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Indigenous Dances on Stage: Embodied Knowledge at Risk?

Brenda Farnell

This paper is theoretically and methodologically grounded in a semasiological approach to the anthropology of human movement situated within sociocultural anthropology more broadly.1 It raises a number of questions about the significance of choreographic transformations that occur when Indigenous dance forms are removed from their traditional contexts, adapted for stage presentation as entertainment, and subjected to commodification and appropriation for purposes such as postcolonial nationalism, cultural revitalization and education, and/or tourist economies.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Program cover for American Indian Dance Theater. Original painting by Kiowa artist Lee TsaToke.

     Authenticity looms large in such contexts, and I critically examine the related concepts of 'authenticity,' 'authority,' and 'authorship' in relation to dynamically embodied knowledge, offering "legitimizing processes" as an alternative to both "strategic essentialism" and "discourses of authenticity," in recognition of the fact that not all discourses are politically or morally equal. Turning then to Indigenous North America, I prefigure my specific ethnographic inquiry by identifying concepts from recent work in Indigenous studies that seeks foundations for effective resistance to contemporary colonialism. A concept of 'peoplehood' emerges that I apply to the particular experiences of a Northern Plains Men's Traditional dancer who performed with the American Indian Dance Theater (AIDT) company in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The ethnographic data and analysis focus on the semantics of personhood, space, and time and the impact of the experience on the performer, as this relates to the notion of "legitimizing processes."


In 1980, anthropologist of dance Joann Keali'inohomoku wrote, "The manipulative attitudes of super-ordinate peoples can force adaptation by subordinate peoples that is not the same as internally developed evolution. We may, for example, eventually force Hopi Kachinas onto the stage and Hopi dance may become an "art." If this happens, the world will lose at least as much as it gains" (1980: 42). Keali'inohomoku's statement raises important questions regarding tradition and innovation in Indigenous dance forms. It prompts us to ask what happens to dynamically embodied knowledge when traditional ceremonies and dances are transformed into vehicles for entertainment or tourist attractions. Such questions are worth examining, but not so as to freeze traditional ceremonies and dances in an "authentic" past and deny the kinds of internal dynamics that lead to legitimate innovation.2 My purpose here is not to deny the legitimacy of cultural change but to examine what is at stake or at risk—and for whom—when such transformations are made.3

     The circulation of danced knowledge is not new, and ever-increasing opportunities for contact between practitioners of music and dance create exciting new potentials for significant artistic exchange. However, in the contemporary context of rapid global flows of information, it is also important to examine the nature and content of artistic borrowing and to distinguish between the legitimate exchange of ideas and cultural appropriation. This paper asks, "What changes when Indigenous dances are taken out of their original contexts?" "Does promoting Indigenous culture through performances increase understanding and appreciation or enable superficial appropriations?" And, finally, "What effects do such practices have on the performers and how do knowledge holders respond?" The paper builds on significant insights from Drid Williams's paper "The Cultural Appropriation of Dances and Ceremonies" (2000), by focusing particularly on one example from Indigenous North America.

     The complexity of these questions can best be illustrated with selected examples. Ethnographic evidence suggests that Indigenous dances are increasingly subject to commodification and appropriation for a variety of purposes, including, but not limited to, the development of newly emergent postcolonial nationalisms (Artry-Diouf 2005), economic gain through cultural tourism (Bruner and Kirschenblatt-Gimblett 1994), educational purposes, sometimes in the service of cultural revitalization (Katz, Biesele, and St. Denis 1997; Mo 2005) and in national or diasporic celebrations of "heritage" (Gore 2001). I will briefly describe two examples that involve (i) postcolonial nationalism and (ii) education for cultural revitalization, both of which illustrate the larger argument regarding complex tensions between legitimate/illegitimate forms of cultural borrowing, the contested authorship of embodied knowledge, and the significance of choreographic change within such contexts.


Artry-Diouf (2005) documents how, in the 1960s and '70s, as the peoples of Africa gained their independence from European colonial powers, President Léopold Senghor of Senegal and President Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea utilized indigenous dances as key emblems for nation building. Senghor commissioned the African-American choreographer Katherine Dunham to work with the National Dance Company to stage the dances according to Western theatrical conventions, reshaping what were participatory village dances into a "presentational aesthetic." As state-sponsored local and regional companies served to demonstrate local pride while building a national identity, the National Ballet of Senegal was to serve as both entertainment and cultural ambassador for international consumption. The founder and director of the Guinean company Les Ballet Africaines reveals the extent to which the dances themselves were transformed during this process:

[T]he stage being different from life, it is necessary to resort to a certain amount of stage adaptation to make ourselves understood by a foreign public. . . . On the stage, new conditions have to be created by means of different devices . . . on one hand, to retain the freshness and reality of the dance, and on the other to destroy the monotony which is quick to arise due to the non-active participation of the audience. That is the reason we must take our dances on at their culminating point, shorten them and cut out a thousand details which are not important except in the public space of the village (Fodeba Keita 1959: 176, cited in Artry-Diouf 2005: 11; emphasis added).

