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Native American Dance: A Perspective from the Field

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

This essay was originally commissioned and published by The University of Hawaii Manoa for the Asia Pacific Dance Conference in August of 2019. My thanks to Tim Slaughter and Judy Van Zile for their support and editing assistance. For more information please visit:

Dance by Native American people in 2019 is complicated. There are presently 573 Nations recognized by the US Federal government and hundreds more that have not been recognized or are recognized only by state governments. Centuries of implicit and explicit policies of displacement and cultural extermination have deeply impacted the practice of dance among the peoples of these nations. Dance has, and will always be, for Native and colonizing peoples everywhere, work that evolves with the changing cultural landscape. Here I examine Native dance through the lens of one brought up in Native culture but educated through western dance pedagogy, and who now works as an agent and activist to disseminate the projects of Native choreographers. I make my living primarily as a consultant, a program designer, or in the old vernacular, a curator, offering performing arts organizations the ability to interface in culturally competent ways with contemporary Native performing arts. Here I examine a moment in time, focusing on context, connection to culture, and implications for the future in relation to dance that is brought to performing arts stages across the United States.

Terminology is challenging when referring to Native American peoples, and many terms are used interchangeably. When possible, it is wise to be specific, find out the Tribal affiliation or descendance of the individual or group in question and use that. Specifying affiliation or membership is a matter of Tribal Sovereignty—but an extremely complicated matter for another discussion. Delineating a term to include people Indigenous to an area becomes even more complicated—taking into account governmental definitions and wording used for people, people’s names for themselves, and regionality. In the United States this manifests as a bit of a word soup: American Indian, Native American, Indigenous, and then into regional names such as Coast Salish and Pueblo. American Indian is the oldest term and is clearly a misnomer, but since it is old it is used in laws and treaties, and on US Census forms we mark ourselves as American Indian. Few people or organizations, however, use this term now. Native American, which came into use during the civil rights era of the 1960s, is the most common term in the United States nowadays. Similarly, our Canadian brothers and sisters adopted the term First Nations as preferred nomenclature. Native and Indigenous are used interchangeably, and when I use them I refer to the descendants of people who lived in what is now most often referred to as the United States. I also use the term Turtle Island, which I have heard in reference to a creation story from either the Anishinaabe or Haudenosaunee people, claimed by both in truth. It is a story about a Turtle that supports our world, and it is the source of a Native term for North America.

When approaching Native American dance many non-native people immediately think of Pow Wow dance and conjure a vague idea of bodies bouncing to the heartbeat of a drum. They think of feathers and buckskin and beads. Yes, regalia sometimes contains these elements, and the large plains drums are still played at Pow Wows, along with other instruments such as hand drums, clacker sticks, and turtle shell drums. There is, however, a much richer variety, a brilliant and vast diversity, of dance performed in ceremony, celebration, and for audiences in theaters. Many of these forms and expressions bear very little resemblance to stereotypical imaginings of Native dance.

In order to understand the evolution of Native dance on Turtle Island it is important to understand cultural exchange and evolution. While it is somewhat reductionist to talk about Native Americans as a single group rather than speaking of a specific Tribe amongst the hundreds that have called Turtle Island home since time immemorial, there are certain cultural values that have come to be shared through mutual survival and through exchange or trade. Further, there are shared values that one might point to as common across, for lack of a better term, the Native American diaspora. These include such values held widely by Native communities as deference to women and elders, and a different perception of the passage of time or value of labor or goods than those held by the dominant culture.

Similarly, there are forms of dance that one might see at Pow Wows that originated with members of one Tribe but now are engaged in by all nations and that have become part of the greater Native American diaspora. But it is important to note that there are many dance forms that Tribes choose not to share during inter-tribal Pow Wows, dances that even within the inter-tribal community are considered inappropriate to share.

The difference between inter-tribal sharing and appropriation is rooted in membership in community and investment in culture. I believe investment in a culture is particularly important to consider. For example, a Caucasian person who is not a blood descendant of a tribal group but who plays the Native flute, has been working in tribal communities for decades and has paid his dues: obtaining knowledge through respectful cultural exchange over a period of years, compensating teachers appropriately, and then only using the imparted knowledge with the blessing of elders. He cannot be said to be an appropriator because he has the blessings of the elders of many tribes, and even though he is of European descent, can be said to be a bearer of the art of Native American flute playing. He answers to the community in the same way that an artist of our bloodlines would.

A key characteristic of cultural and artistic appropriation is that it takes ideas and forms and places them outside of context and frequently works to distort the true manifestation of the cultural meaning and/or to create profit. It often removes cultural values from a deeply cultural context for commercialization and becomes simply a commercial idea or object. One example would be the clothing attributed to various Tribes, such as Navajo or Pawnee, but that has no connection to either Tribe other than the design or pattern that was stolen. This is a shockingly common phenomena which is more recently getting media attention when done by, say, the clothing chain, Urban Outfitters, or the designer Ralph Lauren. Native sports mascots not sanctioned by a Tribe are also poignant examples—whether openly derogatory, as with the Cleveland Indians, or seemingly innocent, as with youth sports.

Therefore, generally speaking inter-tribal sharing is fundamentally different than appropriation. Today, when Native dancemakers in the United States take the stage they pull selectively, but mindfully, from the many traditions and values that are part of their heritage, but also incorporate things originating from the contemporary world in which they live. Most of us trace our ancestral lineage through the people of Turtle Island but also to the invited and uninvited guests who have come to our shores for over 500 years. Hence, Native dance today reflects this reality.

