Derrick Suwaima Davis: A World Champion Hoop Dancer Breaks It Down

Derrick Suwaima Davis (Ken Ross Photography)

Derrick Suwaima Davis (Ken Ross Photography)

November 20, 2012
Special to Indian Country Today Magazine

As a child growing up in his native Arizona Derrick Suwaima Davis, Hopi/Choctaw, was fairly certain how he fit into life on the reservation.  “I got my first dance clothes when I was three.  I was always around native songs and dances, but that’s when I considered my life as a dancer official.”  For Davis, who was the Head Man Dancer at the grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. in 2004, dancing was both his destiny and means of escape – a place of imagination where he could use its intricate forms as a means of self-expression.  His first hoop dancing championship was in 1992, his most recent in 2010, and he has earned the title of World Champion Hoop Dancer five times.  As a member of the pop/rock group Clan/destine he has worked with the Heard Museum, the Phoenix Symphony, the American Dance Theater, Canyon Records and Willie Nelson continuing to share his Hopi culture with thousands of admirers around the world.  Davis has been featured on the covers of leading publications like Smithsonian and Native Peoples and was once named Cosmopolitan’s “Man of the Year”.

As one of Arizona’s cultural treasures Davis has been Artistic Director of Native Trails, an intertribal collaborative presented by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and produced by the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Nine performers including Davis represent the best of the Southwest region, in a twice-weekly free show at the amphitheater at the Scottsdale Civic Center Park where the hour-long performances showcase song and dance using traditional instruments, regalia and stories.  Unique indigenous cuisine, like cactus chili, blue corn mush and mesquite muffins, are sold there alongside the more familiar fry bread.  Look for the 2013 season to start up again on January 17 and run through April 6 on Thursdays and Saturdays at noon.  Visit for more information.  You can also see Davis perform daily at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale where for over twenty years he has been part of a three-person 5 p.m. show.

In a recent interview he told ICTMN of his early life with its traditional influences and why he feels the need to share his culture with the world.

What was your childhood like?

My father worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and took us a lot of places.  I spent part of my life on the Navajo reservation and summers with my grandparents on the Hopi reservation that is surrounded by the Navajo reservation.

When did you first become interested in dancing?

I never thought I would end up in my adulthood being a performer.  I just grew up singing and dancing as part of our culture capturing history and expressing gratitude and encouraging good life.  It wasn’t until I moved down to the Phoenix Valley and was asked to be part of a Native American dance troupe where we performed at resorts and cultural festivals.  I saw how it would be a way to educate people about Native culture.

Who was your greatest influence?

My grandfather as far as information and experiences and putting it all into song and dance.  He was well known in Hopi.

How did you develop your own style?

I first saw the dance when I was around the intertribal gatherings in New Mexico.  I was already a champion fancy dancer.  As a young boy my father made us hoops.  I didn’t really understand the significance but it was something I was drawn to.  We began to imitate the dance.  I continued fancy dancing but later got involved with the Hopi cultural dances.  There are a lot of parallels with those two art forms.  When I moved to Phoenix I joined the Eagle Spirit Dance Group.  I was asked if I would also do intertribal eagle dancing along with hoop dancing and the horsetail dance.  I got into it at the Heard Museum where they had the World Championship Hoop Dancing contests.  That’s where all us hoop dancers inspired one another.

As I was coming along I really began to understand the story.  The origin of the dance goes back to the Healing Dance where the shaman or the patient would pass through the hoop and whatever ailment was disturbing the patient would be dismissed.  And although this dance is done in a public and competitive format, it still conveys that message of healing and restoring balance and the Hopi culture and how we talk about First, Second, Third and how we are now in a Fourth World.

At the end of the dance I set down a four-hoop globe.  Each time I pick up one of those hoops it acknowledges times of adversity and prosperity, and how through time it’s the plants, the animals and the insects that have taught human beings how to utilize the resources around us.  And so, as we are stewards and guardians, it’s through our songs and our dances we ask and encourage everything to be healthy.  Because if the environment is healthy, then we are going to be healthy.  Through our art forms and with our good intentions we encourage wellbeing.  The hoop dance encompasses a large amount of teaching.

Did you learn a specific pattern of dance steps and later interpret it for yourself?