This choreographic staging of Indigenous West African music and dance forms attempting to represent the nation necessitates choices being made: Which indigenous groups will be reified and represented in the repertoire? What will be retained, accepted, fused together, or modified choreographically? And who has the authority to decide? As Artry-Diouf puts it, "Beyond the kaleidoscope of colorful costumes, choreographic athleticism and captivating polyrhythmic sounds, staged performances of indigenous dances raise questions of cultural appropriation, authenticity and race" (2005: 2).4


Williams draws our attention to an educational context, documented by Katz et al. (1997), that provides an instructive example from the Kalahari region of southern Africa. Circa 1986, a Ju!'hoan healing ceremony became subject to adaptation by a local school dance troupe. The deputy headmistress reported that, "assisted" by several Ju!'hoansi, she "began by improving upon the traditional Ju!'hoan dance and thereby perfected it" (emphasis supplied). Three short years later the Ju!'hoanse "assistants" were gone, as Tswana teachers began exerting more total control. In response, Xumi N!a'an, a respected Ju!'hoan elder, felt obliged to remove his support for the dance troupe because he felt "the school now owns our dance." The adaptation of the ceremonial dance, though it had similar movements, no longer had any connection with healing and, therefore, was without its heart—it expressed only a shell, a form. As Katz et al. put it, "When spiritual ceremonies are transformed into ordinary entertainment vehicles, or worse tourist attractions, the ceremonies suffer. Audiences generally wish to have light, undemanding entertainment" (1997: 77, 79, cited in Williams 2000).

     Likewise in Taiwan, Indigenous leaders have noted with concern that the promotion and display of Aboriginal culture and development of tribal tourism has had a negative impact on the development of Aboriginal education. While acknowledging that such promotion has led people to pay more attention to Indigenous communities, Pasuya Poitsonu, vice chairman of the Council of Indigenous Peoples, is reported as saying, "What the media reports and what the public receives is a superficial showcase of our culture" (Mo 2005: 3). Abuwa, a member of the Kaohsiung Aboriginal Women's Sustainable Development Association, adds, "Every tribal festival represents a piece of the tribe's history . . . but often what the public remembers through tribal festivals or Aboriginal cultural events is the food or the dance, instead of learning about the background of those ceremonies" (ibid.). If, as Mo's essay suggests, "many Aboriginal schools put more effort into teaching aboriginal dance, music, or handicrafts now to promote Aboriginal culture," one wonders, as with the Ju!'hoansi case, if the students suffer because they, too, obtain a superficial understanding of the dances for the purposes of display, one that is devoid of sacred histories and ceremonial knowledge.

     The issues that arise from these ethnographic examples prompt a series of related questions about authenticity, authority, and authorship in relation to dynamically embodied knowledge that is worth examining.5

Authenticity, Authority, and Authorship

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "authenticity" comes to us from the Greek αυθεντικός, meaning "principle" or "genuine," and from authentes, "author." Related concepts provide us with a useful set of Wittgensteinian 'family resemblances:' 6

Authentic: original, real, actual fact, truth, genuine (opposed to imaginary, pretended), accuracy, legitimacy, validity, reliability; really proceeding from its reputed source or author; of undisputed origin. (Opposed to counterfeit, forged, apocryphal)

Authority, authoritative: properly as possessing original or inherent authority; entitled to obedience or respect; legally or duly qualified, authorized, licensed

An authority: one whose opinion is entitled to acceptance

Author: one who does a thing himself, a principal, a master

There has been a postmodern critique of "authenticity" which justifiably rejects reified notions of truth and accuracy, as well as positivist essentialisms,7 recognizing the ever-present influence of unequal power relations, ideologies, and contested interpretations.

     In colonial and postcolonial contexts, we find such essentialism at work in the reduction of Indigenous people by their colonizers to a fixed, core idea of what it means to be, for example, "African" or "Indian" or "Arabic." It is also found in exoticizing essences such as "the Celtic spirit," "Négritude," or "Islam," where "sources, forms, style, language and symbol all derive from a supposedly homogeneous and unbroken tradition" (Rushdie 1991: 67).8

     At the same time, Spivak has drawn our attention to the importance of "strategic essentialism" as a political strategy that, ironically, simultaneously positions but can also empower oppressed minorities (1996: 214).9 Likewise, Gilroy's "structures of racial feeling" underscores the necessity of strategic essentialism (or discourses of authenticity) as a redress for the common experience of oppression (1995: 2).

     Strong versions of postmodernism frequently reject use of the term "authenticity" as being necessarily essentializing, but I shall take a critical stance toward this. The theoretical challenge is how best to include critical analytic attention to 'discourses of authenticity.' The postmodern substitution of 'discourses of authenticity' becomes problematic if it endorses an extreme relativism that undermines the legitimacy of certain knowledge claims over others or ignores the kind of unequal power relations that have very real consequences for oppressed peoples. Several observers of Indigenous dances, for example, note that it is Indigenous claims to such knowledge that ground spiritual as well as cultural and political identities and frequently support concepts of ownership in the face of uninvited and unwelcome appropriations.

