February 07, 2011

Who are the Kossa Indian Dancers?

Local organization highlights worldly opportunitiesYou don't have to have Native American ancestry to appreciate Native American dance, and you don't have to have Native American ancestry to learn the steps, either.

This from Mark Sawyer, Director of the Kossa Indian Dancers on Napoleon Street in Sulphur.

Kossa's been a part of the Sulphur landscape for over 40 years, having traveled recently to Busan, South Korea and other places in the world.

"We give these kids the chance to go out and do worldly things, and that's something you'll not see in other youth programs," Sawyer said.

It is a youth and family oriented program, Sawyer continued, one with the aim of providing better opportunities for its participants.

"Indian dance is a tool we use to get to an end. We like think that we make a kid better than he would be without us, ready to enter society. Like I tell people, I got kids that can say 'we played hackie sack on the second level of the Eiffel Tower this year," Sawyer said.

"In the last two years my kids have visited Busan, Korea, and were the official representatives of the North American continent at the Busan Trek Games."

Each dancer is a part of an overall team that includes far more than just those who are onstage. From costume design to lighting to actually performing, every participant is contributing to the overall success of the Kossa Indian Dancers program.
Comment:  I don't know for sure, but the photo accompanying the article suggests the man and boys are whites pretending to be Indians. In other words, minstrel-like performers dressed up in redface.

They're dressed for powwow-style fancydancing. With several years of study, non-Natives might learn how to make the regalia and perform the dances. It still seems wrong to me, but I guess it's not a legal or moral crime. I don't think anyone claims to own powwow dances performed in public venues by many tribes.

That's different from a sacred ritual such as the ones the Kossa Dancers appropriated. You don't have to have Native ancestry to learn those dances? Perhaps not, but it certainly helps to come from a Native culture.

For a typical religious dance, the learning process might go something like this. Children spend the first 8-10 years watching the dance, learning its subtleties, absorbing its meaning from the surrounding culture. They spend the next 5-7 years making their regalia, practicing on the sidelines, earning their elders' approval. Then, when they're young adults, they get to participate in the actual dance.

That's not something you can "reproduce" after watching it for a week. Yet that's what the Kossa Dancers are supposedly doing. I'd say that's a clear case of offensive cultural appropriation.

Kossa Dancers take Native gigs

Back to the powwow-style fancydancing. Even if the non-Native Kossa Dancers have a right to do these dances, they also have a responsibility. When they travel around the world, what exactly do they say to the people who hire and pay them? How do they represent or misrepresent themselves?

Do they say, "Wouldn't you rather hire real Indians than imitators like us? There are thousands of Indians who can do these dances better and more authentically. Here are some of the Native dance troupes you should think about hiring."

That's kind of what I say when someone asks me to reprint my Native-themed comics or speak on Native subjects. For instance, someone recently asked to include PEACE PARTY in a show featuring non-Western themes in graphic novels. I said something like, "Since I'm not Native, my comics aren't exactly non-Western, you know. They're a Western attempt to present non-Western themes and concepts. Are you sure that's what you want?"

Do the Kossa Dancers say something like that? Or do they call themselves the best, the truest, the only "Native" dancers worth hiring? Like European "hobbyists," do they proclaim themselves the "keepers" of Native traditions that are no longer practiced elsewhere?

I suspect they do say something like that. How else would they get invited to be the "official" representative of North America? Even their name--Kossa Indian Dancers--suggests they're presenting themselves as something genuine or authentic.

Shouldn't gigs like that go to real Native dance troupes, not a bunch of wannabes? Yes, I think they should. Unless the Kossa Dancers include or give back to Native dancers somehow, they're taking from the cultures they supposedly represent.

For some postings that bear on this subject, see Powwow Dance Excludes Unregistered Indian, "Native Religion" for Indians Only?, and Debating the Hokey Mayokis.

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