The dance steps and the rhythm are based more on the intertribal pow wow style of music. I used that style of song and dance for most of my hoop dance career.  That goes back to the fancy dance style of footwork.  The showmanship and athleticism I learned from fancy dance I brought into hoop dancing.  There is some crossover.  The reason for dancing with five hoops is because in the Southwest we don’t get much rain.  In many ways we must do the best we can with the least amount possible so you’re not overharvesting or being selfish with the natural resources.  Instead we let the plant community and the animal and insect community be strong and grow in numbers.   That’s where a lot of the story in my dancing comes from.

At a young age I was introduced to ‘dry farming’ that we still do at Hopi.  In the Southwest we have been in a drought.  When I remember the days when I was young and rainfall was plentiful, it’s easy to understand the importance of nature and to encourage everything to be healthy.  In the dance, although there may be mechanics involved, there is also the inspiration of what the dance continues to represent.  It is filled with its own type of prayer and desire and expressing gratitude.  So when I make the various patterns I know how important it is for the insects, like when I make the butterfly, or similarly if I make a hummingbird, or eagle or buffalo.  I have learned not only from Hopi, but also from schooling, how important these creatures are and how everything fits into the circle of life, the web of life, which is what the hoop represents.

Do you integrate different forms in your performances?  Are there strict guidelines for a contest?

Each one of us hoop dancers has our own story that we like to share.  I am one of maybe two dancers who use only five hoops.  Everyone else dances with from ten to maybe sixty hoops.  It’s not how many hoops you use.  Any art evokes some kind of emotion whether it’s a painting, a sculpture, or singing and dancing.  They all evoke some kind of emotion.  The music and the movement combined make people feel really wonderful.  Any talented or gifted artist realizes that we really are just an intermediary between something higher than we are, and as performers we are just a vehicle to share our blessings with those in the audience.

Do you have different feelings when you dance?

Yes. I think that the objective of sharing the dance is always the same, but certainly what we have most recently experienced in our lives shapes how the dance is shared.  I always feel that I’ve done the same dance, but people who see it will say that I’ve done something different in it.  And of course after a six-minute dance there’s no way I can remember everything I did!  I may notice simply that the floor was smoother or uneven or the song was faster or slower.  So each performance is unique and influenced by the audience.

Have have you performed outside of the U.S. and what has it meant to you?

Yes, and that’s what I’ve really enjoyed.  I’ve been to half of Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Denmark, Germany and Spain and up to Alaska and Hawaii, and Canada.  I’ve brought our Native Southwestern culture around the world and they have shared their songs and stories with me.  It has helped me understand how much alike we are as human beings and the geography and history that have shaped our cultures.  There are both similarities and also a uniqueness to the different cultures.

What else are you passionate about?

I was honored to record a PSA for the Arizona Department of Health Services on Diabetes Prevention.  It’s an issue that means a lot to me.

Do you have a favorite drum and singer to perform with?

Through the years I’ve worked with various singers.  I work with three different singers for the two-man performances.  Most are based on the intertribal rhythm and they incorporate the Hopi language as well as our rhythms.  It makes it very unique from other hoop dancers.

How would you advise a young person just getting started?

It’s important for young people to really listen to who they are.   What I mean by that is we all have a gift, a purpose here in life.  As a young boy I experienced contradiction and ideas of wanting to live a healthy life.  I want all children to hang on to their innocence, their dignity, and make healthy decisions.  Hopefully their songs and dances will be an art that encourages wellbeing.  Don’t worry about being unique.  Just be yourself.  As a father I don’t expect my boys to grow up to be like me.  They have a gift and a purpose.  So if I live my life with good intentions and I stay true to who I am, then I think that’s a good role model for my boys to stay true to who they are.

Even though I can’t put everything into words our cultural singing and dancing was a way to express myself in this art form.  It allowed me to be who I am.  I’m fortunate to speak politely and honestly and when I do share my culture I never say that I’m right, but that the power of choice is up to everybody.  Hopefully what I do share is an inspiration to people to be who they are and accomplish their goals.

Derrick can be reach through

Discovery of Long-Lost Silent Film With All-Indian Cast Has Historians Reeling

Jordan Wright
August 28, 2012
Special to Indian Country Today Media Network - Magazine feature

Long-Lost Silent Film With All-Indian Cast

Long-Lost Silent Film With All-Indian Cast - Photo Credit Oklahoma Historical Society

How a silent film featuring an all-Native cast came to be made, lost (seemingly forever), discovered nearly a century later (in shambles), then restored and shown to the cast’s descendants is one of the most fascinating stories in the annals of American filmmaking. The Daughter of Dawn, which had its world premiere in June at the deadCENTER Film Festival in Oklahoma City, may be the only all-Native cast silent film ever made.