     It is my hope that, without falling into the trap of a positivist essentialism, we can explore what happens if we shift the focus of attention from 'authenticity' conceived as a quality that inheres in a cultural form as if a natural object—according to which something either is/is not 'authentic'—to a focus on legitimizing discourses and processes involved. Instead of being treated as a static feature of a dance or danced knowledge, 'authenticity' thus becomes an aspect of situated practice, work that members of a society actively perform to constitute performances/objects/texts as 'authentic' according to shared criteria of validity held by knowledgeable practitioners and status holders—in other words, by those authorized to make such knowledge claims. Legitimizing discourses/processes thereby constitute a dynamic expressive resource by means of which people systematically link present action with a meaningful past and endow a particular cultural form with value and authority.10

     When applied to the circulation of danced knowledge in the global flow of ideas, this recovered concept of authenticity as 'legitimizing discourses/processes' provides a useful resource for identifying and interrogating power relations that work to undermine ownership of danced knowledge. However, caution is necessary here. Although the concept shifts our attention toward the dynamic processes by which valorization occurs, it necessarily implicates us, as researchers, in a set of values that warrant further careful consideration. It assumes the existence of knowledgeable practitioners with authority, that is, rights to determine what is and what is not acceptable according to judgments regarding norms and values (aesthetic, political, spiritual), as well as historical precedence. These discourses, in turn, require our critical interrogation from the points of view of those who might disagree, for example, younger generations of practitioners who seek innovation within a tradition. I agree that, as with the proverbial turtles, its discourses go all the way down—but not all discourses are equal.

     Despite these ongoing challenges, by asking, "When is 'authenticity' a factor and to whom does it matter?" I propose that we are perhaps better able to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate forms of cultural borrowing, and thus between innovation and appropriation. In seeking to relocate the possibility of authentic knowledge with the dynamically embodied agents who understand and share the lived meaning of that knowledge, we also recover the Greek origin of the term authentes as "author" with its etymological connections to "authority" and "authorship."

     Before proceeding to my specific ethnographic case that applies these ideas, it is pertinent to clarify exactly how I am using the term "Indigenous peoples."

Who Are Indigenous Peoples?

Contemporary scholars of "Indigeneity" in the United States suggest that the communities, nations and tribes we call "Indigenous peoples" are distinguishable by a number of features:

They are indigenous to the lands they inhabit in contrast to colonial societies and states that have spread out from Europe and other centers of Empire such as China and Japan.

Their existence is in large part lived as determined acts of survival against colonizing states' efforts to eradicate them culturally, politically, and physically.

They remain subject to forms of postmodern imperialism or neocolonialism in which more subtle means of accomplishing domination are practiced (in contrast to earlier missionary and militaristic colonial enterprises).

In relation to the last point, the colonial legacy continues, not by trying to eradicate the physical bodies of Indigenous peoples but by trying to eradicate their existence as peoples through erasure of the histories and geographies that provide the foundation for Indigenous cultural identities and sense of self (Alfred and Corntassel 2005: 598).

     Indigenous North American scholars Alfred and Corntassel note that Indigenous peoples are increasingly subject to state-created identities such as "ethnic group" or "aboriginal people," wherein such labels impose a "redefinition from autonomous to derivative existence and cultural and political identities" (2005: 598). Such state-imposed conceptions are read by Indigenous peoples "not as moves towards justice and positive integration but as indicators of an ongoing colonial assault on their existence and signs of the fact that they remain, as in earlier colonial eras, occupied peoples who have been dispossessed and disempowered in their own homelands" (ibid.).

     In seeking foundations for effective resistance to contemporary colonialism, Alfred and Corntassel have revived a concept of 'peoplehood' first articulated by anthropologist Edward H. Spicer (1962: 576-78). This centered on three key concepts:

Relationship to the land

Common spiritual bond

Language use

     Cherokee anthropologist Robert K. Thomas (1990) later added "sacred history" to this list, emphasizing that these four components of peoplehood are interwoven and dependent on one another. Cherokee/Creek scholar Tom Holm and others (2003) have developed this model, offering a foundational concept for directing Indigenous research and teaching and giving us a view of identity that is both dynamic and interconnected:

Ancestral homelands

Ceremonial cycles


Sacred history

     Thus, we have land, ceremony, language, and history, each one interconnected in multiple ways by respectful relationships that guide all interactions and experiences, embodying relationships that must be honored.

American Indian Dance Theater

Keeping this in mind, let us now turn to my specific ethnographic inquiry, which begins with the experiences of a Northern Plains Men's Traditional dancer performing with the American Indian Dance Theater (AIDT) company. The AIDT is a widely acclaimed company of sixteeen to eighteen dancers, singers, and musicians drawn from many different Indigenous nations. The AIDT has toured widely in the United States as well as in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Australia, often with the support of the U.S. State Department. It was founded in 1987 by Indigenous Kiowa playwright/director Hanay Geiogamah and produced by a Euro-American, New York-based concert and theatrical producer, Barbara Schwei. In the 1980s and '90s, the AIDT recruited skilled dancers from the North American "Pow-wow circuit" and claimed to present "authentic," "traditional" American Indian dances on the Western stage.11

Figure 1

Figure 1
Figures 2a and b. Studio photos of Men's traditional dancers and Men's fancy dancer, unidentified members of American Indian Dance Theatre. Photographs by AIDT Gallery.

