I remember my first big powwow two years ago. There were more than 100 dancers in the dance arena. I was shocked to see so many people dancing. The women were wearing brightly colored skirts and capes with fringe. The men were in bright shirts with ribbons and beaded moccasins. It was the Autry Museum’s annual powwow, which is a gathering of people to dance, sing and just have fun.
During the inter-tribal dance, everyone was invited out. I was nervous because I didn’t know a lot of people. I was worried the Native Americans wouldn’t accept me dancing because I was the only white girl. My dad pushed me out on the dance floor. I waited for the beat and started dancing. I imagined I was the only one there, as I listened to the drums and singers. Then I started having fun. I was doing a simple crisscross routine. I wore a shirt, pants and I had my shawl. I had been dancing in this style my whole life. I felt like I was part of the Native American world.
I am not Native American but I grew up belonging to an organization called CIHA (California Indian Hobbyist Association), a group that participates in Native American dancing, music and customs. When my dad joined CIHA he got my brothers and I involved. I started dancing when I was 2 years old.
I was interested in tribal history
When I was younger I loved hearing stories of the Native Americans and as I got older I read books about the Dakota, Lakota, Cherokee and other tribes. I wanted to learn about the culture and became fascinated by the stories.
But dancing is my favorite part of the culture. I have always loved dancing. When I was little I fooled around dancing during the monthly CIHA powwows. There are a lot of different types of dances and they come from different tribes. I wanted to be a fancy shawl dancer.
Fancy shawl, nicknamed the butterfly dance, looks like a butterfly gracefully floating through the sky. The Cherokee legend is that a butterfly lost her mate in a battle and was upset. Every day her family asked if she was OK and she would say yes. One day she went on a trip. When walking she looked down and she felt better and began to dance. When she went home she told them how her journey healed her. The dance is an expression of renewal and thanks for new seasons, life and beginnings. The dance is very upbeat, and the dancer never seems to touch the ground.
During CIHA powwows, two girls who were a few years older than me, Heather and Kelcy, would pull me aside and teach me steps. The basic step is a crisscross, kind of like hopscotch, but crossing your feet one in front of the other. You’re always on your toes. Your arms are out as if you were pretending to be an airplane. It takes a while to get the timing with the music. You can add in turns and spins.
At home I practiced in my room. I played music on the CD player. The music had drumming and singing in a Native American language. I would get frustrated if I was off the beat or if I messed up my footing. There is also jumping and spinning, and it was hard for me to hold onto the shawl, jump, dance and spin at the same time. Fancy shawl is an individual dance. You can come up with a step and no one will have the same movement. I love fancy shawl because I can be creative with my footwork. I like to dance to fast songs and I like the spinning. It feels like an adrenaline rush.
As I listened more to the music and was getting the timing down, I started dancing better. People would say good job. I was 13 and started to realize dancing was a way to express myself and feel free from school and stress. This was not just a hobby I did because my family was involved in CIHA; I was dancing because it was a part of me. I have fun being out there and being with people who have the same interests as me. I always have the biggest smile when I’m dancing.
I don’t mind if some people don’t accept me powwows
Since I’m not Native American, some people think I shouldn’t dance in this style. A few years ago, at a Pala Indian Casino powwow, I was dancing during an inter-tribal dance where everyone is welcome. I was wearing my regalia, which is like a costume. For fancy shawl dancers the costumes are supposed to stand out, with bold colors and designs. I wore a white shirt and a purple skirt with ribbons. I had my purple cape with white butterflies on my back, and my shawl. I heard a group of Native American teenagers giggling and saying, “Oh look at that white girl trying to dance like us.” As I danced backwards I saw them cracking up. I was trying to focus on my footwork and concentrate on the music. The song ended and I stopped dancing. I was hurt for a few minutes. Then I thought, “At least I was dancing. They were just walking around.” It didn’t matter what they thought, as long as I was having fun, that’s all I cared about.
Sometimes I get compliments. At the Autry powwow a group of Native American girls came up to me and asked me if I was Native American. I told them no. Then they asked me how I learned to dance. I told them about CIHA. They told me that I was good and danced just like them. It made feel like they were saying I should continue dancing.
I have taken dance classes, like modern dance, and I am interested in learning other styles of dance like modern, jazz and hip-hop, but I like Native American dancing best. In most styles of dancing, you have a choreographer and you have to do what they say, but with Native American dancing you are your own choreographer and you have more freedom to do what works best for you. I know I will continue to dance, because dancing makes me happy.