We Are A Dancing People

One of the most spectacular contemporary intertribal dance competitions is the World Hoop Contest held every February in Phoenix at the Heard Museum. The 2019 winner was a young Creek man from Florida named Cory Boettner who won the Adult Division after top-ten finishes for three years running.

Winner Hoop Dance Competition

And placing an impressive Third Place in the Senior Division was Moontee Sinquah – he is part Choctaw! Who knew!

“The Sinquah Family Dance Troupe are Hopi/Tewa/Choctaw nations, from the Hopi villages located in northern Arizona. The troupe consists of Moontee Sinquah and his sons, Sampson and Scott, all of whom are deeply rooted in the Hopi culture and tradition. They will tell you music is the medicine that allowed them to make a life that helped them endure, and also educate and entertain people all over the world.

In addition to music, they are World Champion Hoop Dancers; titles they hold humbly and with it seek to educate and entertain as much as possible. Their ultimate goal is to inspire all youth to find a profession that will help their community.”

Montee Sinquah Family Dance Troupe

“In addition to being World Champion Hoop Dancers, Moontee is a champion Grass Dancer, Scott is a champion Fancy War Dancer and Sampson is a champion Prairie Chicken Dancer in the USA and Canada. The Sinquah family are well known in the pow wow circuit and traveling internationally with other very talented musicians has brought an influence to their traditional and contemporary music and dance mix.

They have preformed throughout Europe (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy and Denmark- Roskilde Festival); Malaysia; all across Canada (from the Vancouver Folk Fest to the Sky Dome in Toronto); and in the United States (1998 Olympics, Atlanta & 2002 Winter Olympics, Salt Lake City, Utah to the Grass Roots Festival, Trumansburg, New York 1997-2018).” ~~from the Woodland Cultural Center, Canada.

Mens Fancy dancer Corey LeClair, Lakota-Navajo
Men’s Fancy Dancer Corey LeClair, Lakota-Navajo 2010 – Ken Blackbird photo

It is surely a miracle that our Native American communities have been able to preserve their spirit of dance. As the twentieth century approached, many political and cultural attitudes worked together to snuff out the Native American practices. After all, why retain obsolete ceremonies that had no place in the future? It was a question that even Native Americans asked themselves, as their government, tribal schools and communal lands disappeared.

The late 1800s saw the last bands of  Indians forced into reservations, their  gatherings in general discouraged by federal agencies. The ceremony most feared by the government was the popular Ghost Dance, a non-violent ceremony to restore peace and harmony to the tribes. But governmental agencies saw the practice as subversive and responded with military force to eradicate the dance, culminating in the massacre of peaceful attendants at Wounded Knee in 1890 (Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota). After Wounded Knee, the remaining Indian tribes lost all autonomy and most were forcibly assimilated into mainstream white society.

The Sun Dance was another important ceremony practiced by the Lakota (Sioux) and nearly all Plains Indians. It was a sacred ceremony of healing for the renewal for the tribe, the people, and the earth. Men were required to undergo “piercing,” with two cuts made on each side of the dancer’s chest, then wooden pegs inserted through the pectoral muscle. The spiritual leader, or shaman, of the tribe supervised all parts of the ceremony. sun-dance

But the dance was viewed as outrageously barbaric by the white man and prohibited by the federal Indian Agencies in 1904 – then finally reinstated by the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Before Oklahoma statehood, Indians requested approval for their tribal gatherings, which were often announced in the local paper. In May 1904 prior to a great tribal dance at El Reno by the Cheyenne and Arapaho, the Daily Oklahoman assured its readers that “there is nothing in them calculated to provoke a disturbance of the peace,” and that they would return to their homes the next day.

1904 Permission for Tribal Dance

Slowly the mainstream attitude toward Indians changed. They were no longer seen as a violent, murderous breed, but now as a form of entertainment – on the big screen and at the powwows. And entertainment of great exuberance. Such was the case for the Pickens Intertribal PowWow, established in 1956 by the Choctaw and Chickasaw Tribes.

Pickens Intertribal PowWow 1957

The change that really mattered was a change in attitude by the Choctaw themselves and by other tribes. It became important to the Choctaw people that their culture survive, that their dances be authentic with equally authentic costumes. And I think, like Moontee Sinquah, this spirit of dance and celebration helped the Choctaw people to endure.

No doubt the Mississippi Choctaw Band was crucial in helping the Oklahoma Choctaw re-discover their dancing heritage, as they steadfastly refused to assimilate into the white communities.  But the Oklahoma Choctaw also contributed. I first found historian Rev. Oscar Gardner, a man of towering accomplishments for his people. Through the Presbyterian ministry, Rev. Gardner worked with communities and youth associations in southeast Oklahoma at every opportunity.Photo Rev. Oscar Gardner

1954 Better Days for Goodland

At some point, in addition to his many good works, Rev. Gardner became an expert on Choctaw lore and customs, including Choctaw tribal dance. After all he grew up in the historic Bennington area, the grandson of Trail of Tears survivors William A. Gardner and Mary Ann Wilson Gardner.

One of the people he inspired was a young Choctaw man, Robert “Bob” Sweat, who grew up in Hugo, Oklahoma. After Bob Sweat returned from World War II, serving three years with the Marines in the South Pacific, he became acquainted with Rev. Gardner, who at the time was serving as the Superintendent at the Goodland Orphanage. With Rev. Gardner’s help, Bob Sweat traveled the southeast, presenting the Choctaw tribal dances, which he interpreted and supplemented with legendary stories.