     Unwittingly invoking a colonizing American nationalism, on the AIDT website Schwei tells us that she and Geiogamah formed the American Indian Dance Theatre to "fill a void in the dance world." She says, "I wondered why every country except the United States had its own national dance companies representing the diverse segments of their cultures." She adds,

This company provides Native Americans with a chance to share their heritage and culture with the American public and the rest of the world. We have received strong support from the American Indian community, which has applauded our goal of trying to preserve an important part of the culture and traditions of Native American people. (AIDT, emphasis added).

Schwei thus fails to comprehend the nature of her own neocolonialist discourse inherent in offering contemporary Indigenous peoples opportunities to "share" their heritage and "preserve" their cultures—after five hundred years of systematic and determined attempts by the nation to eradicate them!

     AIDT directors claim they were the first company to present traditional Native American dances successfully in a theatrical setting without sacrificing the basic integrity and meaning of the dances. "All our dances are traditional and authentic, but have been staged as theatrical pieces," says Director Geiogamah. "In making this transition, however, we have been careful not to alter the basic structure of any of the dances." Geiogamah's rhetoric of authenticity is typical of producers elsewhere who subject local social and/or ceremonial dances to a standardizing process so as to conform to Eurocentric notions of correct performance and appropriate staging for the purposes of entertainment. For example, Williams (2000) cites the director of the Ghana Dance Ensemble who, when challenged about his staging of the Ewe Agbekɔ, stated that he had omitted constituent elements such as the entry procession because it was "boring." He changed the line of the dance and groupings of dancers because he did not have enough Ewe dancers who knew the solos and duets well enough and not enough time to allow the Ewe dancers to teach the others. The way he staged the dances was "the way that would please foreigners" (Williams 2000).

     A later conversation Williams had with a Ugandan director about her staging of a Lugbara funeral dance revealed depressingly similar choices made to change the spatial structure of the dance, and therefore the meanings, because "that's not dance theatre" and "that's not how I have seen things done in Europe and America." These examples serve to illustrate the widespread hegemony of Eurocentric concepts of performance during the "folklorization" of Indigenous dance forms (Williams 2000: 6).

     The claims to traditionality and authenticity by the directors of American Indian Dance Theater, grounded in the notion that they "have been careful not to alter the basic structure of any of the dances" is belied, however, by a lengthy and informative conversation I had with one well-known traditional Pow-wow dancer, whom I shall call "Tim," who returned to his reservation community in Montana having performed for two seasons with the AIDT in the late 1980s to early 1990s. Tim explained how marked changes in the structuring of the dances radically altered the meaning of his dancing, to such an extent that he felt it damaging to his spiritual and emotional health to continue: this, despite the interesting opportunities for travel and financial reward. I have summarized the main points that arose from our conversation around the topics of space, time, and the performance context itself.

1. Space

To analyze the spatial component, I will draw upon two technical terms from Williams's anthropological theory of human movement, semasiology: "deixis" and "form space." "Deixis" is a Greek word meaning "pointing" or "indicating," used by linguists to identify signs that locate persons and actions in time and space. The concept includes several indexical elements such as location, direction, and spatial orientation. Urciuoli puts it succinctly as follows:

The structure of action fans out from the center, the locus of you and I, to delineate where and when everything happens relative to the central actors: he and she, versus I and you, there versus here, then versus now, present versus non-present (past or future). (Urciuoli 1995: 190)

The "form space" of a dance refers to "the total shape of the piece seen as a whole, not in terms of fragmented steps or parts" (Williams 2000: 348). A third insight from semasiology is Williams's observation that persons move their bodies in spaces that are "simultaneously physical, conceptual, moral and ethical" (Williams 1995: 52). Lived space is, therefore, not a given physical reality but an intentionally achieved structuring. We see each of these three components at work in analyzing the differences between American Indian Dance Theater's staging of Pow-wow dances and their original form.

     I maintain that Tim experienced a loss of integrity in what he was doing, since his actions were removed from the structured semantics of the performing space in which his dancing normally took place—the sacred dance circle of the Pow-wow, with its ongoing clockwise, circular progression of action, and the four cardinal directions that determine the placing of entrances and exits from the dance arena (see Figure 3).

Figure 3
Figure 3. A typical Northern Plains Pow-wow arena.

     Space does not permit me to expand upon the multilayered symbolism involved in the concept of the circle and the four directions, two spatial forms that are paradigmatic to Indigenous worldviews on the Northern Plains, except to emphasize that they require careful translation (see Farnell 1995). As I have written elsewhere, for the Nakota, for example, the four directions are integrally connected to spiritual practices and conceived as "the four winds"—t'ade topa—areas from which power comes toward a person in contrast to Euro-American conceptions of the four directions as single lines pointing outward, as on a map (see Figure. 4).

Figure 4
Figure 4. Two different concepts of the cardinal directions.

