Dancers provide insight into American Indian life

By Jodi Rogstad
Cheyenne, Wyoming (AP) 7-08

On a hot, breezy summer afternoon, when the late afternoon rains were amassing in the western skies, the sound of the drums began to beat, and the dancers in their outfits – bright, feathered and fringed – began to file out onto the grassy circle.

Like Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, all the performers of the Little Sun Drum and Dance Group come out at the beginning of the program and show themselves to the mostly Caucasian audience seated on the log-style bleachers.

These Native American dancers, who perform three times daily at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Indian Village, are a blend of three large families dancing in the combination Plains Styles – primarily Northern Arapaho, Ogallala Lakota and Hunkpapa Lakota.

What is surprising to learn about these social dances is they are contemporary – the oldest one dates back to the mid-1800s. But they all have a story, said Sandi Iron Cloud of Ethete.

While the dances have traditions, they also are changing and evolving, an indication that a culture is healthy and strong.

“We emphasize that this is part of who we are,” Iron Cloud said. “We’re not just performing bears. We’re sharing a little bit of who we are. We’re living what was handed down to us.” 


Between the dances of the hour-long program, Leo “Chico” Her Many Horses, a man with a western shirt and long braid down his back, told stories of the origin of these expressions of body and movement.

The Creator gave many songs, he said.

These are so beautiful, so incomprehensible, they are reduced to the vocables – that is, songs that don’t have actual words. “La la la” is one example of a vocable.

The Creator also had a hand in the Jingle Dress Dance back in 1901, Her Many Horses said. He heard it firsthand from the grandchildren of Thunder Rock, an Ojibwa from White Fish Bay, Ontario.

The story goes like this: Thunder Rock’s granddaughter was very sick and Western medicine couldn’t find a cure.

Thunder Rock had a dream, telling him to make a dress using 365 Copenhagen lids, one representing each day of the year. And he should twist these lids to form percussive tubes that jingle with the movement of the body. This creates a healing dance.

The sick granddaughter got better and lived to an old age.

The Fancy Dance is just that – fancy.

“You know Michael Jackson?” Her Many Horses asked the crowd. “He stole our moves.”

This is a dance where you’re allowed to do whatever you want – to show off and be cocky, said Sam Her Many Horses of Riverton.

The outfits that go with the Fancy Dance are brightly colored, have both long fringes and feathered bustles, which heighten and emphasize the dancers’ rapid kinetics. A dance of young men, mostly, it reminds one of a bright male bird in a lek, trying his hardest to stand out and make the ladies like him best.

Sam Her Many Horses said putting on his Fancy Dance costume feels a lot like becoming a superhero. With a change of clothes, he emerges as someone much larger, more boisterous, than his normal self.

This is the Little Sun Drum and Dance Group’s second year of sharing their culture at Cheyenne Frontier Days. They spend the “Daddy of ‘em All” camping in the large white teepee's on the east side of the Indian Village. Unlike some encounters with the great outdoors, this one does come with showers and running water.

Their trip to Cheyenne comes with some sadness. Cheyenne Frontier Days collides with the Northern Arapaho’s annual religious ceremony, during which many of the tribe’s 4,000 participate over the event that lasts several days.

“I was crying,” Iron Cloud said.

At the same time, performing here does have its bright moments. Like the woman who came up and said she was going through a hard time in her life, and their dancing lifted her spirits, she said.

“It’s a beautiful expression of life, a beautiful expression of the vibrancy of life,” Iron Cloud said. “It helps people feel good, and for us, that’s worth it.”

Going out in the dancing circle is a healing process in itself because you’re dancing for the people.

“You might dance for someone who can’t walk,” Iron Cloud said. “You might dance for someone who’s just getting well. You might dance for someone who has a terrible illness. It helps you physically, it helps you emotionally, it helps you mentally.

“When you hear a good song, it makes you want to get up.