINAL ARTS PROGRAM  1993

If native modern dance is acknowledged as existing among the native peoples of North America, then one must recognize the work being done in Canada, as well. The Aboriginal Arts Program at The Banff Centre for the Arts began as the result of a partnership negotiated between the Aboriginal Film and Video Art Alliance and the Banff Centre for the Arts in 1993.  Its objective was to create a cultural space for aboriginal artists in Banff, allowing them to explore several art forms – dance, song, music, theatre, and scriptwriting  in a contemporary and aboriginal context.  In 1995, the remarkable Marrie Mumford, a Canadian Metis, became the program’s Executive Director.  By 1998, Indian Artist Magazine was saying that the effort was “…perhaps the most active and creative dance study and performance program for Natives in the hemisphere.”

Although located in a somewhat remote area of western Canada (directly west of Calgary, Alberta), and operating primarily as a summer intensive, the program draws  master teachers and students from all parts of Canada and the United States, as well as from Nunavut, Greenland, and Central and South America.  In 2001, the program also attracted students from Australia and New Zealand. Until 2004, two programs ran concurrently, the Apprentice Program  and the Professional Section. Course sessions varied from Song Processing to Choreography Symposiums to Masking to Professional Production.

The Aboriginal Program in Banff was unique in many respects. First of all, it paid definitive respect to the native world view. The Apprenticeship Program, “Chinook Winds”, took as its paradigm an acknowledgment of the ways in which native people approach the world, how they relate to the world,  how stories are told, how songs and dances are created.  Elders were involved on a regular basis, teaching through their artistic knowledge and therefore sharing the culture and its vision.  At the same time, students were given rigorous physical training, but not always in the conventional systems of modern dance.

Rather, guest dancers and choreographers were invited in to show their work, and to do extended workshops. Native storytellers were invited to share their stories and styles of storytelling.  Musicians would look at traditional forms, and find relevant connections to modern, pop and classical music and jazz. Little by little, a reservoir of form and meaning both traditional and modern would be accumulated over a period of a three-year program. Only then would students be asked to choreograph within a contemporary milieu, drawing from knowledge of their own native stories and customs,  its acknowledged intuitive perceptions, and filtered through their own abilities as artists and teachers. The resulting performance work reflected an unexpected richness of particular human beings steeped in tradition but living very much in the contemporary world. The resulting work was, at once, traditional and contemporary, personal and communal,  real and mythic.

Beyond the art are the social implications, which cannot be ignored. The Canadian government has now apologized, in a historic legal document,  for its treatment of  aboriginal populations, and spells out what it will do to rectify the situation. Sizable amounts of money are being made available for  expanded medical, educational, and economic opportunities, in an effort to right past wrongs against native Canadians. The Aboriginal Arts Program was a project receiving had stated that in the year 2000, fifty percent of Canada’s native population was under the age of twenty-five.  “It is crucial for Canada to nurture strong young native leaders…aboriginals from all parts of the country have a shared experience of colonization, relocation, residential schools and Christianization.  We’re in a process of healing and I believe creativity is part of that healing.”

 

A View From The Prairie:

The Journey Revealed

I have a vivid recollection of my own first performance in the genre that is now being called native modern dance.  It was the mid 1970’s, and I was teaching and working in the state of Wisconsin, in and near the many reservations there.  In a dance work entitled “The Dispossessed”,  my scenario follows a line of action - a story - familiar to many native peoples who lived through the mid-twentieth century.  A young native girl is raised traditionally, but is taken from her family and raised in a boarding school. Upon graduation, she moves to the city to become seek employment as a secretary. She soon discovers the city’s underbelly - crime, alcohol, and drugs. A series of episodes culminate in the girl’s rape, and we see her in the final scene alone in a jail cell. There, at an apex of  loneliness and desperation, a personal awakening pushes her to reconnect with the truth and beauty of her ancestors, a revelation which the audience knows will be her key to renewed self-respect and to her future.

“The Dispossessed” was not a great piece of choreography, but it was my first public performance of such material. I was frightened to death as to how a largely native audience would respond to it. This audience was not a “theater-going” audience by any means, I told myself. When the curtain rang down, the audience gave a light sprinkling of polite applause.  I changed, packed up, and walked up the theater aisle, now strangely silent.   Just as I stepped out the theater door,  I found a small, solitary figure  standing in the lobby.  She was a small, somewhat thin elderly Indian lady in a winter coat and flowered head scarf. She seemed to be waiting for me.  We shook hands. Quietly, she said: “Was that your vision?” On reflection, I wonder if she detected my dumbfounded expression at her question. After agonizing as to whether I would be accepted, it was this eloquent, still presence who made the connection between the old and the new, between traditionalism and modernism.  She reminded me of the original  intent of  storytelling and dance and song and ceremony.  It is to recount your vision.

Perhaps we have not invented native modern dance so much as we have evolved it through our own sensibilities as native people. Perhaps we are not so much on a path “beyond tribe and tradition”, as on a path of vision and vision-seeking, wherever that may take us.  The possibilities are  endless,  the results might be astonishing.  It will remain for the new generation of native dancers, musicians, singers, actors, screenwriters and filmmakers, to seek their own visions and to create their own new methods of vision-making.