     After a prayer from an elder, usually in a Native language, each afternoon or evening session of a three or four day community event called a Pow-wow begins with a "Grand Entry."12 Veterans of the U.S. armed services lead a procession into the sacred circle of the dance arena carrying four or five flags.13 They enter from the east, moving around the arena clockwise. Following them in single file come the adult "Men's Traditional" dancers, then "Grass Dancers" and "Fancy Dancers," each genre having its own specific style of regalia and action signs (movement patterns). "Women's Traditional" dancers enter the arena next, followed by "Jingle Dress" and "Fancy Shawl" dancers. The dancers gradually spiral in, youth and then younger children following in a similar order as the arena gradually fills up with vibrant activity. Once all the dancers are in the arena, they face the flags (now in the center and facing the announcer's stand on the south or west side) and dance 'in place' facing the center of the circle as the community's Flag Song and a Victory Song are sung. During informal intertribal dancing (in which anyone present can join) or during competitions, dancers always adhere to the distinct movements pertinent to their particular genre and its regalia, moving clockwise around the sacred circle.14 These conventions make up the form space of the dance events central to a Pow-wow. They create meaningful sets of deictic locations (here, there, over yonder), directions (forward/backward, inside/outside, up/down, and so forth) and spatial orientations (toward east, moving sunwise)—not in words but in kinesthetic and spatial understandings. The structure of action fans out from the center, the locus of "I" that is the person dancing, always in relation to "you" and "we " the community.

For Tim, the spatial semantics—the circular form space and associated spatial deictics—integral to a genuine Pow-wow event were completely lost in being required by the AIDT staged choreography to direct his dancing a) toward and away from "stage front" on a proscenium stage, b) cross-stepping sideways in a straight line or moving diagonally in threes or fours in straight lines across the space, and c) keeping in step with other dancers (see Figure. 5).

Figure 5
Figure 5. Alterations made to spatial orientations and directions of movement paths to accommodate the Western theater stage.

     Since the choreographic form of Northern Plains dancing is structured improvisation, one might suppose that conventions governing the form space (or internal semantic space) of this dance genre would be less affected by externally imposed staging, but again the conventions of Western stage presentations undermined local conceptions and contributed to a loss of authorship over the choreographic form. For example, the steady forward progression of men's traditional dance is rooted in the Plains warrior tradition and involves imaginative reconstructions of battle experiences. It involves a moral commitment never to retreat, so a Men's Traditional dancer never dances backward. Such imaginative reconstructions can also relate to hunting and close observations of the natural world. As one elder put it,

Now we dance and imitate different things—like we might be tracking something or might be tracking somebody, or we'll be imitating a bird coming off of a perch and going down, swooping down and picking something up, or hunting it could be—it has a lot of meaning to it—it's a lot more than just getting out there and just going round in a little circle.

The disruption of the form space of the dance to accommodate the staged choreography largely precluded the dancers' being able to attend to this imaginative, improvised symbolic content, thereby also contributing to a sense of diminished meaning and, hence, a loss of authorship/ownership of their dancing.

     The staged version of Northern Men's Traditional Pow-wow dancing violates all the canons of the internal spaces of Men's Traditional dancing by virtue of

The absence of the circle

Adherence to facing 'the front' (that is, the audience)15

Making straight pathways (or track data) through space

Performing sequences of synchronized actions with other dancers.

2. Time

Time is also a factor. Champion Crow/Cheyenne traditional dancer Kevin Shane, notes that

[f]or a traditional dancer, the thing I look for is keeping in time with the drum—I like to see a dancer go low and a lot of body movement—different parts of the body all need to be moving with the drum—head, shoulders, legs, the bustle. What I look for is the dancer's effortless expression because that's when they are dancing with their heart.

It was the absence of this crucial emotional component that Tim felt most deeply. As one is inspired to innovate within a dance form, one is honoring the calling of it, its heritage, its connection to ancestors and land, and it has its own time frame. At a real Pow-wow, action occurs when things are right over a period of three or four days.

     At a typical Pow-wow, trucks, trailers, campers, and cars start pulling into the campground two or three days before the event, some visitors having traveled for days to get there.16 Local families set up tents and campers in their usual places around the grounds but may sleep at home until the Pow-wow starts. Early morning risers greet the sun and the fresh, cool morning air. Perhaps they start their day with prayer, get the campfire going, make coffee, and take in a visit or two with neighbors. The pickup truck distributing food rations swings by each camp leaving enough buffalo meat, cans of vegetables, potatoes, and coffee so no one goes hungry. The water truck is busy dampening the dance grounds and tracks to keep the dust down. Later in the morning, taped Pow-wow music starts playing over the loudspeaker as dancers and singers begin their preparations for the days events, checking their regalia and thinking about the competitions and ceremonies to come. Around noon, the arena director starts calling people to the arbor (dance arena), families set up their seats and blankets in the usual places around the dance circle, and drum groups set up their sound systems and start warming up their voices. The first Grand Entry is set for 1p.m. or thereabouts, when everyone is ready. During the afternoon, the dancing will be interspersed with family ceremonial events—a 'give away' for a loved one who passed away a year ago (thereby ending the official period of mourning) or a sponsored dance for a child who is dancing for the first time. The sun gets hot out there in the dance arena, and everyone seeks shady places to sit between the dancing. Supper break occurs around 5 p.m. and the arbor clears as people visit camps offering feasts in honor of those departed loved ones. Pretty soon, everything begins to wind up again for the evening session, which begins with a Grand Entry around 7 p.m. and continues late into the night until all the competitions for the various categories of dances (classified by age group and gender) have been completed. This general pattern of events will be repeated over the next three days, and the final evening may go on well into the early hours of the morning.

