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Naomi Cat Chythlook and MJ Hodge

Dance CUE
May 13, 2016
Examining the Native American Influence on Modern Dance in the United States

Note from the authors: It is impossible to discuss Native American cultures without using
language that homogenizes the multitude of peoples that Native heritage includes. It is important
to these authors to claim that Native American peoples are varied and many; the level of
generalization that Native peoples experience is a disservice to the diverse histories of the
peoples. The sources referenced in this paper, however, each used homogenizing language, so in
the interest of clarity and brevity, we will use familiar terms that are rooted in the homogenized
language, being specific whenever possible.

From the late nineteenth into the twentieth century, Native peoples fought to maintain
their heritages and livelihoods, combating the U.S. government and the white American colonists
that gradually moved further into the western frontier. As they moved westward, white peoples
brought Christianity and new forms of media with which they attempted to assimilate Natives
into the modern American culture. This created tension between the cultures while stimulating
cultural exchange. One of the early ways that Native American cultures began to influence
western perspectives was through the lens of modern dance. Many of the pioneers of modern
dance in America became influenced by Native aesthetics and incorporated Native movements
into their work. Western values still differed from Native values in many ways, however. In her
analysis of the manner in which collective memory can inform a cultures traditions, Rebecca

Schneider describes a conflict in values that applies perfectly to the relationship between white
and Native cultures:

This is perhaps because the words document and evidence and record are, by
the repetitively assumed farce of convention in cultures privileging literature over
orature [] habitually understood in distinction to the bodily, the messily, the
disappearing live. That chronopolitics of race and gender haunt the privileging
of document over embodied act should go without saying - but of course, cannot.1

In Schneiders examples of the words document, evidence, and record are implicit
realities of western culture, that a people needs a physical artifact to represent their collective
knowledge in order to preserve the thoughts. This artifact usually takes the form of a manuscript,
such as the Bible. Schneider is quick to note the distinction between physical objects and the
physical body, since cultures that value literature over orature place physical objects as more
acceptable modes of transferring information than bodies. Her note on the relationship of race to
histories of conflict between peoples who value literature versus peoples who value orature also
directly informs the unique American perspective on this comparison.
Schneiders description of the tension between cultures who differ in their values of
literature and orature allows us to compare the notions of authenticity in the Native American
and western mindsets. Western culture values literature for preserving ideas and histories,
believing it to be the most accurate method of record-keeping, whereas many Native cultures
have historically used the oral tradition to pass down their mythologies and histories, viewing
1 Schneider, Rebecca. "Reenactment and Relative Pain." 2011. In The Performance Studies Reader, edited by Henry
Bial and Sara Brady, 138-51. Third ed. New York: Routledge, 2016. 143.

bodily memory as a valid tool in the transference of knowledge. The difference in the contrasting
cultures views of which form provides authenticity and preservation fueled competition between
Natives and whites, adding to the already established us versus them dynamic, so present in
intercultural relationships.
In an effort to make western culture and literature more accessible to the Cherokee
people, missionaries from several denominations of Christianity embarked on attempts to
translate the Christian Bible into the Cherokee language, as described by Owens.2 This serves as
an example of how many whites tried to work with Natives in order to bring the cultures to a
deeper understanding of one another; William F. Cody, known as Buffalo Bill, also worked at
playing Indian in order to represent the people of the American plains through entertainment in
his Wild West shows, believing this to be a way to educate the public on Native customs and
lifestyles.3 He staged the lives of Natives on the frontier through acts involving attacks on wagon
trains and feats of horsemanship, cementing the stereotypical image of an Indian in the
American and European minds.4 This image, however, was a parodic one, crafted through the
amalgamation of many different Native peoples dress, behavior, and customs. Both Natives and
whites portrayed Native Americans in these productions, blurring the lines between what was an
authentic representation and what was misunderstood.5
Some whites argued for the assimilation of Native peoples into white American culture;
this mentality was reflected in the 1923 TO ALL INDIANS message from the Commissioner of
2 Pamela Jean Owens. "Bible Translation and Language Preservation: The Politics of the Nineteenth Century
Cherokee Bible Translation Projects." The Bible Translator 57, no. 01 (2006): 1-10.

3 Green, Rayna. 1988. The Tribe Called Wannabee: Playing Indian in America and Europe. Folklore 99 (1).
[Folklore Enterprises, Ltd., Taylor & Francis, Ltd.]: 37.

