The Potato Dance

I’ve been interested in Native Americans and their culture since I was a little girl. I can track my enthusiasm back to kindergarten, when I had a coloring book featuring the Blackfoot tribe (and the Europeans they were eventually forced to make treaties with). I was fascinated by everything from their feather headdresses to the way that their horses were tethered. I colored every single person in the book bright, scarlet red.

My knowledge and awareness of the culture and history of Native American tribes have, thankfully, grown more sophisticated since I was small. In my middle school religion class, I wrote not about Christianity or Buddhism, but about the creation stories of the Algonquin tribes of the Northeast. As a sophomore in high school, I wrote a thirty-page paper about the history and religious traditions of Native American tribes in the Southwest. I did an independent study on contemporary religious practices of the Navajo. This year, I’m taking a class at Dartmouth College that surveys modern issues facing Native Americans.

One aspect of my interest in Native American culture has remained constant throughout my life. Every year, in early May, I spend three days at the Dartmouth Pow-Wow. It’s an event hosted by the college since 1971, where drum groups and dancers from many tribes are invited to compete and celebrate their heritage. When I was little I went to watch the elaborate and colorful costumes spin around during the men’s traditional dance. My friends would come and look over the hand-made silver jewelry that was sold during the intermissions, and we’d all wish for the intricately beaded necklaces many of the older women wore.

Since I’ve started high school, the lure of silver rings and cheap burgers no longer draws my friends to the Pow-Wow, but I keep going back. I’ll sit by myself for hours on the side of the arena, watching the dancers and listening to the drumming circles. The more I’ve learned about Native culture the more I grow to admire it. The resiliency that the people of Native nations has shown in the past few hundred years greatly surpasses that of many people; they resisted genocide, forced assimilation, and, eventually, the termination process to emerge stronger.

Last spring, I participated more in the Pow-Wow than I ever had before. It all began when I offered to watch a dancer’s little brother while he competed. He was about my age, maybe a little older, and had on a costume for the men’s traditional dance. It’s a dynamic and sometimes quick-paced dance, so his costume had dozens of feathers dangling off his arms and legs to enhance his movements. I said sure, after all, I was only watching. The little boy had a wonderful costume, too; he had rows and rows of yarn fringe in fantastic colors all over his shirt and pants. I guessed that he was dressed for the grass dance competition. As the song finished, the announcer called for the start of the potato dance. It’s traditionally a dance for couples, where they hold a potato between their foreheads while attempting to dance with the beat. The last couple remaining with the potato still between their foreheads wins, and some say this is a good omen for their relationship. When the dancer came back to pick up his brother, he noticed me eying the couples lining up to the potato dance. He put his brother down and asked me, “Do you want to dance?” I had never, ever, been more excited to say yes in my life.

We lined up, me in my red cowboy boots and my high school varsity jacket and him still in his costume, with all the other couples. Luckily we got a very large, flat potato, so it wouldn’t be a great difficulty to keep it between our foreheads. As the music began, I realized that I knew the steps more than I thought I would. It was music I was familiar with, even though I didn’t yet understand the language of the singers. I had seen countless dancers move their feet to this rhythm, and suddenly… I was, too! I looked up at him and he was smiling too, probably grateful that I didn’t have two left feet. Through some fantastic twist of fate, for my dancing skills were definitely not the best in the arena, we made it through to the final four until we were eliminated.

As my partner and I walked back to the bleachers, I thought of the hours spent reading the journals of missionary priests living on reservations and the countless talks with my history, English, and art teachers about the cultures of Native tribes. And then, I realized something. While my family is Irish, through and through, a part of the culture of the Pow-Wow and of the Native Americans has become my own. It wasn’t because of my research or my knowledge of important court cases. It was because of the simple act of being asked to dance that I was, if even for a moment, a living and breathing part of the Native community.

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