     Fitting into a time frame for a performance in the European tradition changes all this: one is working within a condensed time frame, and this necessarily changes the relationships that can occur. Because time and space are interrupted, the relationship of the energy changes—one is moved away from a connection to spirit and landscape, from a connection to surface as well as visceral sensations produced by physically being on and in the land and sky, wind and sun; acknowledging north, south, east and west; observing sunrise, midday, sunset, evening. All these components are replaced by an indoor sensibility and having time organized by a Western work ethic with its hourly timetable: rehearsal 10 a.m., technical run through 4 p.m., performance 8 p.m.

     Tim also referred to the time factor in noting the differences involved in dancing for the AIDT and dancing for one's family, representing one's community: "It is about remembrance," he said as he talked about his regalia—who in his family made it, who honored him and his dancing by contributing parts of it. One's dance regalia, far from being simply a "costume," in the theatrical sense, evoke echoes of sacred history and ancestral information saturated with energy and power that are brought into the present moment.

3. Shifts in Social Context

Third, we can observe shifts in the social context of performance that altered the meaning of the dancing for Tim.

     First, a Pow-wow is fundamentally a participatory event. There are participants who dance and participants who are not dancing, but this is radically different from performing for the entertainment of an audience. For Tim, the AIDT turned his dancing into a "performance" in the Western sense of a presentational event for spectators, rather than a participatory act.

     Second, Pow-wows are multipurpose events and complex expressions of community, family, and ethnic identity. They feature not only highly skilled competitive dancing and music but also memorial feasts, honoring of family members, naming ceremonies, give aways, and more. None of these components was present in the AIDT production.

     Third, at a community Pow-wow, whether competitive or not, a dancer is dancing to honor family members and relatives and as a representative of that family and community. It is not an individualist enterprise: Pow-wows are fundamentally about belonging and community. As Tim put it, "It's medicine for me—a lot of my older people tell me—a lot of times you don't dance for yourself—you dance for someone that can't dance—maybe an old person or a person in a wheelchair sitting at the side—you get caught up in it and feel good out there. A lot of times we don't dance for ourselves we dance for other people."

     For dancers such as Tim, the shifts in meaning caused by changes in a) spatial deictics and the form space of the dance, b) time factors, and c) social context were a direct result of relocating Pow-wow dancing onto a proscenium stage for the entertainment of non-Native audiences. This resulted in an irrevocable, irresolvable loss of cultural relevance in the new context. Tim's response may have been unique, of course, and further research with other AIDT dancers is necessary to ascertain how typical this might be.

     We are now in a position to connect these findings to the four suggested foundational components of Indigenous North American personhood mentioned earlier:

Ancestral homelands

Ceremonial cycles/spiritual bonds


Sacred history

In violating all canons of the internal spaces of traditional Pow-wow dances, effectively turning them into a piece of tourist art for entertainment, AIDT performances sever connections to ancestral homelands, ceremonial cycles, language, and sacred histories.

     Ancestral homelands: Integral spiritual connections to land are renewed as one is dancing on the land of which one is a part and to which one is responsible. Those dancers who travel in many parts of "Indian Country" on what is referred to as the "Pow-wow circuit" in the summer months may be many miles away from their own nation's landscape, but the connections remain salient, and American Indians derive great strength from this relationship. Dancing on a stage removes this component, except in the imagination.

     Ceremonial cycles/spiritual bonds: These take many and diverse forms, both collective and personal. Even though Pow-wow dancing is more social in nature rather than "ceremonial" in the strict sense of that term, the complex social event that is a Pow-wow, spread over a period of three to four days, contains numerous ceremonies such as the honoring and naming ceremonies and memorial feasts mentioned earlier. In a historical context, it is also important to note that, during the colonial repression of American Indian dancing on reservations at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, repressive Indian agents could be persuaded to allow a 'social dance' on Euro-American national holidays such as July 4th or Labor Day. Adapting and disguising the spiritual and ceremonial were, thus, a form of resistance to colonial impositions.

     As we have seen, a Pow-wow event and Pow-wow dances remain replete with spiritual connections—to the sacred dance circle, to the powers of the four winds (cardinal directions), to dancing as enacted prayer for well-being—for self, relatives and community, among many other elements. A community Pow-wow is also held at a specific time of the year, each year, and so becomes a highly valued occasion in the annual cycle of community events. All these elements have been removed from the AIDT performances, contributing to a sense of loss of authorship/ownership.

     In addition, while entertaining tourists and strangers who know little or nothing of contemporary Indigenous communities, it is not uncommon for Hollywood Western stereotypes of the "primitive" dancing Indian body to be confirmed rather than disrupted by these staged performances. This is because non-Native audiences see the dancers through a colonial lens shaped by comfortably familiar, stereotypical images of Plains 'Indians,' which ever since the nineteenth-century Wild West shows and dime novels, have come to represent all 'real' Indians in the American popular imagination and beyond (see Deloria 1998, Farnell 2004). They are dressed in feathers and buckskin, wildly dancing their authentic primitive selves (as noble or wild savages, depending on one's sympathies) to the beat of a drum—timeless, "authentic," and "natural." The spoken-language deictics of racializing practices remains intact: the fact that "they" are "still here" dancing for "us" works to absolve members of the mainstream settler-colonizer society from feelings of guilt and minimizes any potential critical reflections about historical injustices, ethnic cleansing, and genocide (Farnell 2004).

