NBC documentary explores 'The World of American Indian Dance'

ONEIDA NATION HOMELANDS, N.Y. - For the first time ever, a major television network will air a documentary produced by Americans Indians about American Indians when "The World of American Indian Dance" premieres on NBC on April 19 at 3 p.m. EST, noon PST (Check listings for local time/channel.) Produced by Four Directions Entertainment, an enterprise of the Oneida Indian Nation, the documentary showcases the beauty, athleticism, and competitive spirit of American Indian dance.

The Oneida Indian Nation, in partnership with Sonny Skyhawk (Lakota) and Dan Jones (Ponca), formed Four Directions Entertainment, the first film and television production company, 100 percent American Indian-owned and operated, in 2001. According to Executive Producer Ray Halbritter, who as Nation Representative and CEO of the Oneida Indian Nation gave the green light to the documentary, "This program is a testament to our overall mission of recognizing and advancing the American Indian community in the field of entertainment. We're also very grateful to NBC Chairman and CEO Bob Wright for his support of this project."

Executive Producer Dan Jones says, "American Indian dance is this continent's oldest cultural tradition, with many of the country's 550 tribes and nations hosting gatherings commonly called 'pow wows,' which are growing in popularity as both cultural and sporting events. Some pow wows boast attendance of more than 50,000, such as Crow Fair in Montana, where we shot over 40 hours of dance footage and interviews."

Against the historic and spectacularly beautiful Crow lands backdrop, the compelling story of America's first "performance artists" is told through dance. Because all Indian cultures of North American were based on oral history rather than the written word, song and dance held meanings far greater than mere entertainment. For centuries, dances and songs maintained the records, histories, knowledge and values of these societies. Dance affected every aspect of American Indian life: from social functions to religious and spiritual rituals. During war and peacetime, to mark the changes in seasons or to honor the stages of an individual's life, dance was a means of communication and celebration. It has also been the prism through which age-old rivalries have been played out and where such modern conflicts as progress vs. tradition; spirituality vs. commerce, old vs. new, and independence vs. assimilation continue to be dramatically expressed.

The many types of dance, their meanings and origins are explored, depicting how dance has fortified and sustained a race of people. Traditional dance styles, developed thousands of years ago, distinguish tribes from one another and hold the key to tribal legacies. For instance, in many American Indian cultures, it was believed that animals taught the people how to dance. The Crow people of Montana based the Chicken Dance on mating rituals of the field grouse.

Dance gained a life of its own, sweeping across the tribal landscape at astonishing speed. At no time in American history did this occur more dramatically then during the era of western expansion in the mid to late 1800s. At this time, tribal nations were using traditional dances to strengthen their fighting spirit. Even more, dances such as "Ghost Dance" and "Sun Dance" were unifying nations, a fact the U.S. government viewed as a threat.

From the late 1800s through World War II, Indian culture as a whole was heavily restricted. Dance, by and large, was extinguished, or more accurately, went underground although traditional dances were practiced in secret. Slowly, dance started to re-appear in public settings such as Wild West shows and Indian pageants at public schools. As a result, Indian dance began to re-emerge in Indian country, germinating the roots of what we know today as the Contest pow wow. These gatherings, inter-tribal in nature, satisfied the need for cultural exchange between tribal nations. At the same time, more personal, intra-tribal dance traditions also began to re-surface.

Many American Indians feel the modern Contest pow wow is superficial and has commercialized traditional gatherings. Others suggest that the commercial element actually encourages broader audiences to experience the brilliance and spirit of American Indian culture. What can't be argued is the fact that all across Indian country, Contest pow wows are sprouting up everywhere. Its popularity is giving rise to newfound opportunity and confidence for Indians. Simultaneously, tribal nations are beginning to find separate times and places to maintain their traditional sacred dances away from the Contest pow wow.

These beautiful, energetic dances require the skill of an Olympic athlete, as pow wow contestants must adhere to rigorous protocols to win championships. The documentary also explores the clash of traditional vs. more modern styles of dancing and the lifestyles that reflect each distinct approach. As in any culture, young American Indians, to a certain degree, have abandoned the more traditional dance styles, preferring less restrictive, more interpretive dances including the Fancy Shawl Dance, the Jingle Dress Dance and the Men's Fancy Dance. Many tribal elders are wary of the more flashy and secular aspects of the newer dances. But others point to the increased attendance and participation of youth as a sign that the injection of the newer dance forms is re-invigorating the American Indian dance scene.

According to Executive Producer and Four Directions principal Sonny Skyhawk, "Four Directions Entertainment is committed to creating more opportunities for American Indians in the entertainment industry and to re-defining, through its productions, the perception of the 'First Americans' on the continent."

"The World of American Indian Dance" is a Four Directions Entertainment production presented by The Oneida Indian Nation. To see a trailer of the documentary or to find out more about Four Directions and its programming, visit www.4d-enter.com.