In the autumn of 1919 Norbert Myles was hired to direct a film for Richard Banks, owner of the fledgling Texas Film Company. Banks, who had written the story for his new project, was looking to make an adventure film in Oklahoma. He had met Myles a few years earlier on a California movie set and was impressed by the ambitious upstart. Myles, who had been a vaudevillian, a screen actor and sometime Shakespearean actor, had fallen out of favor in Hollywood and had turned to screenwriting and directing.

Banks drew on his 25 years of experience living among the Indians and his knowledge of what he called “an old Comanche legend,” to lend authenticity to the film. He decided to shoot on the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, a national reserve known for its mountains and grassy plains spread across 60,000 acres in southwestern Oklahoma. This was an attractive setting for several reasons, including the fact that in 1907 a program to reintroduce the nearly extinct bison to the Great Plains was launched. Under the auspices of the American Bison Society, 15 of these American icons, plucked from New York City’s Bronx Zoo, were sent by railway to grasslands in Oklahoma, and in little more than a decade, they flourished and were an enormous herd.

Banks must have also realized that shooting there would provide not only the perfect backdrop, but would also afford him an abundant source of American Indian talent. For actors Myles tapped into the local tribes—notably the Kiowa and Comanche, who were living on reservations near Lawton, Oklahoma. This wildly ambitious project had an all-Native cast, just one cameraman, no costumes, no lighting, no props and wild buffalo. The Indians, who had been on the reservation less than 50 years, brought with them their own tipis, horses and gear. Featured in the film were White Parker, Esther LeBarre, Hunting Horse, Jack Sankeydoty and Wanada Parker, daughter of Quanah Parker, a Comanche chief and one of the founders of the Native American Church movement. Among the 100 extras were Slim Tyebo, Old Man Saupitty and Oscar Yellow Wolf.

Myles ordered his cameraman to shoot buffalo chase scenes “from a pit so as to have all the buffalo…and Indians…pass directly over the top of the camera.” To add verisimilitude, Myles incorporated the tribe’s tipis, horses, personal regalia and other artifacts, and shot scenes of the Comanches using cross-tribal Plains Indian sign language. He also shot scenes of tribal dancing while the women prepared buffalo for a celebratory meal.

Comanche “raid” on Kiowa village (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society)

Comanche “raid” on Kiowa village (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society)

The tribes’ participation in the film did not sit well with a certain “Assistant Field Matron” assigned to the area by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to monitor the tribes’ activities. In her weekly report, filed July 31, 1920, and sent directly to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, she wrote: “Went to a camp close to headquarters where their [sic] are about 300 Kiowas and Comanches gathered dancing and having pictures taken to be used in the movies.… I talked to the manager to have the camp broken up and dances stopped.

“These dances and large gatherings week after week are ruining our Indian boys and girls as they have been going on for about three months and different places. No work done during these days.”

Her actions had little effect on the enthusiastic cast members, who Myles called “very shrewd” in their financial negotiations with him.

When the 80-minute silent film was screened in October 1920 at the College Theater in Los Angeles, it received raves, with one critic calling it “an original and breathtaking adventure…hardly duplicated before.” But despite favorable reviews, the film was, for some unknown reason, never released. And it was never shown again—that is, until June 10, 2012.

The story of the film’s unlikely return is as dramatic as the story of its making. It began in 2003 when a private investigator in North Carolina looking to collect his fee from a client was given five cans of what was originally a six-reel film. The investigator-for-hire needed to convert the rapidly decaying film into cash to cover his expenses so he contacted Brian Hearn, film curator at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. He told Hearn he believed the film was The Daughter of Dawn. At that time the museum was not in the business of collecting films so Hearn got in touch with the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS), which also operates the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City.

Moore (seated), purchased the five canisters of footage from a private investigator. (Courtesy Bil Moore/Oklahoma Historical Society)

Moore (seated), purchased the five canisters of footage from a private investigator. (Courtesy Bil Moore/Oklahoma Historical Society)

The film was purchased by the OHS in 2006, and Bill Moore, the society’s film archivist and video production manager, took possession of the five cans of the nitrate film. “Our first concern was to protect it,” he recalls. “So after watching the footage on a Moviola and noting its fragile condition, we applied for a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation in the hopes of preserving it as soon as possible.

