An Afternoon with the First People.
The Fancy Dancers 4-7-08
By Freddie A. Bowles
Posted from Fayetteville, Arkansas
A few weeks ago I took my mama, DeLean Jones Alexander, to the Fayetteville Public Library to see the Oklahoma Intertribal Fancy Dancers as part of the library's month-long series of events to celebrate American Indian culture.
Ten Thousand Years or More Ago.
Steve Littleman, emcee and storyteller for the dancers, opened the performance with a thought-provoking comment. "Thank you for taking a part of your day to learn about we, the First People," he said. I liked his self-identification as one of the First People. In fact, one of the most recent archaeological finds, the Folsom Site in the lava fields of northeastern New Mexico, identified remains of a Paleo-Indian culture dating back to 8,000 B.C. In light of that discovery, the name First People relates to the fact that the Indians, the Red Men, the Native Americans danced on this land much earlier than the most recent settlers from across the Big Water.
Mama and I took our time walking from the library parking deck to the elevator, she being an elder of 86. We joined four other folks on the ride up, a young mother with toddler in tow, and a Senior couple looking sporty — the gentleman in a bolero, Stetson, and cowboy boots.
We found the venue already a third full, and took aisle seats mid-way to the raised stage in the smallish hall. A sense of congenial anticipation ruffled the air. Small children crowded the floor space in front of the stage; librarians flitted in and out, checking lights and conducting sound checks; and a steady flow of the curious of all ages found seats, or visited with acquaintances. Many of us sat on the edge of our chairs, catching sight of feathered headdresses and embroidered baldrics.
A Bag, A Pipe, and Great Patience.
Almost as soon as Mama and I were able to settle into our seats, Steve Littleman introduced one of the dancers, Terry Tsotigh, whose first flute album, Prairie Rain, was nominated in the "Flutist of the Year" category at the 7th Annual Native American Music Awards (NAMMYS) in 2004. Luckily for this crowd, his CDs were available. Mama thought it would be nice to have one, so double-luck, I found a twenty dollar bill in my pocket, and took my place in line for one of Mr. Tsotigh's CDs.
Mr. Tsotigh wore full dance regalia: white tunic and boots, black leggings and vest, all adorned with feathers, embroidery, beading, fringe, and silver. He carried a medicine bag, pipe, and a great deal of patience. As I stepped up to the head of the line, I congratulated Mr. Tsotigh for his nomination and asked the name of his tribe. He thanked me and replied, "Kiowa." I told him I had been to Rainy Mountain just this past summer. "Right in the heart of Kiowa country," he remarked while signing his name on the CD.
By the time I found my seat again, the venue buzzed with titters of excitement and curiosity. The librarians, whispering directives to each other and politely guiding the guests, brought in extra chairs to accommodate the swelling audience. Mr. Littleman appeared at the podium again, along with five dancers, two women and three men, each adorned in full regalia. He extended his welcome and stated the group's mission: to educate about what "is true and right about our culture and our people," and to entertain.
According to Mr. Littleman, 67 tribes call Oklahoma home today, and 39 tribes have headquarters there. 565 tribes — nations — call the United States home. He reminded us that the clothing worn by the dancers is ceremonial with special significance extending even to the order of how the different pieces are put on.
The Dances Have Many Names.
Mr. Littleman interwove history, culture, and custom into his narrative as he introduced each of the dances. Leslie Deer and Hauli Warrior, the two women dancers, and Cecil Gray, Zack Morris, and Terry Tsotigh, the three men dancers, represented the Cheyenne, Creek, Kiowa, Muskogee, Pawnee, and Ponca. The dancers presented several ceremonial dances, including the Women's Dance; a Southern Plains dance; a dance from the Northern Plains tribe, the Objiwe; the Men's Southern Straight Dance and the Gentleman's Dance; the Men's Fancy Dance from the Southern Plains; and dances honoring the brothers and sisters who live on Mother Earth, namely the Butterfly Dance, the Horse Dance, and the Little Rabbits Dance. The performance concluded with the children taking part in the Little Rabbits Dance and adults joining in the Round Dance, also known as the Friendship Dance.
The Southern Plains dance honored the role of women in the tribe, who were in charge of the households. They were also the first teachers. They were responsible for everything in the campsite, including breaking it down and setting it up again. Mr. Littleman said the dancers perform with style, beauty, and grace because "they remember the first lady, who set the standard for all of our ladies today."
