restricted access 6. Performing Race
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6 Performing Race The question of my “identity” often comes up. I think I must be a mixed blood. I claim to be male, although only one of my parents was male. Jimmie Durham (Cherokee) Native American intertribal powwows are open, public sites where Indian and non-Indian dancing bodies visibly perform race in complex ways. I use the term “perform race” to refer to all those who dance at powwows, although in this chapter the focus is on Native dancers. Maintaining the centrality of bodies in motion, here I examine how race and racism affect the quality and meaning of both Native dance performance and the production of power. In chapter 7, I continue with a discussion of how and why non-Indians dance as “wannabes” at powwows and what that might mean. Intertribal powwows emerged in the historical and contemporary context of Indian hospitality. This is particularly true in the Northeast, where Indians had to deal with outsiders as early as the 1600s. As Lisa Brooks (Abenaki) explains: “Europeans were in the common pot, whether they knew it or not, and they had brought with them ideas, behaviors, and materials that could potentially disrupt or even destroy it. A central question that arose in Native communities throughout the northeast had to do with how to incorporate the ‘beings’ from Europe into Native space and how to maintain the network of relations in the wake of consequences—including disease and resource depletion—that Europeans brought to Algonquian shores” (2008, 7). The term “common pot” alludes to the Algonquian metaphor of the “dish with one spoon” and illustrates how Native concepts of a shared land and shared resources were so different from those of the newly arriving Europeans (Brooks 2008, 140). Richard Drinnon offers another perspective on Indian hospitality during the first years of contact: “Throughout the Americas tribal people extended their hands in friendship because they affirmed the invaders as parts of the Indians and Wannabes 108 creation they worshipped all the days of their lives. . . . And at the spiritual center of their great affirmation was the dance, the moving means of interweaving life, culture, land” (1987, 109). For centuries, Native Americans have provided spaces for cultural interaction through dance and other means. This does not imply that non-Indians were or are welcome at all ceremonies. Many sacred events exclude outsiders, though non-Indians might be invited to observe a particular ritual at a respectful distance. A key element of powwow as a performance genre is that Indians are the controlling majority, not Euro-Americans. During a powwow, the emcee gives a double message of welcome and friendly ridicule as he jokes about Indians and non-Indians alike. While continually reiterating that the powwow is open to everyone, he makes it clear that he and other Indians are in charge. As dance scholar Black Hawk Hancock points out in his discussion of the alternative social spaces African American communities created in Chicago, “These situations provide a counter-space to exercise cultural freedoms and expressions. In these spaces, a sense of community is constructed through an alternative set of values and social relationships than those of White society” (2005, 436). With the emcee “at the helm,” powwows are alternative spaces in which Native Americans set the rules. During a powwow, the emcee guides the arena program and, with the arena directors, dance judges, and others, maintains order in the entire performance area. He also reminds people about “those wonderful Indian things out there to look at and buy” and cordially invites powwow attendees to spend money at concession stands. In a specific example of Indians in command, at the Honor the Earth Powwow in Northampton in 1997, the emcee invited anyone who had achieved sobriety to put his or her name on a list, noting the length of time he or she had gone without using alcohol or drugs. One by one Native and non-Native men and women came forward, forming a row in front of the emcee tent. An intertribal dance followed that included people from many racial groups, though Indians led the group around the arena. The emcee and other Indians were clearly in control of this moment as all participants celebrated sobriety and then performed race in his or her own way. The astounding mix of people at intertribal powwows is a reflection of the diversity of the larger society. Individuals who attend powwows represent different ethnicities and varying degrees of ethnicity; some refer to...


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Subject Headings

  • Indians of North America -- Ethnic identity.
  • Indian dance -- North America.
  • Powwows -- North America.
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