One thing is certain: we are all on that “tough trip through paradise”.  And we are all craning our necks, looking up toward the surrounding mountains that rise even higher from where we are, to the mountains engulfed in clouds. We are  climbing the ladder to the Creator’s House. We are crying and singing and dancing for the visions of our future.


Postscript 2006:

Coming Full Circle

At of this writing, I am preparing to speak at two major international conferences this summer. In doing so, I have cause to reflect on  my first writing about native modern dance in the Master’s thesis completed in 1968 at the University of Utah.  I posed for myself and for the dance community of the time, a challenge.  “The use of Indian dance as a base upon which to build meaningful technique and a significant style of movement, however, has not been fully explored…American Indian cultures contain a wealth of material that could serve as the basis for new compositions. Young Indian people who know the traditional dances could become the main core of a company which would endeavor to develop a dance idiom appropriate to, and expressive of, the unique qualities of the American Indian”. 4

In the short four-year span since the 2002 Dublin 23rd Annual Conference of the American Indian Workshop, the practitioners of what is now being called (in Canada) Indigenous Contemporary Dance, has literally exploded.  Suddenly,  native dancers, choreographers and company directors can bask in the astonishment of not one but two major international dance conference/festivals.  Interestingly enough, they are both taking place in Canada. The first will take place at the Banff Centre for the Arts, which will host the annual conference of the Society for Dance History Scholars.  From an international arena, scholars will assemble to listen to and learn from, indigenous contemporary and traditional dancers, choreographers, writers and teachers, all professionals in their fields.  Jacqueline Shea Murphy will announce the publication of her new book, “The  People Never Stopped Dancing”: Native American and Modern Dance History. It is a landmark study on the subject and sorely needed in the field. Perhaps this is the beginning of vigorous research in the field of native modern dance.

In July, 2006, Toronto will be the site of a conference being called the “Living Ritual” conference,  which will precede the prestigious World Dance Alliance conference, hosted by York University. The Living Ritual conference intends to further elucidate the world of indigenous dance in bringing the conferees to the Woodland Cultural Centre, Brantford – Haudenosaunee country,  on the first day of the conference.

The  lineup for performance and lecture for the “Living Ritual” conference is impressive, and will include the full scope of North America, including Mexico. Over two nights, here is the program of dancers and dance companies:  Kaha:wi Dance Theatre (Canada) performing “Here on Earth” - choreographer Santee Smith (Haudenosaunee),  Earth in Motion (U.S.) performing “The Naming”.

choreographer Rulan Tangen (Lakota),  Raoul Trujillo (Apache) performing his well-known “Shaman’s Journey”, Gaeton Gingras (winner of the Clifford E. Lee Choreography Award, 1998) performing “My Father Told Me”, Norma Araiza performing Dear Deer Dance (Mexico). To represent the preservation of tradition, the Le-la-la Northwest Coast dancers (under the direction of George “Me’las” Taylor) will present masked dances in “The Spirit of the Mask” and the Tewa Singers and Dancers from the North  (under the direction of Andrew Garcia, Tewa) will present the dances of his pueblo in New Mexico.

Where will the native modern dance movement go from here?  Be assured it will not be  in a straight line, as in western thinking, a projectile speeding into the vast unknown.  As in all things cyclical, the people’s dance will continue naturally to circle, as ripples in a pond, filtering through history and ancestry and sacred story and back again,   moving ever outward but taking meaning and substance in remembering the original source.  By whatever name – native modern dance, indigenous contemporary dance – the dance of the people will be a welcoming dance. It will be a welcoming call to see and hear and perhaps,  to join the circle of warmth and beauty that is the dancing community of the people of the earth.

 

REFERENCES

 

1. Jones, Rosalie. “Native Modern Dance: Beyond Tribe and    
Tradition” Native American Dance: Ceremony and Social Traditions. Ed. Charlotte Heth. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution with Starwood Publishers, Inc. 1992. 169-184.

2. Geiogamah, Hanay. New Native American Drama: Three Plays. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 1980. (Huntsman, Jeffrey. “Introduction”. xii).

 3. Personal Interview with Hanay Geiogamah by Rosalie Jones,
 Southern California Indian Powwow, Orange County    
 Fairgrounds.  July, 2002. 

4. Jones, Rosalie May.  “The Blackfeet Medicine Lodge Ceremony:
Ritual and Dance-Drama”.  University of Utah.  1968. Unpublished Master’s Thesis.
                                   
BILIOGRAPHY

Black Elk. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life of a Holy Man of the  Oglala Sioux as told through John G. Neihardt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 1988, 1932.

Black Elk. The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. Recorded and edited by Joseph Epes Brown. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 1953.

Doolittle, Lisa and Flynn, Anne. dancing bodies, living histories.Banff:
The Banff Centre Press. 2000.

Geiogamah, Hanay. New Native American Drama: Three Plays.
University of Oklahoma Press. 1980.

Native American Dance: Ceremony and Social Traditions, Ed. Charlotte Heth. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution with Starwood Publishers, Inc. 1992.

 

Magill, Gordon. “Rosalie Jones: Guiding Light of Daystar”, Dance Magazine.
(August 1998.) 64-68.

Palmer-Fornarola, Jeanne. “Exploring A Rich Dance Heritage”, Dance Teacher Magazine
(Dec 2001). 47-51.

 

 

Rosalie M. Jones © 2003

 

Published as a chapter in Native North American Performance and Representation
Arizona Press, 2009.

 
     

 

 

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