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Native Visionary Daystar Rosalie Jones Receives IAIA Lifetime Achievement Award

Daystar Rosalie Jones—dancer, choreographer, educator, author, change agent, honoree—received the first Lifetime Achievement Award from IAIA April 11.

She’s danced for a president and his first lady, cabinet secretaries and their spouses; she hung out with Martha Graham in her post-graduate Juilliard days; Jose Limon mentored her; she traveled the world with her own modern inter-tribal indigenous company; Hollywood legend Vincent Price promoted her dance concerts in Santa Fe; her papers are archived at University of California, Riverside; and she recently received the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the Institute of American Indian Arts Performing Arts. Her name is Daystar Rosalie Jones—dancer, choreographer, educator, author, change agent, honoree.

It was in the spirit of the Sankofa, explained Daniel Banks, Chair of IAIA’s recently reconstituted Performing Arts Department, the Akan symbol of a bird flying forward with its head turned back, that the idea of conferring a Lifetime Achievement Award had been conceived. “We have to look back to know where we’re going; we’re honoring those who have forged the path. And who better to receive our first award than Daystar Rosalie Jones?”

Photograph by Jason S. Ordaz/Courtesy IAIA

Daystar Rosalie Jones sits in the crowd on April 11 at the Institute of American Indian Arts where she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Among the early pioneers in culture-based performing arts education for Native students qua Natives, she joined formidable peers Lloyd Kiva New, Allan Houser and Fritz Scholder on the faculty of what was then a novel experiment. They were consciously building a multi-disciplinary Indian fine art movement, debunking the prejudicial notion that Indians were to be relegated to the realm of mere craft.

“Beginning her association with IAIA in the 1960s and returning as Chair of Performing Arts in the early ‘90s, Daystar’s service to the school is legendary and her creative legacy is deeply felt. You are in our DNA,” Banks said inviting her to the podium to address the guests who had gathered, some to celebrate, some to learn for the first time, about her remarkable lifetime of achievement.

Photograph by Norm Regnier

“The Woman Who Fell From the Sky”

Visibly moved by the gifts of jewelry and commissioned sculpture bestowed on her, the many fine words of praise recounting the highlights of her 50-year career from IAIA President Robert Martin and others, the presence of former colleagues and students, dancers who she’d trained and inspired, and longtime dear friends, she began her talk by spontaneously sharing something deeply personal about an equivalent moment of pride, appreciation and fulfillment: “When I got my master’s degree in dance from the University of Utah, my mother made me a buckskin dress.”

That buckskin dress was fraught with meaning not only because it commemorated an important milestone in a traditional way, but because of Daystar’s conscious journey to reconnect to her culture and to wear it like a precious garment. Though her mother was a hotel maid and her father a welder, they made certain their only child received a formal education. It was at Fort Wright College that she heard the words that would first help her to define her artistry. “You will never do original work until it comes from who you are.” Jones answered the next logical question, Who am I? with a declaration from the depths of her being: “I am a Native woman.” Though her response seemed simple enough, the route to understanding what that would mean in her life was anything but.

“I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to be in the arts. I had to make this connection to my culture; it’s taken me all my life to do that. It’s not one step, it’s many steps, a whole journey of my life.”

Photograph by Jason S. Ordaz/Courtesy IAIA

Daystar Rosalie Jones speaks to those gathered April 11 at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Fifty years ago Jones choreographed “Sipapu, a Panoramic Drama of Myths, Dances and Chants.” Sipapu was performed by 75 dancers in a cast of 300 representing 31 tribes at a festival held in 1966 at the Carter Barron amphitheater in sultry summertime Washington, D.C. According to Jones, the festival was the first time in performance that all of the major traditional dancers in the United States had been brought together in one place, and the first time she had the opportunity to see the Northwestern dancers. “It was an education for me,” she recalled.

Her vast company rehearsed barefoot in the basement of the Interior Department or outside on the grassy lawns of Rock Creek Park. When blisters started forming on the dancers’ feet from the asphalt covering on the elaborate multi-level stage set (bridges and ramps against the verdant backdrop of mature fully-leafed-out trees), they went out and bought everybody ballet shoes. “It was a crisis moment,” she joked.

Photograph by Jason S. Ordaz/Courtesy IAIA

Mayor Pro Tem Signe Lindell with Daystar Rosalie Jones, who was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Aware at the Institute of American Indian Arts on April 11.

In 1980, with the support and encouragement of her other major mentor, Barry Lynn (a force of nature who in 2014 danced at his own 100th birthday celebration), she formed her own company Daystar: Contemporary Dance Drama of Indian America. The pictures documenting some of her more than 30 major choreographed works reveal an amalgam of glamour and earthiness—draped flowing gowns with the elegance of couture, diaphanous veils and evocatively decorated masks, paired with the simplicity of bare feet. With her dancers she toured North America and beyond, and saw if not the whole world, some of its interesting corners—Ireland, Finland, Bulgaria and Turkey.

Daystar Rosalie Jones has choreographed more than 30 major works, and toured North America and beyond with her dancers.

Her dance “No Home But the Heart” conveyed the stories her mother had told her about traditional Indian ways, and especially about her enigmatic grandmother Susan Big Knife. “Her face looks downcast in this picture,” Jones observed sharing a portrait, “but her eyes are smiling.” Jones described the challenges she had in selecting the most salient stories to include, the responsibility that weighed on her, until she received this bit of advice from a colleague: Don’t critique, don’t edit, just write what that great grandmother would want to say if she could speak to you personally. “After that, I had no difficulty at all.”

Daystar’s dance “No Home But the Heart” conveyed the stories her mother had told her about traditional Indian ways, and especially about her enigmatic grandmother Susan Big Knife. “Her face looks downcast in this picture,” Jones observed sharing a portrait, “but her eyes are smiling.”

Her dance “The Dispossessed” concerned the culture shock of a Native woman who is sentenced to jail. In prison she recalls her people’s songs and begins to pray. In her Native culture, she experiences a new found sense of freedom. One night after a performance in Milwaukee, instead of going out the theater’s back door as she usually did, Jones crossed the stage, went through the aisles of empty seats and out the front door. There was an elder, a lone woman who seemed to be waiting for someone or something. The stranger asked her a question: “Was that your vision?”

This prompted another serious exploration for Jones. What is a vision? How do you get a vision? “At IAIA,” she explained, “we didn’t think of ourselves as visionaries. But we were very aware of our unique place for Native people to come and be nurtured in their talent. I was elated to be there to teach and to choreograph and to work with the young people. I learned as much as they were learning. We were innocent, hopeful, lighthearted, ready to go!”

Photograph by Jason S. Ordaz/Courtesy IAIA

Daystar Rosalie Jones was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award April 11 at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

These questions about visioning have continuing relevance for Jones today. In 2015, her longtime partner, theater director and former IAIA colleague, Ned Bobkoff, died after a few grueling years of serious illness, and Jones who is on faculty at Trent University in Ontario, Canada finds herself at an exhilarating turning point. Like the Sankofa, searching the past for clues as she flies into an as of yet undiscovered future, she concluded her talk with these words from the heart: “Where I am with my life, I felt it was very important to see you all again.”