Saturday, August 29, 2009


A coincidence in my online stream reached out and tapped me this morning. The first was a piece picked up by Arts Journal in someone’s blog. It was about a study done by Andrea Lunsford, a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, She’s been collecting samples of student writing of all kinds -- in class, private, all media -- and doing other surveys of how much college kids write. The surprise is that more than one third of their time is spent writing! And we thought they’d all gone to image and word. They’re moving away from YouTube to twitter and blog, more writing than in the day of pen and ink, and all with an audience in mind. In the professor’s opinion, it is GOOD writing. Maybe not typical, maybe not elite college scholarly writing, but well-adapted to the receiver and quite vivid.

It’s worth going to the following url just to see Lunsford’s picture, which is far from being either the post-mod chick or the frazzled feminist. She has the look of Renaissance about her.

At the same time, Rolland Nadjiwan, my Cree-Chippewa poet friend in Canada, sent out to his circle this url for a You Tube:

This “mash” has become a subject of controversy among Indians. For those of you who don’t have broadband, it is synchronized pow-wow dancing -- which I have never seen before and find incredibly powerful -- coordinated with Chubby Checker’s “Let’s do the twist.” I don’t think this is done in a spirit of mockery, but the original dancing would have been with a traditional drum group.

One of the dancers says in comments: “this vid was taken at 1995 Red Earth Pow Wow, Oklahoma ... I am one of the dancers you see here . . . um, I am not happy with the disrespect of our traditions in this way . . . Of course you don't see any disrespect. Samskhara, you are not native, not had the teaching, and know very little of the culture, obviously. Um, let me put it this way, what is called Archeology to one culture is called grave robbing to the one's who see their ancestral lands desecrated by non-indigenous grave robbers.”

That comment carries a lot of weight, but my reaction is that this is a lot like me saying a young woman looked like Shelley Winters, which sent her into a tailspin of offense because she was young and thought of poor Shelley as the raddled old woman she was at the end instead of the sleek starlet she was when I first knew her in the movies. Why is timing this to a much loved dance mode any more critical to the past than thinking up synchronized pow-wow dancing in the first place?

replies, “Excuse me, but I do not see disrespect in it. I see it as a way to demonstrate the possibility of two different cultures through art. . . In my humble opinion the art is to show the state of his spirit of humanity and share the beauty and synchronicity with nature. Peace.”

Pallii says, “I am Lakota and can see where this was made out of fun unless otherwise specified. When you do anything like this you will be subject to criticism, whether you call it art or not. I see one of the dancers commented so that should be one indication it may have crossed the line for an individual who is actually in the video. This is the first I have ever seen a "troupe" dance in synchrony at a pow wow or exhibition. Just like the hip hop pow wow dancing going on, something new to me.”

Pow-wow dancing has become more and more structured and competitive in recent years. The costumes are not like they were even fifty years ago and not ANYTHING like they were 200 years ago. The idea of what is heritage seems to zero in on what the critics knew in their own youth rather than what was long ago. Even 200 years ago is after “first encounter” rather than ancient times when dancing was religious. Pan-tribal pow wows are relatively recent. Anyway, pow-wow gets a little more show biz all the time and MUST do that to hold the attention of the general non-Indian audience. It is living dance.

Is this anymore insulting than a musical opera production of, say, “Star Boy?” And what does it do to express the views and life-images of full-bloods left behind in poverty on the rez? Those people are in many cases far closer to their “heritage” than the college educated, assimilated people full of post-modern theory who have access to YouTube. Pow wow is expensive, especially with high gas prices hindering travel.

So I’m drawing a parallel between modern (or post-modern or post-post-modern) vigorous new versions of pow-wow dancing and the modern (p-m, pp-m) versions of writing. The vigor, the newness, the working together, all pertain. (One of Lunsford’s interests is collaborative writing the way Tim and I are working.)

Some people want to find the “right” way to do things and then stick to it, because they see mainstream convention as the way to get praise and success. Other people are thinking, “Hey, why not try this?” And they do, in all the arts. We’re in a strange time that scares a lot of people, but not the innovators. Some revile Middle Eastern terrorists while others, luckily, are composing symphonies based on Middle Eastern instruments and traditional songs. And then there are the hybrids, using “roots” sounds and cyber-sounds together in order to create a sound track for a futurist military-mode sci-fi show like “Battlestar Galactica.” But then turn around and use the same kind of composing for the historical“Gladiator.” (Different composers and I think they all owe something to Paul Winter.)

This is not a well-written post because I’m thinking too many different things and mixing dimensions of importance. Pow wow dances, “mashing” in vids, historical “heritage,” movie sound tracks, rez culture, sci-fi, defense of culture. And yet it’s the start of something, a line of thought. And it’s a product of a steady stream of ideas that all came to me in print except the mashed vid. I think I’ll watch it again. This clip is hypnotic and I’m not even a Chubby Checker fan.


Lance M. Foster said...

I watched the video and posted this:

"ok, aside from the funny idea of an "Indian line dance"...

Ya know, a lot of the ancient dances were done in group and synchronized. My tribe the Ioway had an Eagle Dance described by Catlin in the 1830s that was done very patterned in groups of four going to the different directions and coming back. And that was a sacred dance.

And at a sacred dance down at San Juan Pueblo in the 90s, I saw hundreds of people dancing synchronous

Maybe things are a circle, and things are going back like that."

Lance M. Foster said...

PS. What about 49 songs too.

But what is going on is this. For those people who have lost about every bit of the old ways, for those who don't have anything else, powwow dance is all they have and so they place great importance on it, considering it sacred. For them it is.

While tribes and people who still have their own ancient medicine ways and dances, powwow is strictly seen as social dancing. While certain elements are sacred to them too, like the eagle feathers and flag song, overall for these folks, powwow is a modern fun thing.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Thanks, Lance. Your contribution is major.

Prairie Mary