A rhythmic beat, chanting and jingling bells greeted visitors Sunday to the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, where students from the drum-and-dance group from Montana's St. Labre Indian School performed as part of the museum's Winter Storytelling Festival.
The event had many in the audience bouncing their legs to the rhythm and snapping photographs of the colorful costumes. But for the performers, the drums and dancing are part of their culture, not just an extra-curricular activity.
"This is what our culture does," said Hunter Old Elk, a 17-year-old member of the Crow tribe. "It really helps to preserve tradition in our own way. My family are all dancers. It's a big thing. For me, I didn't want to be the oddball out."
Wearing a buttery-soft buckskin dress with her long hair in two braids, Hunter looks every part the traditional Native American young woman. She said she's been dancing for as long as she has been able to walk — like her fellow dancers.
As Nellie Speelman surveyed the four young women getting ready in a dressing room, she reflected upon the group she helped start 15 years ago.
Ms. Speelman, 69, a member of the Northern Cheyenne, Sioux and Assiniboine tribes, said she began in 1997 to stress to grandson Benjamin Headswift — then a high school sophomore — the importance of their history and celebrating it through dancing and drumming.
"This is getting back to our culture," she said. "People are more interested and realizing it's OK to be Indian."
Bolstered by his grandmother's encouragement, Mr. Headswift and some of his cousins soon started a club for dancing and drumming.
"There's so much going on the reservation," said Mr. Headswift, referring to older members of a community plagued by health problems. "When elders would keep themselves at home, they would take their cultures with them."
The performers range in age from 11 to 17 and their dances vary from a welcome home for warriors to a quick-footed routine that mimics a chicken kicking up dirt.
Ms. Speelman said the students must have a strong academic standing to be a part of the group and be "prideful of their culture."
D.C. resident Maria Naranjo, 31, said she was most struck by how young some of the dancers were. She was one of several audience members chosen to participate in a two-step style dance with the performers.
"The show was very vibrant, and there was a lot of feeling and energy," Ms. Naranjo said.
The talent and dedication of the young dancers is not lost on Mr. Headswift, who said "it's really encouraging" to look back on what groups like his have done for American Indian tradition. St. Labre Indian School has a large representation of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes.
"Ours was pretty much one of the most culturally rich tribes," he said. "Now we're getting back into that."
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