Thursday, July 25, 2024
ArtReclaiming identity through dance

Reclaiming identity through dance

From near-extermination, expropriation of their land, dispossession of their culture and languages to their stereotyping by the mainstream society and misuse of their tribal names and symbols, the indigenous inhabitants of North America have been through it all. Centuries-old injustice has also left Native Americans to languish under a disproportionately high incidence of poverty, ignorance, disease as well as alcohol and substance abuse. Surviving members of the indigenous peoples were also forcefully assimilated to a Eurocentric way of life. It was through grit and sheer resilience that some communities of American Indians managed to resolutely cling to and take pride in their original customs and traditions. Members of the Little Shell community, part of the Chippewa Indian tribe of Montana, recently paid a visit to Addis Ababa, and showcased how to promote traditional values and heritage through music and dance. In this week’s issue of The Reporter, Meheret-Selassie Mokonnen explores how native folklore has not only didactic but also therapeutic values to members of the group.

A while back, Rolling Stone published a short article about the song, “Make It Bun Dem,” by Skrillex and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, stating the musicians depicted injustice in the video for the track. The article read, “In their video, the pair make a statement against oppressive authorities and poverty’s injustice.”

The video, directed by Tony Truand, shows poor people being evicted from their homes for the benefit of a rich real estate developer, who is backed by a corrupt sheriff. The music video begins with a scene of these victims being hustled by law enforcement personnel and an elderly Native American man, sitting on the front porch of his home, waiting for a similar fate.

In the course of the chaos, the old man’s son, played by Zakiah Phillips, arrives home and goes to the backyard to perform a Rain Dance – which prompted a storm that dispersed the cops and washed away the real estate developer’s plan.

Consequently, the father and son conduct a Smudging ritual in which the father smears red paint on the boy’s face, and hands him a headpiece of regalia. The boy returns to the backyard and a glowing golden eagle bursts from his chest whilst the father beats a drum of ritual.

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When the sheriff returned to evict them, he faces the young Native American conjured up with a phoenix-like spirit and all of a sudden his underlings refuse to assist him in breaking into the old man’s house. The video ends with the man sitting in his living room, surrounded by three huskies.

The video, in addition to critiquing the injustice, narrates the significance of rituals in the Native American community. Reflecting essential traditional values similar to the music video is one of the reasons for the establishment of The Little Shell Wellness Program.

The program, based in Great Falls, Montana, is run by the Little Shell Tribe of the Chippewa Indians of Montana. The Little Shell Tribe of the Chippewa Indians was named after their 19th century leader, Esens, also known as “Little Shell”. Due to conflicts with US federal authorities in the 19th century, they didn’t have a land base and federal recognition.

Members of the community live in various parts of Montana. There are population concentrations in Great Falls, Havre, Lewistown, Helena, Butte, Chinook, Hays, Wolf Point, Hamilton and Billings. Since the tribe has been without a land base for over 100 years, many members and their descendants live outside of Montana too.

The Little Shell Wellness Program, a.k.a. the Tribal Prevention Initiative (TiPI), was founded by close family members of the tribe who wanted to promote the traditional values of the community through music and dance.

TiPI not only focuses on presenting the Little Shell Tribe of the Chippewa Indians’ traditions but also aims at preventing substance abuse and violence through dance. Founders and members of the group, Donnie Houle (instructor of native ways, customs and games), his wife Crystal Benton (program coordinator) and their competitive dancer children Marionna Houle, Dametries Houle and Cordiero Houle, along with the tribal elder, pipe carrier, competitive traditional singer Mike LaFountain and his competitive dancer son Duane LaFountain recently visited Addis Ababa.

During their stay, they shared snippets of their history, performed mock traditional ceremonies, dances and songs, and discussed the roots of American Indian culture. The family has never been out of Montana, and this was their very first visit out of the United States, and was sponsored by the American Embassy in Addis Ababa. “We have never flown anywhere before and it is nice to be invited to Ethiopia. It is one of the most amazing things we ever experienced,” Crystal told The Reporter.

The family conducted the Smudging Ceremony, and performed the Grass Dance and the Fancy Dance at Dima Cultural Restaurant and at the Ethiopian National Archives and Library Agency (NALA). Crystal stated they came to Addis Ababa hoping to get acquainted with Ethiopian dance. They also want to spread a positive message through their performers. “We are open-minded people, trying to do what we can for others,” she explained.

