Native American dance takes flight in San Diego
By Gina McGalliard
Reasons to dance may be as numerous as dancers themselves, but for the Soaring Eagles, it’s a way to connect with long-lost Native American ancestral roots.
Founded in June 2008, in only a year and a half this San Diego-based children’s Native American powwow dance performance group has more than doubled its starting enrollment, performed at various functions throughout San Diego County, participated in powwows at nearby reservations such as Barona, Sycuan, and Soboba, received requests from reservations to teach powwow dancing, and even traveled outside California to perform. And best of all, according to project coordinator Vickie Gambala, the kids have had such a great experience that the group has yet to lose even one student.
Blossoming from the start
Soaring Eagles was conceived in April 2008, when local parents felt there was a need to pass on to their children the Native American traditions of song and dance. They went to Gambala, director of the American Indian Education Title VII program for almost three decades, who then approached Southern California American Indian Resource (SCAIR) about starting a dance program. The organization agreed to provide funding and asked Chuck Cadotte, who had been holding Native American arts and crafts classes for kids and whose grandchildren are professional powwow dancers, to be the dance instructor. The program is jointly funded by SCAIR and the San Diego Indian Center but exists largely by donations, enabling all students to take class for free.
Today, an average Soaring Eagles class contains 30 to 40 children, all from a variety of tribal backgrounds, from Cherokee to Sioux to Navajo, and from every corner of San Diego, home to more Native American reservations than any other U.S. county.
Every Wednesday the group, ranging from toddlers to teenagers, gathers for dance instruction accompanied by live drumming and singing, a potluck dinner, and Native American storytelling, history, and prayer. Although girls outnumber boys, fathers often encourage their sons to dance.
Some kids, though, had to warm to the idea. “When I first brought him here, he was reluctant to even come in,” says David Gloria of his 12-year-old-son, Danny. “He actually likes hip-hop a little bit. And then, after about six weeks or so, when he finally got to feel the music and the beat and how he was able to express himself, he really opened up to dance and loved it. And he doesn’t want to stop.”
The kids aren’t the only ones who found a new interest; parents joined the classes as of last spring. “The parents are so enthused about it that they want to learn how to dance too,” says Cadotte.
Roots of powwow
Of great importance to Native American culture is the powwow, an outdoor celebration of song and dance that Cadotte describes as “a showcase of life.” At the center of the action is the arena where traditional dances are performed, usually in a circle. For many tribes, the summer months are the peak of the powwow season due to warm weather. However, in sunny Southern California, powwows are held year-round, providing an abundance of performance opportunities. Soaring Eagles dancers attend powwows about once a month in addition to other scheduled performances, mostly at elementary schools but also in parades, on college campuses, and at cultural events.
Although performing outside the ritual celebrations is acceptable, Cadotte always adds a prayer before the dancing “so that people will see that we do this with a spiritual aspect to it,” he says. Prayer and dance go hand in hand in Native American culture, says Cadotte, and powwows always include prayer. Because performances outside of the powwows typically include non-Native American audiences, Cadotte also presents a short lecture on the history of the dances.
The graceful movements of grass dancing are meant to mimic grass swaying with the wind, while the northern traditional dance, conveying a story of tracking prey or a battle, goes with the beat of the drum.
Dance styles, with their corresponding regalia, range from the northern traditional, southern straight, and grass dances for males and the fancy shawl and jingle dances for females. The graceful movements of grass dancing are meant to mimic grass swaying with the wind, while the northern traditional dance, conveying a story of tracking prey or a battle, goes with the beat of the drum. The fancy shawl dance is characterized by jumping and twirling and swaying arms, and the feet hit the floor in time with the drum beats. According to Cadotte, the dance was originally known as the butterfly dance because the shawls open in a way that resembles a butterfly spreading its wings. The origin of the dance, he says, is a love story in which a young woman was sitting on a rock, waiting for her friend to return. Upon seeing him, she jumped off the rock and began dancing about, opening the blanket she had wrapped around her. The jingle dress dance, to a lesser extent, is also a jumping dance, with less complex footwork.
Dressing the part
An integral part of powwow dancing is the dancers’ elaborate, colorful regalia, often embellished with intricate geometric designs chosen by each dancer. In order to outfit the Soaring Eagles dancers, parents participate in sewing classes held concurrently with their children’s dance classes. Most of the material is donated, including custom-made moccasins. “Once they have [the costumes], they just want to get out there and dance harder than they do in class,” says Cadotte.
In the jingle dance, the women wear dresses adorned with numerous small tin cones, which make noise as the dancer moves. Both the dance and the dress emerged from a dream in which a man whose daughter was ill was told that if he wanted his daughter to be healed, the jingle dress must be made and certain dance steps performed. When the dance was done in real life, the daughter recovered, and the jingle dance is now known as a healing dance.
Soaring far and high
Soaring Eagles was so named because, in Gambala’s words, “[The children are] going to grow; they’re going to fly; they’re going to prosper.” So far the group has been to Arizona, where the dancers were warmly received at the Haualapai reservation; the trip included a visit to the Grand Canyon. “Some of our kids had never traveled that far, never been outside of California,” says Gambala, “so it was really exciting for them.” Plans are in the works to perform in Panama, a trip Gambala hopes will lead to more international travel.
Discovering their roots
Soaring Eagles offers far more than learning to dance: For many children, it’s the first opportunity they’ve had to learn Native American culture and to take pride in their heritage. For many of these families, their culture was lost when their ancestors were assimilated into European-American society. Many of them were placed in missions, which forced Christianity on them and split families apart.
“They didn’t really have that family connection, and they learned the European ways,” says Cadotte. “Also, on other reservations the children were taken from their homes and placed into boarding schools, so they weren’t close to the tribal dances and the everyday teachings of the families.” In addition, many Native Americans move to urban areas, away from their tribes.
Randy Edmonds, the Soaring Eagles’ prayer leader and a senior advisor to SCAIR, feels that his role is “to bring the spirituality of our people to the Soaring Eagles, because they are very young and they haven’t learned the spiritual part of our people. They’re learning how to dance; they’re learning the songs as they dance. So I provide that to them every week—to make sure they get that part of our culture, our traditions of prayer, to thank the Great Spirit for everything He’s given us.”
Sewing instructor Carla Trouville, whose grandchildren dance in the program, hopes Soaring Eagles provides a sense of ethnic pride she missed out on in her own childhood. “I hope they’re getting the knowledge of their culture, because I never had that growing up,” says Trouville, adding that her grandmother had been ashamed to be Native American. “I grew up here in San Diego thinking I was an Anglo surfer chick, and I tell my grandkids, ‘Be happy. Be proud of who you are, even though you’ve got a little bit of Native American in you—be proud you even have that little piece.’ ”
Soaring Eagles is also a place to be with other Native Americans, a precious opportunity for those who do not live on reservations. “You get to dance a lot, and you’re around so many other people like you,” says 10-year-old Alfreda Clemnons, whose aunt first brought her to class.
A sense of family
For Soaring Eagles, dance is the vehicle to a sense of unity and belonging in a world where once close-knit extended families and communities are increasingly fragmented and disconnected.
“We’re urban Indians,” says Gambala. “Most of us here do not have extended family. Just like me and my daughter and granddaughter—we’re the only ones here from our family. And to me, the urban community—it’s a family at home. We’ve hung onto each other for support, for everything. That’s why the kids, I think, feel so bonded with each other—because it’s one big family.”