“In the early years of filming, producers had to provide a copy to what was called the Paper Print Collection. It was a requirement to show every frame of film and file it with the Library of Congress’s Copyright Office in order to establish the copyright of the film. The library would then shoot the films from the ‘contacts’—the individual frames—and that’s how this film survived. It took only a few months to restore the film and after the intertitles [dialogue text pages inserted into the film between cuts] were added, the footage expanded out to the full movie and the original six canisters.” The completed film has a four-way love story and includes two buffalo hunt scenes, a battle scene between the Kiowa and the Comanche, scenes of village life, tribal dances, hand-to-hand combat and a happy ending.

In 2008 Robert Blackburn, executive director of the OHS commissioned David Yeagley, a Comanche classical composer who is well regarded in his field, to do a new score for the movie. “I knew the music was important,” Blackburn says. “That’s why we decided to go for a full symphonic score. Yeagley’s original score is timed to each second of the movie, and he uses different styles of music for each character. Seventy Oklahoma City University Philharmonic grad students working on a Fast Track system recorded the score earlier this year.

“This film is so important to Indian people and is a rare piece of art as well, since only two percent of independent films made in this era have survived,” Blackburn says. “We plan to show it in Telluride, Denver and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2013. [Documentary film producer] Ken Burns has committed to assist with the film’s distribution.”

Once descendants of the Kiowa and Comanche cast members were identified, Blackburn arranged to screen The Daughter of Dawn for the families in the Oklahoma towns of Anadarko, Carnegie and Lawton. “There were tears,” he recalls. “They recognized an aunt or a grandparent, and out of that conversation came recognition of the tipi used in the film. It was very powerful for them to see family members who were pre-reservation wearing their own clothing and using family heirlooms that had been brought out of trunks. It was very emotional for them.”

Yeagley, whose works have included a commissioned symphony called The Four Horses of the Apocalypse: A Comanche Symphony and who once wrote an opera based on the life of a Holocaust survivor, calls Blackburn a visionary for choosing to score the movie with what he refers to as a high-European classical piece. “You would expect the typical drums and rattles.” He was conscious of how his music will be received—and perceived. “How do you write music that makes sense to a 21st century audience who is looking at something that is right out of history? What are other Indians going to think when they hear symphonic music? How are they going to regard me?”

Blackburn, clearly thrilled with the interest the film is drawing from audiences and historians, describes its appeal this way, “The Daughter of Dawn is all Oklahoma. Acted by Oklahoma Indians, filmed entirely in Oklahoma, in a story of Oklahoma’s Kiowa and Comanche nations, scored by a Comanche and played by the Oklahoma City University Philharmonic students, even the film was restored by an Oklahoman working in Hollywood for the Film Technology Lab.”

He believes the film has the potential to become the centerpiece for a national exhibit and wants it to be shown at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. In the meantime, the OHS is making a short film to show next spring. It will tell the story of the making of The Daughter of Dawn and Native Oklahomans talking about their ancestors, as well as an interview with Yeagley.

In June at the deadCENTER Film Festival, award-winning actor Wes Studi, Cherokee, came to view this major cinematic event that had brought together film buffs as well as descendants of the Kiowa and Comanche tribal members who had performed in the film. After the screening, Studi said, “It’s a film worth seeing for all people who are either in the business of making films or those who watch film in terms of American Indians.

“It’s really a historic film.… I would say this film proves that Indians have been acting since day one.”


The Cherokee Way to Vacation: The Call of the Wild in Qualla Boundary and Beyond

Jordan Wright
July 12, 2012
Special to Indian Country Today Media

A scene from "Unto These Hills"

Amid the majestic scenery of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ 56,000-acre sovereign nation known as Qualla Boundary lies the city of Cherokee, which sits at the entrance of North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The area is steeped in Cherokee history and culture and a beautiful setting for a vacation adventure.There are many ways to enjoy a visit to this region. But first determine your vacation expectations. Are you pumped by the glamour and glitz of an all-night casino and a swank suite in a luxury hotel? Or do you picture yourself luxuriating in a hot tub in a rustic cabin nestled snugly in the woods? Does the outdoor life beckon? There’s backcountry exploring along the Appalachian Trail or driving the iconic Blue Ridge Parkwayand camping beside miles of stocked trout streams where you may be visited by curious elk and wake to the chirp of the Eastern bluebird. In Qualla Boundary, or very nearby, you can choose from any one of these options and at a price to suit every budget.

