Sunday, June 16, 2019

Eagle Butte

Dream it. Dance it. Do it.

I survived my first real wacipi as a traditional dancer. I say that because I mean it. You see, I didn’t grow up in the wacipi circle- for me, wacipis were something to watch and admire from the afar.  Growing up in Arizona, I came from a traditional Navajo family, one deeply rooted in Navajo traditional customs and spirituality. My grandmother was a winyan wakan, a healer, medicine person, and herbalist. My grandfather was a dancer in various traditional Navajo societies and ceremonies. Powwow, as I called it before moving here, was not the Navajo way, and for this Navajo, it was not something my family participated in; rather, it was something to spectate and “oh” and “ah” over.

Fast forward to 2016, I had left the world I knew behind and moved blindly to South Dakota, all in the name of love. My then-fiance, now husband, had given me advanced warning that he was planning to start dancing traditionally, as he had in his youth. He also told me that as a United States Army veteran, he had traditional akicita duties and obligations to fulfill. His also said to me very clearly- “Because you are also a veteran, one day someone from my people may ask you do akicita duties as well.” I thought long and hard about this, not really knowing what to expect.

That day came on June 18, 2017 at the wacipi in Fort Pierre honoring the NoDAPL water protectors- I was asked to carry in the red hawk staff with the Cheyenne River Veterans Association during grand entry. I had never carried a staff, much less danced in the circle! My husband talked me through what I would have to do- he carried in the eagle staff and was with me every step of the way. My heart was pounding and I second-guessed my every movement the entire time. After the flag and victory song something special happened that I will never forget- the MC that day was Richard Charging Eagle, who is the commander of the CRSTVA. Richard took the time to personally express gratitude to me for helping during the grand entry. He went on to explain what the red hawk staff represents and why it was appropriate that a female veteran carried it into the circle. I felt so relieved after hearing his support and encouragement.

And so, my husband was true to his words- he began dancing traditionally. Going to wacipis and supporting him in various capacities was fun and such a beautiful and new experience. I had never made dance regalia or beaded before and I sure did learn quickly as I beaded his moccasins and other items for him to wear. Then one day something amazing occurred- our daughter announced that she wanted to start dancing as well! This was a complete surprise to us because when we first started on my husband’s dance journey, our daughter was too shy to even dance during intertribals. To have her say she wanted to dance was unexpected and wonderful. I immediately began making her outfit- at first she danced fancy shawl, but after a while she decided to dance traditionally, so I made that outfit for her as well.

As my husband and daughter danced at various wacipis, and as my husband and I performed akicita duties during grand entries, I began to think to myself- “Alaina, you need to be an example for your daughter. She is dancing and is learning. Who will she learn from if not from you?” And so with that I decided to try my hand at traditional dancing as well. This decision did not come lightly- internally I agonized about what it would mean and what it would take for me to begin dancing, something I had never done before in my life!

And so I began learning along with my daughter. My wonderful husband would explain things such as the difference between the songs, what kind of drum beats there were, foot movement, dancing stance, etc. What wasn’t surprising was that our daughter picked up every bit of information and quickly graduated into a full-blown graceful and beautiful dancer. I on the other hand, lagged behind, still so unsure and so unconfident about my ability to dance. Further adding to my struggle was the fact that I didn’t have a female friend or relative to turn to for advice. It was just us three, in our home, on the wacipi trail, learning as we went along.

One very important thing I should mention is that in 2016 I had major reconstructive surgery on my ankle- my Achilles tendon had completely ruptured and it took a year to be able to stand unassisted and six more months to be able walk without constant pain. Not only was I trying to learn how to dance, I was trying to do it while recovering from major surgery. Things were not great for me. While my husband and daughter danced, had fun, and were naturals, I struggled with pain, swelling, and the most important obstacle- my thoughts of “I can’t do it.”

When I finally felt I was ready to dance, I danced at for the first time at one of the biggest wacipis in the nation- Black Hills Powwow. I was so nervous that my knees were shaking as I took my place in the dance arena during my category. When the song began I remember trying to do what I had practiced for months- to simply bend at the knee and “bounce” back up with every beat. Something quite extraordinary happened on that first song- I had lost control of my body! I was so nervous that the physical act of standing in place and bouncing up and down became almost impossible! After what seemed like an eternity, I began dancing and when the song ended, I landed on beat. I had danced for the first time as a traditional dancer.

I danced again in one wacipi in January, which I didn’t take so seriously. I wanted to have fun and I honestly don’t remember much about that wacipi, which I don’t think is a bad thing.

Then came the summer wacipis, in which I failed to dance at all. I had made excuse after excuse about not dancing, all the while, hubby and daughter thrived. I had made myself a promise to dance again at the Black Hills Powwow, after all, it had a special place in my heart. And so I danced this past weekend and I survived. The first night was an utter failure- I was late getting onto the dance floor because I couldn’t find my shawl (one of the veterans was sitting in the chair where I couldn’t see it- lesson learned: always keep accountability of my stuff.) The second night was far better- I danced two songs. I didn’t do as great as I had hoped on my first song because of my self-imposed nervousness, but I was happy about my second song. The fourth song was especially rewarding for me because I finally felt like I had danced to the most minimum of my personal standards. It was far from perfect, but I danced.

As I walked off the dance floor, Richard Charging Eagle called my name and gave me a thumbs up and an “a-okay” sign. It was great reassurance to what I had just accomplished. To make things even better my husband had the biggest grin on his face as he said, “You did great!” Immediately, I felt complete happiness.

My calves are so today from this weekend and my heart is happy to finally be able to accomplish a goal I set for myself one year ago. I wanted to share my personal experience in the hopes that it will inspire someone who is wanting to dance but doesn’t know where to start. I know it can be hard. I know what it means to be shy and unsure and to doubt oneself. But sometimes the best way to learn is to just do it. Put on some waste Chicago wacipi music and just dance, whether it is in your living room, in front of a mirror, or during intertribals, just dance. Every journey is unique and personal. I learned by doing and with loving guidance from my husband and daughter. You can do it. I believe in you. I hope to see you all dancing at the next wacipi!