The second dance, from the Objiwe tribe, told the story of why the costumes include bells. The tribe, as the story goes, was beset with pestilence and sure death, so one of the men was sent out to fast and pray to the Creator. The Holy One came to the emissary and told him how to make the bells and how to create the dance for the men and women of the tribe. "The sound of the bells destroyed the pestilence, my friend," Steve Littleman said. "It's called noise, but you decide, my friend, if it's called noise, or if it's a sound of victory for the Objiwe people." Mr. Littleman also reminded us that each bell is attached to the regalia in a ritualistic way to honor the sacred connection to the Holy One.
Styles May Change,
but Tradition Remains Strong.
The Southern Plains dance honored the warrior and hunter. It portrayed how the men would look for tracks, human or animal, depending on the situation. It was followed by the Men's Southern Straight Dance, also called The Gentleman's Dance. The ceremonial dress, Mr. Littleman said, reflects the changing styles of the dancers, combining traditional design with contemporary materials.
For the next dance, Hauli Warrior and Leslie Deer wore elaborate fancy shawls in brilliant hues to depict the transformation into two butterflies. Mr. Littleman asked us to put our minds on a beautiful butterfly. He reminded us of the butterfly world with over 100 species and how, as each one emerges, we realize "that beauty grows and grows." He asked us to "focus on that beautiful butterfly" so that we might envision the most beautiful butterfly we'd ever seen. As I painted a butterfly in my mind's eye, Mr. Littleman spoke of the determination of members of his culture to remember who they are and to not get caught up trying to be like everyone else. As I watched the dance, I, too, was reminded of the unique and beautiful culture of the First People.
Mr. Littleman introduced the Horse Dance, also known as the Trot Dance and the Horse Stealing Dance, by saying that the Creator gave the First People the horse to replace the dog on the travois, the sled used to carry belongings. He added that these ceremonial dances help the people "hang on to what is given to us as a people."
A Love Song of the Wind and the Tree.
Mr. Littleman also spoke about the Creator's gift of the flute with its many purposes, including healing, lullabies, and courtship. We were honored to hear Terry Tsotigh relate the story about how the Kiowa received the flute from the Creator. A young man, the story goes, fell in love with the chief's daughter, but he was poor and had nothing to offer the Chief for his daughter's hand. The young man climbed a hill and sat under a cedar tree to think about what to do. As the wind blew through the tree, he heard a beautiful sound. A woodpecker had pecked holes in one of the cedar branches, allowing the wind and the tree to make music. The tree spoke to the young lover, telling him how to make a flute from the branch and how to play it to win the heart of the young maiden. The young man followed the tree's instructions and took his newly crafted flute to the maiden's camp. His courtship song reached her heart and she fell in love with him. They were married — and that is how the Kiowa got the courting flute.
Mr. Littleman forewarned the young, and not so young, single ladies in the audience about the powerful influence of the courtship song. Then Mr. Tsotigh began to blow on his flute. Sure enough, the audience was mesmerized. Even the babies were quieted. Mr. Tsotigh continued his performance with a second song, soon recognized by the listeners as the much loved melody to "Amazing Grace." At the end no one spoke, murmured, or moved as the sweet notes lingered in the hushed room. I and many others felt the heart-stirring effect of a healing melody. Language became superfluous to the ethereal spirit evoked by a simple cedar flute in the hands of a master musician.
Homage to Ancestors and Animals.
We also learned that the Creator gave the drum to the First People as an instrument to help them care for the music and dance in a way that honors the ones who came before us — both the human ancestors and their animal companions, "our brothers and sisters who walk and live next to Mother Earth." The Butterfly Dance, the Horse Dance, and the Little Rabbits Dance pay homage to these brothers and sisters.
As the performance neared its end, Mr. Littleman, explaining that pow wow dances are social in nature, invited the children to participate in the Little Rabbits Dance. Over two dozen children moseyed forward for a quick lesson on their role as little rabbits. Then they hopped and chanted, some reluctantly, others enthusiastically, while the storyteller called out the appropriate phrase.
To close the program, a modest group of adults joined the Oklahoma Fancy Dancers in the Round Dance, also called the Friendship Dance. The impromptu group circled, partnered, and twirled to a fine finish as the audience stood and expressed their appreciation to the performers with a loud applause.
The Beauty that Grows and Grows.
The dancers kept the stage as several children and adults came up to thank them personally. Mama and I kept our seats and reveled in the fine mood inspired by the generosity of the dancers and the appreciation of their audience.
After almost everyone was gone, Mama and I walked up to the stage to offer our gratitude. We also spoke briefly with Mr. Littleman. Mama told him about our own link to the First People and he kindly acknowledged her story. He asked her name, then mine. I told him I was her daughter, and he graciously recalled a previous refrain from the Butterfly Dance, "that beauty grows and grows." Mama and I smiled and thanked him, and then smiled at each other. Arm-in-arm, we walked away from the stage, grateful for another day of rare and memorable beauty.