4 Ibid., 38.
5 Ibid.

Indian Affairs, which stated that Natives were warned to cease performances of any kind.6
Murphy includes Ted Shawns response to this letter, expressing his distaste with such a mindset,
as he states dance is the fundamental art of the human race. 7 Early in his career, Shawn
became aware of Native Americans in the southwestern U.S., and over the course of his career as
a modern dancer and choreographer he was interested in Native dance. He created works that
presented himself and his dancers as Natives, often using movement he appropriated from the
dances of many different peoples of the southwestern U.S. While his attention to Native
movement aesthetics fostered creativity for new work, his framing merely introduced movement
that was palatable for white western audiences as it primitivized the movements and costuming
of the peoples he attempted to represent, effectively exoticizing Native American dance on a
white body.8 In his portrayal of Native movements, Shawn took hostage the conversation on
Native dance, transforming it into a monologue of misinterpretation. Shawn is not the only
modern choreographer to take interest in Native American dances; among others are Martha
Graham, Erik Hawkins, and Lester Horton.
Lester Horton has claimed Native American history, however there is no known factual
evidence to support this. Hortons interest in Native movement aesthetics chronologically
overlapped with Shawns, and he shared the assumptions and stereotyping found in Shawns (as
well as Grahams) work.9 Hortons company hired some Native American members, providing a
primary perspective on the movement. Inspired by the spiritual aspects of Native dance, Horton
6 Murphy, Jacqueline Shea. 2007. The People Have Never Stopped Dancing: Native American Modern Dance
Histories. NED - New edition. University of Minnesota Press. 111.

7 Ibid.
8 Ibid. 122.
9 Ibid., 131.

intended to present a genuine interpretation of the movement as he examined the nature of the
aesthetics. Although he tried to honor the heritage of the dances he used, he fell into
appropriative tendencies without the proper cultural background and base of knowledge.
Horton used techniques rooted in Native dance in his later works, however in these works
specifically, his intent was not to create explicitly Native American pieces; his modern work
utilized the aesthetics of group work and shaping indicative of Native American styles, working
to fully intertwine them with the western modern values.10 His fascination with Native dance
forms could have been influenced by his identification with Native Americans as an Othered
being, as asserted by Lewitzky.11 As a homosexual man in the early twentieth century, Horton felt
the pressures of conformity to American society that he saw in the experiences of the Native
performers with whom he collaborated, and it is possible that he attempted to connect with other
marginalized identities in order to find a sense of belonging in his work. The intersectionality
that arises in the relationship of Horton to Native dancers provides an even deeper understanding
of the manner in which dance could be used to represent the Other.
As a brown body in dance, Jos Limn provided a voice for Mexican and Native
American cultures in the American modern dance genre. Surprisingly, his identity as a non-white
individual with experiences of Mexican and Native cultures is not often discussed in relation to
his perspective on dance and technique, even though he experienced discrimination within the
field both for not being white enough and for not being Native enough or brown enough to fit the
familiar concepts of what those identities should look like.12 Limn meant for his dances to be

10 Ibid., 133.
11 Ibid., 137.
12 Ibid., 176.

fully human in presentation; he strived to achieve a universal form that could be accessible to all
peoples, regardless of ethnicity.13
Limns search for the universal dance forgets that any attempt in creating a universal
form will ultimately exclude at least one identity, as there is no way to combine every
individuals diverse experience into one form. A universal dance form would lack the
authenticity of each unique identity that has contributed to it in the confusion of cultures and
homogenization of peoples, just as the American stereotypical image of the Indian fails to
encompass the breadth of experiences within the Native peoples heritages.
World dance and world music are terms that the western population uses to signify the art
forms of non-western identities.14 In the United States, Native American dance is taught as world
dance, suggesting its place is not within the category of traditional American art forms,
effectively placing it as an Other. It would be an erroneous claim to state that Native American
dance has no place in the modern American context. Native dance is rooted in cultures that not
only helped shape the United States socio-political structures, but shaped the techniques and
stylistic endeavors of the pioneers of modern dance in America.15 Recognizing the depth of the
influence Native dance has had on the growth of modern dance in the twentieth century United
States, especially with regard to Horton and Limn techniques, is an important factor in the
education of dance in America; in order for dancers to truly embody the aesthetics of their art
form, they must gain an understanding of the history behind their movement.
13 Ibid., 147.
14 Gil, Gilberto. "World Music Is Greater than the World Music." GILBERTO GIL. November 30, 1992. Accessed
April 20, 2016.

15 Green, Rayna. 1988. The Tribe Called Wannabee: Playing Indian in America and Europe. Folklore 99 (1).
[Folklore Enterprises, Ltd., Taylor & Francis, Ltd.]: 32.