     Language: Pow-wows also provide sometimes rare opportunities to hear and speak Indigenous languages in prayers and songs and also because elders are present. In addition, the announcer or master of ceremonies provides a constant stream of cultural narratives that include jokes, the teaching of correct protocols, and cultural conventions of all kinds, including admonitions. Pow-wows are, thus, important venues for learning community histories and cultural values, via spoken as well as movement languages. Bernadette Adely Santa Maria illustrates this with her grandmother's words: "If you do not sing the songs—if you do not tell the stories and if you do not speak the language—you will cease to exist as Ndee (Apache)" (Hernandez-Avila 2000). Again, little of this is present in an AIDT performance because only the dancing and some music are deemed "entertaining" to a non-Native audience.

     This is not separate from sacred histories, which are also disrupted by the absence of imaginative reconstructions of hunting stories and battles, visual enactments of stories passed down through generations of oral tradition.


For this Pow-wow dancer, subject to adapting his dancing to fit Eurocentric modes of presentation and notions of correct performance in a Western theatrical setting to entertain largely non-Native audiences, the alterations in space, time, and social context unambiguously altered and diminished the meaning. His authorship over his dancing and its indexical and semantic properties was lessened. Relationships to land, spirituality, language, and sacred histories were severed or disrupted, thereby lessening his dynamically embodied sense of self as an Indigenous person.

     Although AIDT performances were undoubtedly designed to create a particular experience for the audience, not the performer, I do not find it unrealistic to ask (or challenge?) such presenters to work toward the inclusion of at least some spatial principles (for example, form space and deixis) and the original ordering of events in order to lessen these potentially negative effects (as discussed previously, see Williams 2000 for an Ewe example from Ghana).

     While the AIDT producers employed a rhetoric of "authenticity" to market the company, the dancer engaged in a reflexive counterprocess of legitimization to maintain the cultural integrity of his dancing. That is, in explicitly recognizing the differences and rejecting the absence of meaningful spiritual satisfaction in his dancing in the new commercial and commodified context, Tim actively embraced the original embodied knowledge that he judged to be legitimate: legitimate because it carried the traditional authority that came from within his home community. Each time he performed with the AIDT, Tim engaged in a strategic process of resistance against the loss of authenticity; that is, he refused to let go of the prior semantic structure and content of his dancing, while physically submitting to the choreographic structure demanded by the new context. Over a considerable period of time, this disjuncture turned into a stressful experience that eventually led to his leaving the group.17

     In contrast to strong postmodernism, I have proposed a concept of authenticity as active and strategic processes of legitimization adhering to a variety of practices involving cultural change and their consequences. I have also sought to recover agentic components of these processes as authoring and authorizing, that is, as inclusive of the legitimizing perspectives of knowledgeable persons (as dynamically embodied agents) involved. Accusations of such legitimizing strategies as necessarily essentialist deny the right to such cultural claims. In seeking a middle ground that recognizes claims to truth, validity, and legitimacy held by Indigenous dancers and other knowledge holders as cultural members, this paper honors their response as valid.18


1 See Williams 1982 and 2004 for details of 'semasiology,' a theoretical approach grounded in British semantic anthropology and Saussurian semiotics. See also Farnell 1994, 1995, and 1999.

2 Buckland (2001: 1) makes reference to Bloch 1989[1974] as providing an instructive negative example of understanding formalized ritual as essentially unchanging, nondiscursive, and socially nontransformative.

3 Grau (2001), for example, cautions that, while Western influences among the Tiwi have transformed and often diminished their ritual life, they have also occasionally expanded it. She suggests that "when we see modernization as a sort of 'corruption' or 'perversion' it may say more about our aesthetic tastes and cultural conditioning than about culturally valid responses by individuals to a changing environment" (73). Following Baumann (1992), Grau questions a number of assumptions in anthropological treatments of ritual. Instead of celebrating the perpetuation of social values and self-knowledge, rituals may also speak of aspirations to cultural change; they may be performed by competing constituencies as well as ritual communities, and participants may frequently be outsiders as well as insiders.

4 In the diasporic context of a multicultural Europe, Gore (2001) questions the historical discourses that have contributed to constituting "African dance" as a generic form, one which seems to be gaining currency as public funding increasingly supports the programming of "African dance" classes—through educational and choreographic projects and stage events in theatrical and folklife contexts. In France, an African dance-teaching syllabus is under development as part of the national teaching diploma (Diplome d'Etat de Professeur de Danse) (Gore 2001: 30). She notes the possibility of opposing interpretations depending on location:

to Africans living outside their countries of origin and in relation to African cultural nationalisms, the construction and dissemination of "African dance" may have positive values. To those African peoples whose dances are not reified for inclusion under the general rubric and/or who may wish to resist the appropriation and globalization of local cultures, such a move may continue to be interpreted as a form of cultural imperialism (Gore 2001: 30n2).