What to Do

For nature lovers a good place to start is at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center and Mountain Farm Museum in the park, run by the U.S. National Park Service, where you’ll learn about the early farming history of the region. You can pick up hiking and topographical maps, light camping supplies and info on the region’s flora and fauna. Resident naturalist Ila Hatter encourages amateur botanists to get in touch with the power of the plant and shares her extensive knowledge of the area’s native plants and their use for food, medicine and crafting. “The Cherokee word adowahi means the spirit of the plant,” she explains. “You ask the power of the plant to do the healing. It keeps its strength in the plant to be your medicine. It can also mean ‘forest’ or ‘guardian spirit.’ It’s comparable to the Buddhist concept of living gratefully.”

Mountain Farm Museum

Whether roughing it or living the luxe life, you’ll want to experience Cherokee culture. Spend time in the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which has an astonishing collection of Cherokee and Paleo artifacts dating from 10,000 years ago. Here interpretive dioramas of early life mesh with dramatic videos depicting ancient myths and legends. Among carved basswood tribal masks and stone gorgets is the rifle used to execute Cherokee hero Tsali in 1838. Ask for museum interpreter (and well-known stickball expert) Jerry Wolfe, who happily shares his extensive knowledge of traditional recipes and local lore.

Directly across the road is the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, an artisans’ cooperative with more than 250 members. The modern studio-like space, which houses exquisite early and contemporary pottery, beadwork, dolls and museum-quality white oak splint basketry, is a marketplace for authentic Cherokee crafts.

The Eternal Flame greets visitors at the 18th century Oconaluftee Indian Village and Living History Museum. Cherokee demonstrators encourage hands-on participation in weaving, carving, pottery, flint knapping and other traditional crafts. A guided tour of the Cherokee Botanical Garden and Nature Trail is also offered. It is part of the North Carolina Birding Trail System, and features more than 150 native plants through a half-mile loop along the slopes of Mount Noble. Be sure to pre-purchase tickets to the spectacular outdoor evening performances of Unto These Hills at Mountainside Theater. This moving portrayal of the Cherokees and the Trail of Tears told through dance, music and drama is held in a vast amphitheater. During the day special “Step-On” bus tours led by guides in traditional dress can be arranged by contacting the museum in advance.

At the Oconoluftee Village - photo credit Jordan Wright

At the Oconoluftee Village - photo credit Jordan Wright

Master woodcarver, tribal culture bearer and gifted storyteller Davy Arch is the village’s manager and one of the lifeways guides well versed in Cherokee lore. Call the Cherokee Historical Association in advance to arrange traditional suppers or guided trips to Mingo Falls or Soco Falls with its mountaintop observation deck overlooking Maggie Valley.

Just outside of town in a valley along the Tuckasegee River lies the Kituhwa Mound, the center of what is considered the “Mother Town.” The site, established 11,000 years ago, was once an ancient village considered by the Cherokee the center of the universe. Arch brings groups here to talk about the site’s importance as the first Cherokee village and the spot where the sacred fire was kept burning.

Sporting activities in the area include fly-fishing with Rivers Edge Outfitters guides (in Spruce Pine, North Carolina), zip-lining with Adventure America’s Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours in nearby Bryson City, where you can also ride the rails in restored vintage railroad cars at the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Or spend a few hours tubing and kayaking on the Oconaluftee River from Big Cove. A spectacular view of Clingmans Dome, at more than 6,600 feet the highest peak in the Smokies, can be yours on horseback with Cherokee guide Goodlow Bark, owner of End of the Trail Riding Stables.

Where to Eat

Restaurants abound and there are four plus a food court inside Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel, but more traditional fare can be found at Paul’s Family Restaurant on Tsali Boulevard. The stream-side cottage with outdoor deck features blueberry frybread, buffalo rib-eyes and burgers, pheasant, rabbit, mountain trout, Indian chili tacos, fried green tomatoes and homemade coconut cake.

Since 1977 Cooper’s Roadside Stand, has been boiling peanuts in giant iron cauldrons on the side of Paint Town Road. Be sure to pick up some “rat” cheese (a sharp cheddar), locally grown produce, country ham and some unique jams and jellies like kudzu or wild dewberry.


View of the Great Smoky Mountains from the Sequoyah National Golf Course - photo credit Jordan Wright

View of the Great Smoky Mountains from the Sequoyah National Golf Course - photo credit Jordan Wright

Where to Stay

Luxury—The 21-story Harrah’s Cherokee has the most luxurious accommodations including four restaurants, a food court and a casino, currently under a major expansion. Book ahead if you want to hit the greens at the nearby Robert Trent Jones II–designed Sequoyah National Golf Course. The hotel is proud to be a participant in Harrah’s award-winning CodeGreen environmental sustainability and energy conservation program and recently installed 150,000 square feet of sedum on their new porte-cochère roof.

