‘Keeping the culture alive’: Native dance goes digital during pandemic

Natha Little Crow, an Otoe-Missouria dancer who won a virtual dance special sponsored by a Lakota Sioux family, performs at the Comanche Nation Fair in September 2019. (Photo courtesy of Mike Griffin)

PHOENIX – Singing, dancing, socializing, sharing food – the elements that make powwows an essential part of preserving Indigenous culture are the same ones that make them a coronavirus risk.

Native communities throughout the country have cancelled the traditional gatherings indefinitely as a result. But Tiny Rosales, a member of the Ojibwe tribe, has found a way to “to keep the people dancing.”

In March, Rosales created a space on Facebook allowing families, schools and businesses to host virtual Native dance competitions from afar.

Four months later, “Quarantine Dance Specials 2020” has more than 71,000 members and hundreds of video submissions from Indigenous dancers in Canada and the United States.

“Some (Native) people are having a hard time right now” as the pandemic continues to spur cancellations and limit gatherings, Rosales said.

“These specials are not a powwow … but it does feel good to be able to get dressed and put our outfits on and dance.”

Founder: Dance a source of joy, healing

Rosales described dancing as a “way of life” for Indigenous communities.

Native performers employ various styles to tell stories, relay messages, promote healing and celebrate milestones.

“We dance for the ones who can’t dance – we dance for the sick, we dance for the elderly, we dance for our ancestors,” she said. “It really helps us with our mental health, our physical health. And … other people get joy off of our dancing.”

Getting ready for a performance is no small feat, however. Powwow dancers can spend hours practicing and preparing their attire.

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Participants in virtual dance specials devote comparable time and effort to their performances. But instead of dancing in front of a crowd, they film and upload videos by a judging deadline, using the hashtag of the event in which they’d like to compete.

Competitions range in size and nature, as sponsors include everyone from families celebrating birthdays to businesses offering cash and other prizes. Prospective hosts contact Rosales with competition ideas and any rules or requirements and frequently serve as judges later.

Academic institutions, such as the American Indian Cultural Center of San Francisco and California Indian Nations College, also have hosted various specials.

CINC got involved after COVID-19 forced officials to cancel the school’s scheduled graduation events, for instance.

“It was difficult to provide a traditional honoring ceremony for our students,” spokeswoman Faith Morreo said. “We felt this would be a special way to honor them and the Class of 2020.”

School officials also wanted to uplift the Native community at large during this time of suffering, she said, and recognize the perseverance of Indigenous people who adapt to keep their culture alive.

“It makes all of us proud to know we can be innovative as we find ways to continue our educational mission, keep our cultures thriving, maintain a positive outlook and provide a way for everyone to gather virtually,” Morreo said.

“We are sharing hope, good dancing, good singing and overall good feelings to keep our spirits up during this time.”

‘There’s meaning behind everything we do’

Natha Little Crow, an Otoe-Missouria dancer who won a different graduation special sponsored by a Lakota Sioux family, described competing virtually as a “really meaningful” experience both for herself and the broader Native community.

“I’m keeping the culture alive and reminding people what it was like to have these gatherings and why we have them,” she said of her decision to participate.

Juaquin Hamilton-YoungBird, cultural ambassador for the Sac and Fox Nation and emcee for the Facebook group, similarly said the virtual space had allowed him and other Indigenous people to “stay connected” during months of isolation.

Juaquin Hamilton-YoungBird, cultural ambassador for the Sac and Fox Nation and emcee for the Quarantine Dance Specials Facebook group, performs at a powwow in July 2019. (Photo courtesy of Juaquin Hamilton-YoungBird)

When COVID-19 first began to spread across the U.S., he said, it was devastating not knowing whether the pandemic would strip his tribe of its annual gatherings.

“We were all planning our spring powwows, our summer powwows,” said Hamilton-YoungBird, part of the Native dancing and music arena for 42 years. “Everybody was holding on to their hope that nothing would get canceled.”

Though the virtual competition format “was something new for all of us,” he said, it allowed Native dancers to preserve their traditions.

Hamilton-YoungBird’s knowledge of various styles of music and dance – his band was nominated for a Grammy for Best Native American Music Album in 2002 – prompted families from throughout Indian Country to ask him to announce the winners for their virtual specials, he said.

“There’s meaning behind everything we do and everything that we wear, ” he said.

Hamilton-YoungBird commended the group’s ability to provide non-Natives a window into Indigenous culture, even if visitors “don’t quite understand” all of those meanings. In some ways, the page has taken the place of the powwows tribal communities had occasionally opened to non-Native attendees prior to the pandemic.

The group also has drawn attention to struggles faced by tribal nations during the pandemic, according to Rosales, its founder. Some dancers have chosen to spotlight especially hard-hit Native communities in their video posts.

“I think that’s really a good thing, because there’s so many different people on the Quarantine Dance Specials page from all different walks of life,” Rosales said. “… A lot of people don’t even know we exist.”

This story is made possible through a partnership between the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University, with the support of the Henry Luce Foundation.

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