Native American hoop dancing captivates
Last Thursday night, students gathered in Page Commons for a different kind of history lesson. There were no reenactments, no lectures and no movie screenings. Instead, it was a performance of an often overlooked and oversimplified aspect of the American story: dance. Specifically, the dances of more than 500 Native American tribes in North America.
The show was led by Brian Hammill, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, the 2009 and 2011 Hoop Dance World Champion and founder of Native Spirit Dancers, a cultural entertainment company. According to the Native Spirit Dancers website, the goal of the group is to “share native culture and dance with various people from across the United States as well as overseas.” Each hoop represents an event or idea, and when they come together, they create the life of the person dancing. Hammill said he has been able to successfully perform with over 40 hoops being tossed and organized into shapes at the same time. Joined by his wife and son, Hammill gave the Colby community a new and insightful perspective on Native American tradition and heritage.
Emerging from the wings in brightly-colored, intricately designed “regalia,” Hammill started off the performance by drumming and singing to a steady and powerful beat. With the help of pre-recorded music, he continued with demonstrations of multiple dances from the Ho-Chunk people, the “Flag Song” and the “Man’s Fancy Dance Song.” His wife also took to the stage, showing the traditional female “fancy shawl dance,” which tells the story of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. The couple took time between each dance to explain the history of each tradition from the music to the clothing to the specific instruments used. They also included personal anecdotes and family histories.
It was the couple’s eight-year old son Nedallas, however, who stole the show. Taking second place in the youth division at the 22nd Annual Heard Museum World Championship Hoop Dance Contest a few weeks ago, Nedallas added a layer of significance to the show’s message of vitality and strength of tradition among the First Nations. Introduced by his father, who explained that dance among the tribes is a “gift,” Nedallas demonstrated the “grass dance”—his own hoop dance—and tried his hand at the flute, playing a few notes of the Star Wars theme.
The mastermind behind the event was Pugh Community Board general board member Daria Jones ’13, who is currently studying abroad in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh. Jones found the Hammill family through Google. “I was simply searching for cultural dance groups and the ‘2011 World Champion Hoop Dance’ caught my eye,” she said.
Jones, who herself is a dancer, “thought bringing in a cultural Native American dance group was something new that I hadn’t seen PCB do before....I felt this group could attract a wide array of attention, and a new type of hype during Speaking Hearing Opening Up Together weekend—through dance.” And it worked. Every member of the audience was captivated by the sounds, sights and story of the Hammill family. Juliette Chan ’14, another PCB general board member enjoyed “watching Nedallas perform back-to-back with his father. It was amazing to see the bond the two share from their love of their culture and dance.”
After a final hoop dance that showed not only intense skill, but also immense passion, Hammill answered a student question regarding how to open up dialogues about Native American culture. “People try too hard to be politically correct,” he said. He explained that oftentimes when members of tribes are approached, they are denied the authority of knowing about their own culture (people often open up the conversation with “I heard something about Native Americans...”) and the recognition that they belong to an individual tribe as a well as a larger nation.
Over the course of an hour and a half, the Hammills proved that education and entertainment can work together to tell a story. Through humor and multiple pop culture references, Hammill eased the audience into a reflection of what they typically believe to be “Native American” characteristics, and what it means to be an American. This goal, many realized, coincided with the 2012 S.H.O.U.T. theme, “Take Charge, Make Change.” Chan explained, “That’s what Brian and his family are doing. They are creating change just by performing music and dances from their culture for groups of people that do not normally have the exposure to it. They are creating awareness and inspiring change by actively telling their story.”