At Harrah's Cherokee in the Rotunda - photo credit Jordan Wright

At Harrah's Cherokee in the Rotunda - photo credit Jordan Wright

Comfortable Adventuring—A 45-minute drive from Cherokee on the western side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the Fontana Village Resort on the 30-mile-long Fontana Lake. The 400-acre property has a large marina and features a great lodge, private cabins or riverside tent camping. With plenty of planned activities throughout the day, it’s like summer camp for the whole family. Free concerts are held on weekends and evenings are for gathering around the fire pit, karaoke contests, sunset pontoon boat cruises, ghost tours and Indian storytelling. While there plan to visit Fontana Dam. At 480 feet high and 2,365-feet across, it’s the tallest concrete dam east of the Rocky Mountains.

 The Lodge at Fontana Village Resort

The Outdoor Life—Tents, cabins and RV campgrounds are in every nook and cranny. Within walking distance from town is the Cherokee Campground & Craig’s Cabins where you can put your fishing pole in Soco Creek right outside your cabin door. For camping with a pool and plenty of kid’s activities try the local KOA campground or the Adventure Trail Campground.

Upcoming Festivals
Eighth Annual Festival of Native Peoples—July 13 and 14
Cherokee Blueberry Festival—August 11
Southeastern Tribes Festival—September 14 and 15
Centennial Cherokee Indian Fair—October 2 through 6

Keeping To His Roots – Interview with Christian Laveau Lead Singer of Cirque de Soleil’s TOTEM and Artistic Director Tim Smith

Jordan Wright
July 2, 2012
Special to Indian Country Today Media

TOTEM - Cirque de Soleil

TOTEM - Cirque de Soleil

Christian Laveau keeps to his roots - both literally and culturally.  As an herbalist he stays grounded by following the ways of his people working for several years at the First Nations Garden at the Montreal Botanical Garden sharing his knowledge of native plants and traditional medicines passed down to him by his Huron-Wendat elders.  As a cultural ambassador he is a well-known Canadian performer, TV host, comedian, singer, songwriter, television producer and musician.  His award-winning children’s show Chic Choc focuses on inspiring stories directed towards Canadian youth.

Painted bear symbol on Christian Laveau's drum face - photo credit Jordan Wright

Painted bear symbol on Christian Laveau's drum face - photo credit Jordan Wright

His most recent role is as the lead singer in Cirque de Soleil’s latest production TOTEM, a fascinating tale of the evolution of man from its original amphibian state to its ultimate desire to fly.  Illustrated through a visual and acrobatic language, it falls somewhere between science and legend.  Laveau was discovered by the iconic Canadian company while performing at a pow wow on his reservation.

Beaded wolf symbol on Christian Laveau's drum - photo credit Jordan Wright

Beaded wolf symbol on Christian Laveau's drum - photo credit Jordan Wright

He enters the room filled with coiled energy and childlike excitement, carrying a drum and stick.  He seems self-possessed and contained, but eager to let loose.  His impish smile is warm and infectious and his arms envelop his well-worn drum like a proud father.  As he speaks he toys with a small smooth stone.

Christian Laveau - photo credit Jordan Wright

Christian Laveau - photo credit Jordan Wright

Jordan Wright - Is that the drum you use in the show?

Laveau - Yes, I play my own drum.  This one is 25 years old and made of caribou hide, and these are partridge feathers.  The beaded part is the symbol of the wolf.  I use the wolf, as my symbol.  For me it is very important because he is a warrior.  He represents strength and courage.  It’s a kind of keeper.  The painted part is the bear, my spiritual animal, because I am in the Bear Clan.  This symbol is the sun – wenta’ye yändicha’ in my mother language.

Wright - What was your childhood like on the reservation?

Laveau – We call it a reserve.  It’s in the Northwest part of Quebec.  It’s very small - around 2,000 Wendat live there.  Wendat means human being.  When the government made the national park they took my grandfather out of the bush.  He was a trapper.  My mother was just six years old then.  That’s when she saw electricity for the first time.

I grew up on the reservation with my sisters, mother, father and cousins who still live there.  It’s a matriarchal society in my culture.  If you remain there you have no other choice but to work for the Band Council or for the Chief or make crafts.  But I had a dream to leave and go to acting school.  So I went to the indigenous theatre company, Ondinnok, at the National Theatre School of Canada for three years to study my aboriginal roots.

Wright - What did that experience mean to you?

