The Redhawk Native American Arts Council treated Geneseo to an educational dance performance on Tuesday Oct. 18 as a part of the college’s Cultural Harmony Week. The council is made up of Native American artists and educators seeking to spread knowledge and awareness for their people and their culture. Four dancers from the council traveled all the way from New York City to perform the traditional Native American dances. They also explained the dances’ significance before holding an open discussion.
The dancers—all beautifully dressed in traditional garb—performed several dances, each of which symbolized different meanings within their native tribes. A drum and a single voice accompanied all the dances, as the drum is a crucial symbol in the dances. Its circular shape represents the earth, and in the Native American culture—as well as many other cultures around the world—the Earth is believed to be a living creature. So the beat of the drum will always resemble a heartbeat.
Before each dance, the council explained the individual stories that the dances represented. “Jingle Dress Dance” is a healing dance that tells the story of a little girl whom the rain healed. The dancer wore an ornate dress with small silver cones that covered the bottom, jingling as she danced. Each cone represented a prayer that was said for the sick girl, and the noise they made symbolized the rain that healed her.
The way the dancers dress is often significant to the dances, too. They all wore feathered headdresses, explaining that the number of feathers serves to differentiate the tribes from one another. Members of the Seneca tribe—who are the people that once inhabited this area—wore only one feather in their headdresses, while others wore two, three or none. The feathers are so vital to their culture, in fact, that the Native Americans are actually the only people legally permitted to possess feathers from the protected Golden Eagle.
After the dances, the four council members gathered to answer questions from the audience. They explained the challenges that Native Americans face in addition to talking about their feelings regarding the current state of Native American culture in the United States.
“The founding of this country is a very sad part of the history of the world,” Director of Redhawk Native American Arts Council Cliff Matias said.
Now it is their goal to remind people of our country’s history and to help people “understand that these traditions and the people behind them are real, and [that] they matter,” according to the Redhawk Native American Arts Council. It is a culture that only exists in history books in addition to being misrepresented within Hollywood films—but it’s also something that many people in this country live and experience everyday.
While it’s vital to provide a space for Native American culture in today’s society, the council explained that their greatest goal is not to retake the country that was once theirs, but to live in harmony with all of the American people. Matias explained that this is the very nature of their culture.
“We don’t want people to leave, we want people to respect each other,” Matias said. “When the pilgrims came to America, [the natives] wanted to make the pilgrims Wampanoags … they wanted to adopt them.”
Of course, as Americans, we should know by now that the pilgrims had no intention of living in harmony with the native peoples, and after two years 50 percent of the Wampanoag population was extinguished.
Despite the long and grueling journey the Native Americans have faced, however, the council has hope for the future: “The whole world is changing. People are changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.”
One member of the Students Against Social Injustice group on campus inquired what Geneseo students could do right now to help the Native American culture. “You’re talking about it … and that’s the first step,” Matias said.
We as students are powerful in changing how the world views cultural differences, because—as people constantly point out—we are the future of this country. Though a notoriously trite statement, these kinds of thoughts lead to the types of conversation and cultural appreciation that is vital for change.
We have the power to make cultural harmony last much longer than just one week.