By 1960 both men had left us:  Rev. Gardner in June 1958 from a heart attack while driving to a church meeting in Kentucky – Obituary at Find-A-Grave; Bob Sweat, a Texas college professor, in a single car accident in Houston, Texas in March 1960 – Obituary at Find-a-Grave.

No doubt many other people added to their knowledge and enthusiasm on Choctaw customs. But the torch appears to have been passed to another native minister of the cloth, the Rev. D. Eugene Wilson of Idabel, Oklahoma, who organized the “Oklahoma Choctaw Dance Troupe.” Their first public performance was on June 8, 1974 at the Owa-Chitto Festival at Beavers Bend State Park, McCurtain County, Oklahoma. In authentic costumes, they performed the dances that we now are familiar with: War Dance, Turtle Dance, Stealing-Partners Dance, among others.

OK Choctaw Dance Troupe-crop
Oklahoma Choctaw Dance Troupe performing the War Dance 1974

According to one researcher, Mr. James H. Howard, “prior to their removal from Alabama and Mississippi to the Indian Territory in 1831, and in the years immediately following, the Choctaw were known for their colorful social and ceremonial dances. The artist George Catlin, in 1834, painted and described the Ball-play dance and the Eagle dance of the Choctaw as he observed them in what is now southeastern Oklahoma. Following Catlin’s visit, however, the record falls silent. Presumably the Choctaw continued to perform their native dances for some years, but a careful search of the published literature and archival sources by this writer has failed to uncover any traveler’s or historian’s account of Oklahoma Choctaw dances, or any pictorial record of same.”

Mr. Howard stated that the Oklahoma Choctaw bowed to pressure from religious figures to give up their pagan practices. “Statements of Choctaw informants and Whites who have grown up in the Choctaw country indicate that in a few Choctaw communities in Oklahoma traditional social dances were performed, but apparently this was always done sub rosa in private homes for fear of criticism by native Christian ministers.  Tribal officials discouraged such activities as well. To all intents and purposes, then, the dance tradition of the Oklahoma Choctaw was dead. Many of the present writer’s Choctaw students at Oklahoma State University, in the period 1968-1974, unaware that their tribe had ever possessed Indian dances of their own, inquired about this and wondered why the Choctaw were so different from other Indians in this respect.”

Mr. Howard observed that, “in the late 1960ss and early 1970’s many of the youth and younger adults among the Oklahoma Choctaw began to be stirred by the “New Indian” awareness affecting Native Americans throughout North America. This manifested itself in many ways. For some Choctaw participation in all-Indian gospel singing groups or all-Indian athletic teams was deemed sufficient as a means of expressing their Indian identity.

Other Choctaw have sought to reaffirm their ethnicity by participating in the Pan-Indian pow-wow complex, joining in the Plains Indian-derived War dance and Gourd dance under the tutelage of their Kiowa, Comanche, and Ponca friends. One such Choctaw is Frank Watson, who is an enthusiastic War dancer in the “Straight War dance” tradition. Frank actively participates in Comanche, Kiowa, Ponca, and other Plains tribe’s dances and has attempted, though with indifferent success, to sponsor Pan-Indian pow-wows in the Choctaw area of Oklahoma and interest his fellow tribesmen in the pow-wow complex. 

For other Oklahoma Choctaw, neither of these routes was acceptable, since both are ultimately non-Choctaw in origin. A small group of these seekers after their own cultural roots began, a few years ago, to visit the Mississippi Choctaw for instruction in native music, dance, and costuming. The favorite occasion for these visits was the week of the annual Mississippi Choctaw Tribal Fair, held each year in mid-July. The fair takes place at the Choctaw Cultural Center, Pearl River Community, near Philadelphia, Mississippi, and features stick ball games, Choctaw arts and crafts, and Choctaw social dances. It was this fair which provided the main source of inspiration for the revival of Choctaw dances in Oklahoma.”

The ball was rolling and interest continued to build. The first newspaper story I found about the Choctaw Labor Day Festival was from the Daily Oklahoman on Aug 28, 1976. As we now know, with the restoration of the magnificent Choctaw Council House, this festival has become the main gathering time for many Choctaws.

1976 First Choctaw Labor Festival

It makes sense to me that our native ministers, like Rev. Gardner and Rev. Wilson, would play a large role in building interest in the Choctaw native dance, especially to give Choctaw young people a wholesome activity, and at the same time help the young folks rediscover the distinct cultural heritage that is Choctaw, and in doing so, to help young people find a piece of themselves that they had always searched for, without knowing.

Leonard Paul-Young and Proud
“Young and Proud” (Choctaw Dancer), by Leonard Paul 2001

Much gratitude for all our historians. May we always celebrate our connections to tradition and spirituality.

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***YAHOKE, ikana! Thank you, friends. Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***
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Sources:

“Have Their Tribal Dance,” The Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), Friday, May 13, 1904, Page 3.

“Better Days for Goodland,” The Southeast Oklahoman (Hugo, Oklahoma) Thursday, May 13, 1954, Page 1.

The Sinquah Family Dance Troupe,” Woodland Cultural Centre.”

James H. Howard, “Oklahoma Choctaw Revive Native Dances,” (date unknown), Minor Collections, Oklahoma Historical Society Research Division.

Ken Blackbird Collection, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Native Artist Leonard Paul website; the painting “Young and Proud” owned by the Choctaw Nation.

Photo Oklahoma Choctaw Dance Troupe, #17911, Dorothy and Marcia Walton Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society Research Division

Banner photo for blog courtesy of Choctaw Nation website.

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