American Indian performance kicks off Mayfest

Stephen Krupin

Dressed in Nike shirts and baggy pants, three young American Indian men softly beat handmade drums until their cadence converged in unison. As the heartbeat rhythm grew louder, two members of the Shki Bmaadzi troupe chanted in Cree until the third began to sing.

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” he cried. “How I wonder what you are.”

The dance troupe, whose name means “New Beginnings” in the Ojibwe language, kicked off Mayfest by refuting stereotypes and performing an ageless ritual Wednesday evening to about 50 students at The Rock.

Emphasizing the similarities between American Indians and Northwestern students, the inter-tribe troupe began its performance by creating a powwow with the audience.

“The powwow still exists in the modern day, ” said Ansel Deon, cultural coordinator of the American Indian Center, through which Shki Bmaadzi operates. “It’s not out of a black and white photo or a movie. The beat you hear is not the beat from a John Wayne movie. That’s not us.”

Deon discussed the importance of the instruments and each participant, explaining that the drum is the centerpiece of the powwow “because it carries the heartbeat.” Drummers make the second circle in the ceremony, women singers the third, and dancers and the audience make the fourth and final ring.

“Circles have a lot to do with our lives and represent a lot of things to us,” Deon said. “The drum in the center is the ‘pebble in the pond’ effect.”

Mayfest member Kara Demsey, a Weinberg junior, said this event marked the third straight year the group has supported American Indian issues.

“This year we tried to pick something more local so we could have more contact with philanthropy instead of just writing a check,” she said.

Weinberg junior Sarah Alexander, co-chairwoman of Mayfest and site coordinator for this spring’s Alternative Spring Break trip to the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, said a weeklong occupation of The Rock was planned to alert students to an otherwise ignored issue.

“Native Americans are such a diverse people with so many cultures, beliefs and religious practices,” she said. “American culture has done a very good job of objectifying them. We’re just trying to engage people in this cause and pique people’s interests.

“We’re trying to do Dillo with a cause,'” she said. “There are so many more important things in this world than partying. Since we are giving people such a good time on Dillo Day, we want to educate them beforehand.”

After performing ritual dances, troupe leader R.J. Smith discussed the stereotypes plaguing the American Indian community.

“If these (drummers) showed up drunk, you could have used it to your advantage and said, ‘All Indians are drunks,'” he said. “Not all Indians are even dancers and singers. There are even Indian rappers. It freaks me out, too.”

Draped over The Rock behind the audience was the University of Illinois’ Chief Illiniwek, surrounded by the statement “People Not Mascots.” Alexander said this is a central part of Mayfest’s “Rockupation.”

“The mascot issue is something tangible and something people grew up with,” she said. “It’s the most obscene objectification of Native Americans.”

Smith said the continued use of American Indian caricatures reflects the disrespect for the group’s culture in mainstream society.

“For mascots and other issues to be pushed aside just shows us what the social conscience of this country is,” Smith said. “People still dress their kids up as Indians for Halloween, which makes people think that it’s something make-believe. People don’t realize what they’re teaching our children.”

Smith said he appreciated the audience’s willingness to open their minds to the troupe’s presentation.

“It’s always nice to go to a place where people are genuinely interested and don’t want to hear just another song and dance,” he said. “We know there needs to be more information and education about Indians, and it’s fun for us too.”