The Smudging Ceremony is a customary indigenous practice among Native Americans. For centuries, many cultures have used smudging as a cleansing smoke bath that is used to purify the human body, aura, energy, ceremonial/ritual space or any other space and personal articles. Smudging is performed to remove negative energy as well as for centering and healing.

The Grass Dance or Omaha Dance is a style of Native American pow-wow dancing, originating in the warrior societies on the Northern Great Plains. Unlike most forms of pow-wow dancing, the grass dance regalia generally have no feathers besides the occasional roach feather. Pow-wow is a way to honor the elders and the culture, to remember leaders who have passed away, as well as to reinvigorate cultural ties and have fun.

Members of the Ponca tribe originally created the Fancy Dance in the 1920s and 1930s in an attempt to preserve their culture and religion. Fancy dance was considered appropriate to be performed for visitors to reservations and at wild west shows. But nowadays, fancy dancers can be seen at many pow-wows across the world.

The most widely practiced public musical form is the pow-wow and, according to Donnie, since most of the community’s culture is vanishing, they needed to launch competitive pow-wows. At pow-wows, such as ones performed at annual gatherings, members of drum groups sit in a circle around a large drum. Drum groups play in unison while they sing honor songs, intertribal songs, grass dances, welcoming songs and war songs in a native language.

The family invited The Reporter to a staging of their cultural performance where they had a spiritual ceremony and traditional dancing accompanied by drumming, which is central to Native American music. Flutes and whistles made of wood, cane or bone are also common.

Crystal noted that the dance crew gets to express themselves and display what they have been through by dancing. She said: “We get to display how we have gone through life. Dancing is a way of telling a story in our own way.” Whenever the crew performs, they want to point out that anyone can tell his/her story through dancing.   

Their community has not always had the best of experiences in the States, from being expropriated of their rightful land to being maltreated for who they are, they have seen it all. Despite what they have been through, the dancers anticipate reclaiming their identity through music.

For Mike, both competitive and non-competitive dance shows have ample significance for the community. “The shows have social purpose. The young ones are our future and without teaching them our heritage, we no longer have an identity. Dancing can also teach nonnatives about our culture,” he stressed.

The teenage dancers refer to dance as a means of communication. Marionna said, “I feel excited when I dance because otherwise I am always shy;” whereas her brother Dametries described dancing as, “I feel like I can be myself when I am dancing.” For their cousin Duane, competing in pow-wows makes him feel different and he said, “Every beat of the drum is the beat to my heart.”

As stated in the community’s website, TiPI builds upon current prevention initiatives at the tribal level and incorporates tribal-specific culture and holistic wellness components into all prevention strategies. The project is a work of six tribal communities and their efforts to implement culturally-based prevention strategies that build resilience, health and values among American Indian youth.

A federally unrecognized community without a reservation to its name or land base for years, the community has lost most of their customs as members relocate or pass away. Hence, the elders of the community set themselves the task of familiarizing young ones about their ancestral history and culture.

Donnie described their initiative saying, “You should attune to your culture because it has something to say. When you stray from your culture, that is when the problem occurs.” They teach youngsters traditional practices such as sowing so as to pass on the indigenous knowledge.

Besides the old civilization and massive indigenous knowledge, many crops, which are now cultivated globally, were first domesticated by Native Americans. “We want to pass on all the knowledge so that our children can do the same,” he stated.

Nonetheless, since life as a native is full of encounters, elders want to educate young members of the community about their heritages. They also preach about a healthier life style – free of drug and alcohol abuse. And the young ones seem to have understood how it feels to be proud of their identity since all of them wear traditional clothing and headpiece of regalia.

Members of the dance crew wore feathers around their head. In native cultures, birds are highly revered because of their closeness to the Creator in the heavens. It is believed the feather possesses the spiritual qualities of the bird – to be the breath of life as well as connecting people to the heavens above and mother earth below. Because of the way feathers are constructed, it is believed that they have the ability to rejuvenate someone’s energy.

According to Crystal, it has been three years since she and her husband managed to secure funding to support their dance crew. “In this day we live in, being urbanized, drugs and alcohol play a big part in our native community and prevents the young ones from learning about their culture and heritage,” she explained.

