Community Members Tell Why We Dance

Exhibition On View through August 14

For American Indian people the reasons for dancing or creating dance-related arts can be deeply personal. In preparation for the exhibition Why We Dance: American Indian Art in Motion (on view through August 14, 2016) Denver Art Museum curators Nancy Blomberg and John Lukavic and guest curator Russ Tall Chief (Osage) consulted with many Native people to better understand particular dances and individual reasons people dance or make the dance-related arts they do. Especially integral to this exhibition were people in the Denver area Native community that contributed to the show.

It Starts with a Powwow

Every September the Denver Art Museum hosts its annual Friendship Powwow and American Indian Cultural Celebration; this September 10 we will celebrate its 27th year. The idea of exploring social dance was a key portion of the exhibition concept; with that in mind, we set about documenting last year’s powwow through video and interviews. Visitors to Why We Dance will experience the color, movement, and festivity of the powwow as they enter the gallery. They pass larger-than-life photos murals of dancers and are then surrounded by projections of video shot on the plaza outside the museum.

During the powwow curator Russ Tall Chief interviewed a number of dancers. These interviews offer visitors a deeper look into some of the reasons people dance and what it means to participate in powwows. In the video above you can see Gerald Montour (Navajo/Mohawk) and Sarah Ortegon (White Owl Woman, Eastern Shoshone/Northern Arapaho) share their thoughts. See and hear more from these dancers and others in the exhibition.

Objects Also Speak

Central to any story we tell here at the DAM are art objects. While the American Indian art collection is rich with historical dance regalia and depictions of dance such as the numerous watercolors by Pueblo artists featured in the show, we decided to reach out to the local Native community to contribute contemporary powwow regalia.

With the help of staff member Patricia Roy-Trujillo (Ojibwe/Meskwaki) the museum was able to borrow six complete dance outfits from members of the local Native community, including Northern Traditional-style regalia from Pat, herself. Through these pieces of loaned regalia visitors can explore the creativity exhibited by each of the artists involved, explore the components that make up an outfit, and they will learn some of the history and key characteristics of six different dance styles.

Patricia Roy-Trujillo and Verla J. Howell (Pawnee/Flandreau Santee Sioux), who lent a full set of Men’s Fancy Dance regalia, also assisted museum staff in dressing the mannequins used to display the outfits to insure every piece was displayed correctly.

Outside the Region

In addition to exploring powwow arts in the local community, Why We Dance also looks at motivations and depictions of dance created by Native communities around North America.

The museum has a rich collection of works on paper from the early twentieth century, primarily by Pueblo artists, that explore different types of dances from animal dances such as buffalo dance and deer dance to harvest dances. Complementing these two-dimensional works are examples of dance clothing and accoutrements illustrating how aesthetic objects enhance the dance and inspire other Native artists.

Exhibition view of works related to healing dances from the museum’s collection
Exhibition view of works related to healing dances from the museum’s permanent collection. From left to right: Allan Houser, Apache Crowne Dance, 1952, Gift of Margaret Davis, Cornelia and Josephine Evans, 1953.420, ©Estate of Allan Houser; Otoe-Missouria artist, Faw Faw Coat, about 1890, Native Arts acquisition fund, 1938.79; Ojibwe artist, Jingle Dress, about 1915, William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, H1998.21.135; and Isabel John, Rug, 1981, The Gloria F. Ross Collection of Contemporary Navajo Weaving of the Denver Art Museum, 1982.8.

Guest curator Russ Tall Chief provided cultural context for many of these works by consulting with Native dancers and cultural representatives from around the nation to learn the stories and importance of many of the dances represented.

Contemporary artists also lent their voice to the exhibition. For instance Marie Watt (Seneca) shared the history and inspiration for her sculptural textile with curator Nancy Blomberg, helping shape the display and interpretation of the work, while Kevin Red Star provided John Lukavic with a background story on his painting included in the exhibition. In addition, Alan Michelson (Mohawk) provided historical and conceptual context for his work RoundDance and visited Denver to help with the installation of the complicated technology based piece.

Exhibition view of Marie Watt’s Butterfly inspired by powwow dancers and a headdress used in the Hopi Butterfly Dance
Exhibition view of Marie Watt’s Butterfly inspired by powwow dancers and a headdress used in the Hopi Butterfly Dance. Marie Watt, Butterfly, 2015, Funds from Vicki & Kent Logan and Loren Lipson, M.D., with additional funds from Brian Tschumper, Nancy Lake Benson, Jen & Mike Tansey, and JoAnn & Bob Balzer, 2016.1A,B, ©Marie Watt and Hopi artist, Headdress (Kopatsoki), early 1900s, Native Arts acquisition fund, 1927.32

Powwow Regalia Studio

Finally, what better way to engage with the arts of American Indian dance than to meet the artists that make regalia? This summer the Native Arts Artist-in-Residence program complements Why We Dance by hosting five artists that specialize in dance regalia. Visit the studio in the American Indian galleries on level 3 of the North Building throughout the summer to see more dance-related works, works-in-progress, and to visit with contemporary regalia artists during their open studio hours.

Eric Berkemeyer is assistant project manager for exhibitions. Eric has been at the DAM since 2011. He recommends that visitors don’t miss the exhibition Then, Now, Next: Evolution of an Architectural Icon on level two of the Hamilton Building.