February 06, 2011

Kossa Dancers "reproduce" Pueblo ceremonies

I've reported on Boy Scout troops who think dancing like Indians is an educational experience. Here's a news item that takes the cake:

Kossa dancers travel among Pueblos

By Vickie PeoplesThere’s a Pueblo proverb that says a man’s wealth is measured by how many songs he knows. After traveling among the Pueblo people recently, the Kossa Indian boys are now “richer” than they were before they left. From December 23 to December 31, the boys traveled to different Pueblo villages, learning new dances and immersing themselves into culture unlike their own.David Kandik, program director for the Kossa Indian Dancers, seems to appreciate what they saw:“This is a holy, religious time for the Pueblo. A lot of people here forget the true meaning of Christmas but they don’t forget. After mass, 200 dancers performed from midnight until dawn for the Christ child. On Christmas day, we went to Santo Domingo to watch dances in the snow in the plaza. On the 26th, we watched more dances.”But apparently that's not the case:“The boys learned about another culture. They learned new dances, new regalia and new songs.”

The Kossa Indian dancers will be performing in February on the 11 at 7 p.m., the 12 at 7 p.m., the 13 at 2 p.m., the 18 at 7 p.m, the 19 at 7 p.m. and the 20 at 2 p.m. at the Kossa Plaza at 121 E. Napoleon Street. The name of the program is “An Ancient Winter.”

“We will be trying to reproduce some of the dances we saw in New Mexico as well as performing new dances. The Sahawe dancers from Uvalde, Texas, will be there as well as the Aabikta dancers from Slidell, Louisiana,” stated Kandik.

Tickets are $6 for adults and $4 for children and you can get a dollar off each ticket at the door. For more information, call 656-5049.
Comment:  Let's get this straight. A bunch of non-Indian boys from Louisiana visited New Mexico's Pueblos for a whole week. They saw a variety of solemn religious ceremonies that involved dancing. After seeing each dance no more than once, they're going to "try to reproduce" these sacred Pueblo rituals. And they're going to charge money for their amateur-hour performances.

I'm guessing non-Indians with no experience, knowledge, or training in Pueblo religions will butcher these age-old dances. The performance will be nothing more than modern-day minstrelry--a glorified half-time show featuring dancing mascots. Yet audiences will think they're getting the real thing.

They'll think a whole chain of things that aren't true. That the dancers had enough time to learn the dances and their underlying meaning. That the tribes gave the dancers permission to "try to reproduce" their dances. That this is a genuine rather than phony demonstration of Pueblo cultures.

Imagine spending a whole hour watching a Catholic mass. Then trying to reproduce the Mass based on nothing more than your limited observation, with no knowledge of Jesus, the Bible, or Catholic dogma. And charging admission for your desecration of the religion. "Only $6 to see a daring act of cannibalism! Watch the savages eat the body of Christ!"

"Look at us perform this colorful, crazy ritual," the Kossa Dancers might say. "It's like watching animals in a zoo or bacteria under a microscope. You don't know what they're doing, but it doesn't matter, because they're so strange and exotic. It's like visiting another planet: alien and incomprehensible, but fascinating."

Debbie Reese's opinion

Educator Debbie Reese first mentioned the Kossa Dancers in her blog. Here's what she had to say about their actions:

"Kossa Indian Dancers"People who know me would probably say I am friendly, gracious and warm, but that doesn't mean that I think its ok for anyone to watch me when I'm praying, carefully noting the way I hold my hands and the clothes I wear, and then go off somewhere to practice those hand movements, sew those clothes, and then do my prayer as a performance!Reese notes some standard guidelines about Pueblo etiquette:

Indian Pueblo Cultural Center--EtiquetteMost Pueblos require a permit to photograph, sketch or paint on location. Some Pueblos prohibit photography at all times. Please check with the Tribal Office for the permitting process before entering the Pueblo. Once a permit is obtained, always ask for permission before taking a photograph of a tribal member. REMEMBER: cameras and film can be confiscated.

Tribes value traditions, customs and religion. Some actions and/or questions could be offensive, so refrain from pressing for answers. Tribal dances are religious ceremonies, not public performances. It is a privilege to witness a ceremony.

Silence is mandatory during all dances and Pueblo ceremonies. This means no questions about the ceremonies or dances while they are underway; no interviews with the participants; no walking across the dance plaza; and, no applause during / after the dance or ceremony.
She concludes:I guess the leaders of the "Kossa Indian Dancers" aren't aware of any of this.(Excerpted from Debbie Reese's American Indians in Children's Literature, 2/1/11.)

Indeed. I wonder how Kandik and his dancers could possibly "reproduce" something they've seen once. Did they take photographs or movies or photographs in violation of the rules? Or do they just have really good memories?

Although the guidelines don't say it, this is why Pueblos ban photography, recording, and sketching. They don't want non-Indians imitating, bastardizing, or exploiting their sacred religions. Yet that's exactly what the Kossa Dancers are doing: ripping off Pueblo ceremonies and profiting from them.

I'll make this a Stereotype of the Month entry for the presumption that Pueblo dances are the same as non-Indian dances. That they're artistic exercises that anyone can copy rather than religious rites that no one should copy. This presumption is a subtle kind of wannabe-ism: a belief that anyone can be an Indian with the right headdress, costume, or dance step.

For more on Scouts imitating Indians, see Order of the Arrow's Indian Play and Scouts Perform Cherokee Dances.

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