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Reviewed by:
  • The People Have Never Stopped Dancing: Native American Modern Dance Histories
  • Deirdre Mulrooney (bio)
The People Have Never Stopped Dancing: Native American Modern Dance Histories. By Jacqueline Shea Murphy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007; 320 pp; illustrations. $75.00 cloth; $25.00 paper.

The poignant title of Jacqueline Shea Murphy's excellent and enlightening book refers to the notorious and controversial late-19th-century Ghost Dance phenomenon. Promising to invoke a peaceful end to white American expansion, the Ghost Dance, an apocryphal Christian/Native hybrid, was adapted in various guises among several Native tribes. Some Ghost dancers wore "ghost shirts" decorated with magic drawings purported to make them invulnerable to bullets—a notion of invincibility that contributed partly to the tragic death of 153 Lakota Sioux at the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. Challenging what seemed like defeat, Shea Murphy sets up her framework by quoting "trickster lawyer" Wilson Weasel Tail's theory that "it was the Europeans, not the Native Americans that expected results overnight" (1). Shea Murphy thus initiates us into this alternative worldview of "complex understandings of time, causation, ancestral connection" (1), as opposed to the prevalent Eurocentric one of causality and finitude. By exposing them, she encourages the reader to shake off the orientalist tendencies that have gotten in the way of understanding Native American dance.

Tracing the link between government policies, anti-dance policies, and the acquisition of Indian land, Shea Murphy explores the complex role of religion in Native American dance. She alludes to transitional late-19th-century Delsartian theories—which advocated dance as a tool for accessing an inner truth, and hence de-demonizing Native dance: "movement and gesture represented Christian religious 'truth,' and was not threatening in a Christian country" (54).

Early on Shea Murphy asserts the notion that Native dance is itself a form of knowledge and history. She traces a historic thread of corporeal control as manifest first in church and government policies towards ceremonial Native dancing. She lays out the connection between 19th-century Native American dance practices and federal policy, and then looks at the theatricalization of dancing dramatizing "the triumph of Anglo-American civilization over Native Americans" (Reddin 1999:44; in Shea Murphy 2007:61). She demonstrates how the "Stage Indian" and the Wild West was created in the popular imagination by the likes of Buffalo Bill and his Wild West shows. Shea Murphy astutely points out that "the public presentation of Indian dance as a way of disempowering it" (80) was how the non-Indian public dealt with their overriding fear of Indian dance's agency.

It is interesting to read that in the aftermath of Wounded Knee, Ghost dancers were taken out of prison to tour Europe as performers with Buffalo Bill—and then sent back to prison afterwards. The stage provided a place to contain and quell European fears, "assuaging non-Native viewers' anxieties and fears of attack and replacing them with fascinations and titillation at a safe distance" (75), demonstrating the prevailing federal belief in "the power of the stage, [End Page 191] and the stage life, to quell real warlike passions" (75). She goes on to illustrate how "theatricality was thus a disciplining institution, imposed on Native peoples in the late 19th century with the collusion of the US government as a way of containing and controlling Native people's agency and stealing more Native land" (88). This theatricalization ensured "availability to viewers in a primarily visual capitalist economy" (115)—for example the classic non-Native American representation of Indianness, Pocahontas.

Shea Murphy traces the classic imperial dynamic "they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented" through a historical gallery of stage Indians and show Indians (e.g., Black Elk dancing before the Queen in 1887); white icons of American modern dance "performing Indian" in elaborate regalia (e.g., Ted Shawn, Lester Horton); the subtle interiority of Martha Graham's Native American-inspired dances; José Limon; and finally indigenous dance artists of today including Daystar/Rosalie Jones, American Indian Dance Theatre, and Chinook Winds: Aboriginal Dance Project. She takes us on an incredibly detailed journey, contextualizing and tracing out Native American and modern dance against a backdrop of Native American...


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pp. 191-192
Launched on MUSE
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