In the global free marketplace of ideas, one of the major challenges to our cause is invisibility. There is a persistent notion that the Indigenous people in North America were almost completely wiped out with the waves of colonists and the genocidal agenda that the US Government followed them with across the rapidly expanding boundaries of the US. In the performing arts this has translated to the phenomena of Natives being imagined rather than engaged with, and it is more common to see a story about historic or even contemporary Native people written by a white person (well-meaning or not) and then performed by another white person, than to see the genuine article. The reality we face is that we are still more a story to be told for people of a colonial heritage than a community that exists and that has its own stories to tell, to both itself and to others. History taught in many elementary schools still minimizes our past and present, and therefore minimizes us.

It is unlikely that you will ever see some forms of Native dance on a stage in a theatre. For decades, until as late as the 1950s, dance was illegal or discouraged by the US government. There are hundreds of accounts of men and women being punished by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other government officials for dancing. It was not uncommon for Native men and women to spend months in jail for dancing, and Pow Wows were frequently shut down by armed raids. This drove many traditions underground or towards extinction. Because of this there is often wariness toward those of European descent. But this wariness may manifest differently from Tribe to Tribe and even individual to individual. It has not always been a good thing to be generous to people of European descent.

What is shared frequently must be earned according to tradition, with the blessing of culture bearers, as though the knowledge seeker is an aspirant apprentice. Then it can be shared freely. There is generosity within community, even to outsiders, if they have proven their intent through dedicating an appropriate amount of time—frequently years. Showing up at cultural gatherings, demonstrating generosity, observing cultural protocols, and offering just compensation for knowledge and skills imparted are important elements to proving intent to a Native community, though each Tribe and culture bearer may require different standards.

In addition, some forms of dance are connected with our spirituality in a way that would make them inappropriate to share outside the setting for which they were originally intended. There is a time for many of our dances, a purpose, and a context. There is a “right way,” and this precludes, for some dances, sharing them outside of specific circumstances. In order to experience these dances, you must go to the place at the time when they are being performed in their appropriate settings.

Some individuals who founded what is known in the US as modern dance drew heavily from Native dance of the time for movement, content, and general inspiration, sometimes through appropriation and sometimes through legitimate cultural sharing. Some of the key figures, such as José Limon, who was Mexican born Yaqui, had more right to do this than others. According to some of their own accounts, luminaries such as Martha Graham, Lester Horton, and Ted Shawn all studied Native dance and drew inspiration that was deeply influential in both their staged work and their technique. Such techniques and forms were taken or shared, in part, from Native dances. Hence, some of the bones of what we call modern dance today can rightfully be reclaimed by the Native people from whom they came.

Modern forms performed on stage by Native artists are frequently a reflection of spirituality, culture, and values, just as those danced at Pow Wows and in other traditional settings. Many of the works from modern Native choreographers can be viewed as modern ceremonies, no less personally or culturally significant than those taught to them by their parents or their elders. By combining what evolved into contemporary modern dance with content that is contextualized within Native communities, both urban and on reservations, it is possible to see why works created by these choreographers neither look like those created by individuals of European descent nor like what many envision when they think of Native dance.

In addition, every culture has central values. These are reflected in what you learn about people when you first meet them. I would assert that a likely first question in the dominant culture of the US would be, “What do you do for a living?” In other places in the world the question might be, “Where are you from?” or “Who are you related to?” Among many Native people, as you might surmise, the first question is, “What is your Tribe?”

There is a joke circulating that all Native American artists are required to make three works: one about blood-quantum, one about their father, and one about food. While these themes may be used by contemporary Native choreographers, choreographers today embrace much more. Many Native choreographers in the US who are active in the field today have had modern dance training through either college or dance schools, and have used this training as their core technique. But they layer storytelling, their own cultural lenses, and contemporary issues onto this background. Elements of Native values and lived experience permeate many aspects of staged dance by Native American choreographers. Native inter-generational trauma, for instance, looms large in the storytelling for several recent pieces on tour. Identity as a Native woman and current issues relating to violence toward Native women has also taken a central role in many works. Hence the work produced tends to look unique, and not like what many would think of as Native art.

Staging is another important element for many of these choreographers who choose to share their dance with local communities outside of a formal, physical theater space. Respect for ancestral land is also universally observed. It is common for connecting with local elders and culture bearers to be a priority for each performance or residency. There is often a rejection of doing performances without community engagement of some kind.

Contemporary Native dance is like many kinds of dance performed today that is choreographed by individuals who closely associate with specific cultural heritages. Native choreographers who are mid-career and those who are emerging are hungry to find audiences, both Native and non-native, for their work. The remarkable convergence of message and form, coupled with the groundswell of dozens of emerging Native choreographers, will see contemporary Native choreography grow and take its place among other culturally specific forms.

For centuries the arts and other elements of the culture of Native people on Turtle Island were shared and appropriated, bought and sold, and frequently simply imagined by non-native peoples. The members of the current movement of Native dance designed for stages in theatres are educators, and their work in non-native settings can contribute to rebalancing a system that has long been tilted away from Native peoples.

Just as in times when tribes where scattered because, for example, of the Native American Relocation Act of 1956, Native people today still connect to their Indigenous culture in a myriad of ways. This connection and sharing have helped to rebuild many traditions that the colonists attempted to exterminate. Many of my friends connect through elders of tribes that are not their own. Urban Native community is formed from members of dozens of tribes, cultures, and traditions, and many Native youth are raised in adoption, a direct result of hundreds of years of genocidal policy by the US government. To me, Tribal identity is as much connection to community and culture as it is to blood. The first peoples of this land are more than bloodlines—we are distinct cultures with rich and ancient traditions.

There is a need for our stories to be told cross-culturally to counteract centuries of misinformation. Dance has always been a part of the cultures of the Native nations of Turtle Island. It is only appropriate for the benefit of future generations that the new ceremonies created by the new artists be at the forefront of correcting inaccurate records so that Native people can tell their own stories. Dance can contribute to allowing us to become truly visible.

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