As a result, their crew provides a substance abuse prevention program for youth, ages 12 to 20 and their families.  The community-based outreach effort aims at reducing underage drinking among youth, while strengthening the tradition of wellness in six reservation communities in Montana and Wyoming. Besides spreading their message through dance and music, they also have alcohol- and drug-free activities and training programs within the community.

“Drumming and dancing brings the young ones to a more spiritual side,” Mike pointed out. He believes the spiritual singing, dancing and drumming reflects the core values of the community too. They usually perform at schools and art shows and a few times at programs sponsored by the federal government. They often organize camping where they teach Native American games.

Their ancestors had lived in Montana centuries before whites landed on the eastern shores of America. The Native Americans, who are First Nation People in every sense of the term, have been through wars and some were expelled from their ancestral home-land. Over the years, the community has been forced to relocate from their homes and there is an ongoing land claim lawsuit.

Mike pointed out that it is hard to be native, especially through the 1940s and 80s. Although it is still tough, he believes things are getting better from time to time. He spoke about people who had to walk away from their race, detached from their heritages as a result of the oppression.

He explained saying: “Where we live isn’t great but we have become socially acceptable and things are better than they were ten and twenty years ago.” He also believes it is up to elders like him to teach the customs and pass on the sacred articles to the coming generations.

Their website reads, “Montana’s Little Shell people have courageously, consistently and convincingly engaged the United States government over this time, pressing for recognition of their aboriginal, human and civil rights as First Peoples. Against all odds, including ethnic cleansing, subversion, misunderstanding and federal neglect, the Little Shell Tribe have persisted.”

History attests the people have been unlawfully conquered and deprived of their basic human rights, not to mention the infamous narrative of Cristopher Columbus “discovering” the country, at which natives had already been living.

Crystal’s mother was abused at school because she was Native American and, consequently, she did not send Crystal to school until she was past school age. “My mum had a struggle being abused and she never trusted anyone. She raised us on the mountains.” She was in tears while telling us about her awful life experience. The wretched fact is that even at present, when she wants to believe things have somehow changed, her children face similar inconveniences, Crystal explained.

She wouldn’t stop crying when she talked about how the society mistreated her children. One of her sons one day returned home from school sobbing because kids at his school teased him for his long hair. He transferred to another school, and when the bullying continued, he cut his hair, Crystal added.

“Children can’t help who they are born to. It took a lot of years to forgive how cruel the society was to our people. Our own country was taken from us. It was a hard thing to forgive and move on, but we have,” Mike said.

Though Crystal and Mike would never forget the brutality perpetrated against their ancestors, dancing has made their lives easier and gave them a peace of mind. Moreover, witnessing the slightest change in their country assures them of a better tomorrow.

Through the 80s, the community wasn’t allowed to perform their ceremonies such as the Sun Dance, a dance that represents healing of the people and sacrifices given for answered prayers. The Sun Dance had to be performed in secret because it was against the law. Donnie explained, “Back in my parent’s time, they were ashamed to be natives. They were trying to strip our identity on our own land. Now we know we should be proud of who we are.”

The songs, dancing and drumming performed by the crew are centuries-old rituals. The family pointed out that the ceremonies, handed down to them by forebears, have not changed over the years and it keeps them attached to their ancestors. Preservation means a lot for the natives, and they value practicing rituals dating back thousands of years. They will communicate these untainted beliefs for the coming generations too.

It is believed the natives were created mirroring the wolf, as they were brothers who spoke the same language. When their languages were separated, they could still communicate as they mirror each other. It is said when Native Americans were killed, colonized and assimilated, the wolf population decreased and stirred up when they began to be recognized by the society.

Every member of the family was in tears while the youngest, Duane, told The Reporter what it means to be a native and a pow-wow dancer. “Native heritage and culture is one of the most important things in our lives. Just because someone picks on you, you shouldn’t be ashamed of who you are. Don’t listen to someone who tries to take away what you care most about. We are different and that is a good thing. After trying dancing once, I got stuck to it. It is like once you do it you can’t quit. When I am dancing, I am not only dancing for myself; I am dancing for the people. Everyone on this planet matters.”

Even though the family shed tears of grief due to the dreadful experience of the past, they did same out of joy in seeing young ones like Duane embrace their culture and liberate themselves through dance.



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