By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
Fits of giggles and shouts of encouragement echoed through the gym at Holy Cross School in DeWitt April 26 as teams of students and teachers took part in a challenge dance, or feather dance, taught to them by visiting Mohawk speaker Robert Little Hawk Martin. The rules were simple, but the execution proved difficult: Pick up an eagle feather from the floor with your mouth. Nothing but your feet can touch the ground. Though a few knees and palms hit the hardwood, everyone eventually managed to rise with a feather and a grin.
Little Hawk’s visit to Holy Cross was the culminating lesson for the Young Biologists (YB) club, an after-school enrichment program that offers first- through sixth-grade students hands-on instruction in environmental topics.
“Each year’s YB lessons have a different theme,” said Kelley Purcell, who developed the program and brought it to Holy Cross as a Le Moyne undergraduate in 2009. “This year the lessons incorporated indigenous cultures and their worldview on the environment, that is, that everything is cyclical and interconnected. Having Little Hawk here will tie it all together.”
Little Hawk, who grew up in the Catskills, has taught about Native American culture and beliefs through storytelling and dance for years. He also said he, like many Native American children, was taught to move his feet to music before he learned how to walk.
Dressed in bright blue, yellow and black regalia and angora sheep leggings fitted with bells, Little Hawk started the program off by explaining the importance of music and dance in his culture. Dance is how his culture prays, he said. The drumbeat is the heartbeat; it gives life. The bells on his leggings make the dance louder, which helps the prayer travel farther.
Little Hawk invited about 25 children to participate in a round dance, also known as a friendship dance. The dance became part of the repertoire when Native Americans started opening their pow wows, or meetings, to the public; it is how the general public is invited into the community. The children held hands and moved in a wide circle, making sure their steps kept time with the beat. The circle, Little Hawk said, is an important symbol for Native Americans, as it represents the circle of life.
Little Hawk then performed an Iroquois smoke dance, a modifed war dance. Traditionally, children weren’t allowed to participate in war dances, Little Hawk said.
“For children, there’s a natural instinct — when you tell them not to do something, they want to go out and do it even more. It was the same thing with the Iroquois children,” he said. One night the elders let the children do the dance, but they sped up the beat.
“If you asked our elders today why they call this dance a smoke dance, most of them would tell you because on that first night, they had those children’s feet going so fast, you could actually see smoke coming out from underneath them,” Little Hawk said with a joking smile.
Up next was the challenge dance. Little Hawk explained the importance of the eagle in his culture, and how his people believed that it was strong enough to reach “the world above the clouds.” And because Native American people strongly believed in using all parts of an animal out of respect, even an eagle’s feathers were put to solemn use.
“For each of the good deeds and brave deeds you did throughout your lifetime, you were given [a feather] in return by one of the elders,” he said. Over time, the feathers would be made into the war bonnets worn by chiefs or bustles worn by others.
In between dances, Little Hawk taught the children to say hello in several tribal languages, including Mohawk, Cherokee, Seminole and Cheyenne. He taught them about the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy and about the way they governed themselves, long before the U.S. had a federal government. And he explained that “Iroquois” was a French word meaning “rattlesnake,” and that the Iroquois people called themselves Haudenosaunee, or “people of the longhouse.”
Little Hawk closed his presentation with a hoop dance, a type of dance that has become very popular among Native Americans. To the steady beat of the music, Little Hawk wove his body through, around and between 18 willow hoops, slowly creating intricate shapes that represented fish, snakes and other animals. With a final flourish, he linked several hoops across his back to create the wings of an eagle, earning thunderous applause from the students.
Back in her second-grade classroom, Emmi Stanton, 8, was ecstatic over her eagle feather, which Little Hawk let her keep after participating in the challenge dance. Teacher’s aide Mrs. McKeen was also the proud recipient of a feather, which she hung in the classroom. Stanton said she liked the dancing best, but added that she also enjoyed talking with Little Hawk and learning more about his life. Emily Lumia, 8, liked learning how to say hello in all the different languages. Joseph Kosty, 8, with prized feather in hand, said he planned to challenge his younger sister to the dance when she gets older. And like many of his classmates, Kosty summed up his thoughts on the afternoon’s special presentation in one simple word: “Awesome!”