Laveau - I left my reservation and went to Montreal.  At the institute we studied native culture and spirituality.  We used songs, instruments and dance as a way to discover our real spirit.

It was more than a school.  I studied with Yves Sioui Durand.  He’s very intense and made us go very deep inside of ourselves to feel the pain and the joy, and the peace and the war of our ancestors.  In my blood I have all those memories.  We tried to experience those emotions, to have respect for them and to explore them, to make us stronger.  And we will continue to fight.

My grandfather is one of my idols because he spent his life in the bush and my great-grandfather also was in the territory all his life, protecting and preserving the area and its traditions – hunting, fishing and gathering.  I learned that it’s important to balance the forest.

My grandfather said if we go to the lake and find two beaver families, and if we leave them there, they will destroy everything around.  But we need to eat, to make hats from the fur and tools from the bones.  Where we live we cannot be vegetarians because it’s too cold!  We use the kidneys to make a tea for when you have a cold.  It is the animal that comes to us.  We always put tobacco at the place where we hunt the animal.  It’s to thank Mother Earth for giving us food.  It shows we are grateful so that the spirit of the animal can go in peace.

Wright – I noticed you wrote and recorded an album mixing traditional Native songs with folk and New Age.

Laveau - It’s called “Sondakwa”, which is my first name in my mother language.  It means ‘eagle’.  In the video I made for the album I worked with Gilles Sioui, a bluesman and an elder with the native spirit.  I’ve been a fan of his since I was a child.  He’s been my inspiration.  One day he heard me singing at a pow wow and I said to him, “You don’t know how much I would like to work with you,” and he said, “I’m your man!”

He had planned to do one song but he wound up making the entire album with me – doing the direction and all.  (Visit this link to watch a video of one of the songs from Sondakwa, “Terre Rouge” (Red Earth)

Wright - How do you reach young people with your message?

Laveau - I have a TV show called Chic Choc on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).  In native language it means, “Go over the mountain.”  It’s for the youngsters that I do this TV show.  It’s difficult for them.  There are not a lot of things to do in the area and there are problems with alcohol and drugs.  They don’t even allow glue in the classrooms.  But because the children are the keepers of our culture we have to show them and use what our grandparents gave us.  My grandmother always spoke to me about the importance of the “Seventh Generation” and continuing our traditions.

Wright - Where is your stone from?

Laveau – Well, they come from everywhere because whenever we have a pow wow we always exchange stones.  It’s my talisman.  This one is from a friend from the Atikamekw Nation in Quebec.  I’ll eventually exchange it for another.

Wright - It seems in your career you do it all.

Laveau - It’s natural for me.  It’s in my blood.  It’s not complicated for me.  My mother is a singer and I began singing with her when I was five years old.  My father was a dancer so I studied traditional dance, after that he was a chief.  But that’s not for me.  I’m not political.  I’m too sensitive.  I prefer to share my culture.  I don’t have the strength of my father to be a chief.

In the show I sing in my mother language.  Guy Laliberté [founder of Cirque de Soleil] said,  “You are a realculture, you are alive, so you will sing in your mother language.”  For me it’s really an honor.  Every night I use my own drums and other personal items.

Tim Smith, Artistic Director of Cirque de Soleil's TOTEM - photo credit Jordan Wright

Tim Smith, Artistic Director of Cirque de Soleil's TOTEM - photo credit Jordan Wright

Tim Smith, who has been TOTEM’s Artistic Director through its inception, was there to answer additional questions about the production.

Wright – Tell me something about the show.

Smith - We concentrate on the human instinct.  In us we have every origin of species all the way through to man’s wanting to fly, which is why the totem pole reflects the many faces of man and why we have an eagle on top.  It’s man’s constant need to progress forward and often upward that’s why a lot of our images are aerial and constantly moving artists from the ground to the air.

Wright - Are there other Native performers in the cast?

Smith – The show is truly multicultural.  We have 53 artists from 17 different countries speaking 9 different languages on stage every night.  Two are American Indian dancers performing traditional dance - Shandien Larance (Hopi) and Eric Hernandez (Hopi) from New Mexico and California.   They are authentic hoop dancers.  The hoop shapes describe evolution from frog to thunderbird.  We don’t teach them, we go out and find the real thing.  We use a lot of traditional images and Christian (Laveau) has written a lot of original music for the show in collaboration with the composers of Cirque.  That’s how authentic TOTEMis, and how important it is for the company to embrace that voice and that spirit.

