Reviewing: “Why We Dance: American Indian Art in Motion”

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A Grass Dancer’s regalia is seen in the middle with the male and female regalia used for the Fancy Dance.

It’s been a while since I was able to go to an art museum and fully immerse myself in the exhibits. I recently moved back to Denver from a very isolated, rural area on the Oregon-Idaho border, as I’ve said before, and the closest city was Boise. I didn’t get to do much exploring while I lived there, much less visit any museums.

So, when I heard about all the new exhibits at the Denver Art Museum, I had to make time to see them. I was mainly visiting the museum to see the “Women of Abstract Expressionism” exhibit and had heard nothing about this exhibit until I walked into the contemporary building and saw the videos of Native dancing playing through the glass doors. I was immediately drawn to it.

“Why We Dance: American Indian Art in Motion” is a specially curated exhibit by the wonderful curators at the DAM. The exhibition features a mixture of video, painting, costumes and history all focused on the importance of dance in Native American culture. Visitors enter a partitioned area where videos of dancers from the DAM’s 2015 Friendship Powwow and American Indian Cultural Celebration, surround them. You can hear the chanting, jingling and music as you continue on through the exhibit. Visitors can also watch video interviews with dancers about how they got involved, why they dance their specific style, and why dancing is important to them. Plaques describe the different regalia, as well as the different dances done at certain times of the year and for certain purposes.

While in college at Arizona State University, I chose to pursue a minor in art history, and hope to return for my master’s in the same subject soon. The degree, and the minor, required students to take at least one class dealing with the art of indigenous cultures. This included African art,  Pacific Islander art, and American Indian art. My professor for my first survey class in this area was so passionate, that I later took his class focused specifically on American Indian art.

And wow, was it eye-opening. This was, by far, the most rewarding class I took while in college. I learned so much, not only history-wise, but also about contemporary Native art and practices. However, while my professor did focus very heavily on performance art, we never really talked about ritual dance at all. I knew it was a huge part of the culture, but we focused more on contemporary performance art during our class, which had a overarching goal of exposing us to contemporary Native artists and their message of visibility.

With this said, I was so grateful to DAM for hosting such an important exhibition. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that, not only do people have a stereotypical image of American Indians, but they stick this image in between the pages of history books. I don’t think a large majority of people realize that this culture is still alive and thriving today. There are people who still stick to their traditions fiercely, and that includes ritual dancing. As I was going through the exhibit, I found the video interviews to be one of the most important parts of the exhibit. Hearing people explain their dancing style and why they do it was very moving and helps visitors recognize the importance of dance in this culture.

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A Jingle Dancer’s regalia.

Plaques describe the different regalia, as well as what is worn for a specific dance. For example, men wear buffalo heads for the Buffalo Dance, in which the people ask for the buffalo to return each year so that they may provide food for their families. I found the Jingle Dance to be especially interesting. The Jingle Dance, normally performed by women wearing regalia with small tin pieces sewn on, is done to help heal those who are sick or need healing in other ways. It was also interesting to learn that dance is a rite of passage for young children in the various tribes.

At the back of the exhibit is a digital piece entitled “Round Dance.” Here a circle of screens show a video of people of all sorts dancing and singing in a circle. Viewers are invited to stand between the screens to complete the circle. The installation was used as part of an indigenous movement to protest the Canadian government’s abuses of treaty rights and environmental protections for Native tribes. This is definitely an interesting installation and provides only a peek into the way installations and other contemporary art forms are used as protest in Native Art. I kind of wish they had more pieces like this in the exhibit, because it is becoming such a huge part of Native Art and would help even more people realize the presence of American Indian culture in its truest form.

All in all, this is a very wonderful, very important exhibit. Unfortunately, it closed on August 14. Hopefully DAM will bring it back next year, but in the meantime you can visit the American Indian collection in on levels two and three of the North Building. The museum will also be hosting its annual Friendship Powwow this year on September 10. Admission is free. The event will feature music and dance from several different tribes from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in front of the Hamilton Building.  I will definitely be going this year and I hope to see you all there!

What do you think about “Why We Dance: American Indian Art in Motion”? How do you think contemporary art adds to the dialogue of American Indian culture in our present day? What is your favorite American Indian dance and why? Let’s talk. 

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