5 The phrase "dynamically embodied knowledge" refers to, and builds upon, post-Cartesian understandings of body-mind relations and human agency that ground Williams's semasiological approach to the anthropology of human movement. This entails a concept of embodied personhood, grounded in physical as well as sociocultural being, with specifically human powers and capacities for action viewed as the exercise of agency in the service of meaning making. It works from the premise that we create and access distinct information through the moving body. This is generated and transmitted through auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and other sensorial experience and recollection, as well as language.

6 There is of, course, a certain irony attached to this appeal to the textual authority of a dictionary in examining the very concept of 'authenticity'!

7 In the philosophy of science, "essentialism," according to Popper, refers to the doctrine that it is the aim of science to discover the true nature or essence of things and to describe them by means of definitions. It involves the belief that knowledge or science starts with (theory-neutral) observations of individual events and then proceeds by simple inductive enumeration until their "essential" properties are grasped by intuition. Other essentialist doctrines include arbitrary claims such as "essences so discovered are unchanging," "every object has some ultimate single essence," and the dogmatic "we can obtain absolute, incorrigible knowledge of the essence of an object" (Sayer 1992: 163).

8 Buckland notes the discourses of authenticity at work in speculative histories of European dance traditions, when those associated with the classic "folk" paradigm cite the longevity of ceremonial dance performances as signaling evidence of authentic ritual, "more often than not a speculation often accompanied by interconnected assertions of ancientness, purity and legitimacy and evolutionist notions of pagan origins" (2001:1). See also Bendix 1997 on "authenticity" in folklore studies.

9 The postmodern critique has focused largely on discourses of identity and questions the very possibility of "authentic selves," especially in media-saturated societies. Attention has also been paid to the "politics of authenticity." In the United States, the self-presentation and discourses of politicians have also been subject to questions of "political authenticity" (which like 'reality TV' strikes one as an oxymoron). See, for example, Rossinow 1998 and Johnson 2003. I would argue that these are very different from constructing a sense of authenticity for oneself and to oneself as a participant/practitioner as is the case with the dancer to be discussed later.

10 This move parallels that of Handler and Linnekin (1984) in determining that "tradition" does not refer to "a core of inherited cultural traits whose continuity and boundedness are analogous to that of a natural object" but refers to a symbolic and interpretive process that embodies both continuity and discontinuity. As a scientific concept, "authenticity," like "tradition," fails when "those who use it are unable to detach it from the implications of Western common sense, which presumes that an unchanging core of ideas and customs is always handed down to us from the past" (273).

11 This paper extends an inquiry in a paper coauthored with Robert Wood and presented at the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) conference in 2006. We compare and contrast the case of American Indian Dance Theater with El Fanoun, a Palestinian popular folkloric dance troupe from the West Bank town of Ramallah, which, from 1998 to 2001, actively sought to incorporate change through cultural borrowing by inviting Wood, an expert in Western contemporary dance art, to conduct a choreographic residency. We note that both dance traditions exist in sites of ongoing colonial oppression, which entail loss of land, resources, and political autonomy. Sharing histories of displacement and military violence, Palestinians endure and resist an active military occupation and explicit violence waged against them daily, while, in the United States, the colonizers camouflage their violence via a complicit media, which ignores the violence, while struggles over land and resources continue and neocolonial appropriations of spiritual practices and other cultural knowledge remain rife (Farnell and Wood 2006).

12 The description that follows does not describe one specific event but emphasizes those features and principles common to the genre "Pow-wow" as enacted on the Northern Plains of the United States and witnessed by the author over the past twenty years in communities on the Fort Belknap, Fort Peck, Rocky Boy, and Crow reservations in Montana, as well as in urban Indian communities such as Chicago and university student powwows such as the University of Iowa.

13 The flags are usually the American and Canadian national flags, a state flag, tribal nation flag, and POW/MIA (prisoner of war/missing in action) flag.

14 On the Southern Plains, the direction of the progression is anticlockwise.

15 From a Labanotation perspective, this would be moving forward according to a 'constant frame of reference,' that is, 'to the front' (see Durr and Farnell 1980).

16 Again, this description is a composite based on the temporal structure of Pow-wow events generally. It is not any one event.

17 Tim is not alone among Native Americans in believing that to dance for tourists or other outside venues can lead to actual ill-health for the dancer. Rather than positioning this explanation as ungrounded superstition, "primitive" or otherwise, I prefer to interpret such remarks as a declaration that indexes one's claim to the lived authenticity of one's cultural being.

18 Acknowledgments: An earlier draft of this paper was presented as the Keynote Address at the Fourth Annual Conference of the Dance Research Society of Taiwan, National Dong Hua University, November 2007, in celebration of the first School of Indigenous Studies in Taiwan. It was subsequently published in the society's journal. I wish to honor and thank the Ami people and Ami ancestors on whose land we were privileged to gather. I am also indebted to Professors Chi-Fang Chao and Yuh-jen Lu of the Department of Indigenous Cultures and Professor Yung-Yu Wang, president of the Dance Research Society, Taiwan, for their kind invitation, for their hard work in organizing the conference, and for their most generous hospitality. I would also like to thank the anonymous reader of the paper for his or her insightful comments and suggestions.


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