Cirque de Soleil's TOTEM will be at the Plateau at National Harbor, MD from August 15th to September 30th. For tickets and information visit

Rocking Down at the Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival in Oklahoma City

Jordan Wright
May 24, 2012
Special to Indian Country Today Media Network

Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma City, OK

Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma City, OK

Before the doors open at the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City to more than 30,000 visitors, before the drum keeper touches stick to hide and dancers twirl their four-foot buckskin fringe and minutes before the first handwoven basket is purchased or warm fry bread tasted, the day will begin with the ritual smudging of sage leaves.

From Friday, June 8th through Sunday, June 10th, American Indian art and culture will be on display at this year’s 26th Annual Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival where more than 1200 artists and over 500 of the country’s finest dancers come together to compete in one venue and visitors will witness one of the country’s leading cultural events.

Thirty-nine sovereign tribes are headquartered in Oklahoma, each with their own language.  Combine that with over a hundred tribes that will be represented here plus journalists and visitors from places as far-flung as Japan, Great Britain and Germany, you can expect to hear more languages spoken here than throughout all of Europe.  National Geographic and Good Morning America have covered Red Earth, and last year USA Today named it one of 10 Great Places to Celebrate American Indian Culture by.

Partnering with the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, which houses a permanent collection of about 1700 historical artifacts and contemporary art, the Red Earth Master Artist Show will display the festival’s winning artwork from the previous 25 years.  In addition the highly selective juried show and separate art market will exhibit works from celebrated artists along with beadwork, basketry, jewelry, pottery, sculpture, paintings and cultural attire, allowing visitors to purchase both contemporary and traditional examples of American Indian arts and crafts.

“Over the past five years we have seen about a 20% growth each year in our event,” reports festival spokesperson Eric Oesch.  “I think it shows that it appeals to people from every walk of life.  Red Earth is for the purpose of sharing cultures and so we attract people, both Indian and non-Indian, from not only Oklahoma and all over the United States but also from around the globe to experience our unique cultures.”

On Friday morning amid 50-story skyscrapers the Grand Parade will kick off the weekend with an explosion of tribal culture featuring dancers, floats, Indian princesses, a football field-sized flag, honor guards, Indian firefighters, horse-drawn stagecoaches and brilliant regalia.  This year the Navaho Nation Marching Band from Window Rock, Arizona will perform.

During the all-indoor festival children’s activities will be sponsored by a different tribal museum each day.  Lots of hands-on activities as well as beadwork, keepsake boxes, musical performances and storytelling will be conducted by the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center in Lawton OK, the Citizen Potawatomi Museum in Shawnee, and the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization.

Two other exciting events will take place in Oklahoma City over the same weekend.  The seven-acre Myriad Botanical Gardens, which recently underwent a $43 million dollar renovation, will be the backdrop for the first Red Earth Invitational Sculpture Show featuring 12 monumental sculptures of bronze, glass and water.  The pieces are designed by some of the nation’s most reknowned Native sculptors including Janice Albro, Denny Haskew, John Free, Bill Glass, Jr., and former Oklahoma Senator and former Chief of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, Enoch Kelly Haney.

From June 6th through the 10th film buffs will flock to the deadCENTER Film Festival to see more than 150 films.  Known as one of the “20 Coolest Film Festivals in the World” by MovieMaker Magazine, the avant garde festival will screen two important American Indian films including the world premiere of the 1920 historic film Daughter of Dawn, a recently restored film with an all-Native cast.  Screenings for this film will be held at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s Noble TheatreThe Dome of Heaven, an indie film by Oklahoman Diane Glancy (Cherokee) starring actor Wes Studi (Cherokee), will be shown at the Harkins Bricktown Cinemas.  Visit for screening times and places.

Beginning Sunday, June 10th the weeklong Nike N7-sponsored Jim Thorpe Native American Games will be held at sporting venues throughout Oklahoma City, where teams participate in the All-Star Native American High School Football and Basketball Tournaments, as well as in nine other sports categories from golf, swimming and wrestling to stickball, martial arts and track and field.  The Olympic-style Games will play host to 3,000 student athletes representing 70 different tribes throughout Canada and the United States.

This year’s Games will commemorate the 100th anniversary of Thorpe’s gold medal-winning performances at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Thorpe (Sac and Fox) who played both Major League baseball, basketball and professional football, was voted “The Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century” by the Associated Press and was the first president of the National Football League (NFL).

Executive Director, Annetta Abbott told ICTMN, “This will be our largest event ever and will have a Parade of Nations, Indian dancers and fireworks.”  For additional info and event schedules visit