Norman Roach, Cheyenne River Sioux, is a renowned fancy dress dancer, hoop dancer and flute player. Selected as a dancer and choreographer by the American Indian Dance Theater, Roach was featured in the theater’s production of Finding the Circle and in the PBS Dance in America series.
He was instrumental in the founding of the Gathering of Nations pow wow and for three years directed a major pow wow held within the sacred Black Hills. He is still dancing, teaching middle school in Sanders, Arizona, and consulting on a proposed film about fancy dress pow wow dancers.
How have pow wows changed since you starting dancing?
In the 1960s, there were dance contests here and there, but there were not as many dancers or pow wows back then. Top prize money for adults back in the ‘60s was $100; for kids $10 or $20. We had the men’s contest and the women’s contest and then the boys’ contest and the girls’ contest. They didn’t have the categories like they do now.
We tended to go for more of the fancier style [of dress] for the contests. I remember in South Dakota the adult men would wear one bustle or sometimes they would wear two bustles, like they did in Oklahoma. People from North Dakota, Montana tended to wear no bustles, no feathers. So we knew where people came from depending on how they dressed.
The pow wows that happened a long time ago, in the 1960s, the main ones were pretty big: Pine Ridge Pow Wow; Standing Rock Pow Wow; Crow Fair; Arlee, Montana; Albuquerque; Omaha.
I met a lot of champions back then – Tyrone Head, Sonny Larvie, Norman Knox and Sylvester Roubideaux from Rosebud, S.D.; Alex Spotted Elk and Sydney Whitesill from Standing Rock; Acorn Tyon, Everett Lone Hill, Lavern Yankton, and Ted and Bill Means from Pine Ridge; Uris Blue Arm, Timothy Hale, and Pat Crow from Cheyenne-Eagle Butte; Norman and Joyce Crow Flies High from Fort Berthold.
I’ve discussed these names with some other older pow wow people and they say that it is very important that these influential male dancers of the 1960s era be documented before people forget these dedicated dancers who kept the pow wow dance culture alive.
The influential female dancers of this pivotal era were Julia Roach Rencountre from Standing Rock, Mary Ann High Crane from Pine Ridge, Mert Howard from Rosebud, and Ms. Seaboy from Sisseton.
“When I went to boarding school, they did not promote our culture. They wouldn’t let us speak our language and, of course, we couldn’t dance or sing.”
Could you talk about your mother’s contributions as a pow wow dancer?
Back then, a lot of the women wore shawls in the traditional style or semi-fancy style. My mother, Julia Roach Rencountre, was dancing in the ‘50s and ‘60s. She was a tap dancer when she was a little girl. She brought a lot of that to the pow wow. She had really good footwork. And she would spin. She was the first female dancer many people saw spin. That was very, very different for a woman. Even the men didn’t spin that much.
I saw three pow wows over in North Dakota and South Dakota where the people who were judging the contest actually stopped the pow wow because they couldn’t understand the spinning. They didn’t know what to do about it, the way my mother was spinning.
A lot of people told me back then that she was the first real fancy dancer with her footwork and the spins. There are some people in Omaha, Nebraska, who are alive today who told me that as far as they are concerned she is the one who started fancy shawl dance.
The ‘60s were a time of great social change. This was a new way for women to express themselves. It took a lot of courage for my mother to be the first one; it was controversial at first, but then people accepted it. The confusion for a lot of people is their grandma back then wore a shawl, so they figure she was a shawl dancer. Almost all the women had some kind of shawl back then but they weren’t fancy, so the memory is that just because their grandma wore a shawl, they were somehow part of that fancy dancing.
In fact, there were very few women who were really fancy shawl dancers. I asked my mother about this and she said there were some people who did some footwork. They weren’t real fancy, but they did some footwork. But Mary Ann High Crane I remember at the end of the 1960s being a really good fancy shawl dancer. And Mert Howard from Rosebud.
Now there’s another confusion. There’s a woman from Crow Agency going around saying she started fancy shawl. My mother just laughed about her, because she is about 20 years younger than my mother. My mother said all she did was run around—she didn’t wear a shawl. She wore the traditional Crow dress. That’s all she wore and she did the traditional Crow slide step. That’s the women’s Crow traditional dance. But anyway, she’s saying she started the shawl dance, and to me that’s one of the biggest lies going around in the pow wow world right now.
You attended boarding school during an extremely difficult period. How did those experiences influence you?
One of the main reasons I was inspired to dance was watching my grandfather, To Chase Alone. When I went to boarding school, they did not promote our culture. They were anti-Indian, anti-Indian culture, anti-Indian history. They wouldn’t let us speak our language and, of course, we couldn’t dance or sing. But that didn’t affect me. I always wanted to be a dancer. Always. It never stopped me.
I danced in the ‘60s and ‘70s, then I was selected as a dancer with the American Indian Dance Theater. They picked four dancers in a talent search. My wife, Ramona, and I were both selected. My wife has won a lot of contests.
My daughter, Shannon Roach, won a world championship as a junior shawl dancer over at the million-dollar pow wow they used to have at the Foxwoods Casino [in Connecticut]. Everyone went over there. There were probably 150 dancers she competed against.
Do you still dance?
Yeah, of course, I’ll never stop dancing. When people ask, Are you still dancing, they clearly don’t know me. I’ll never stop dancing... Including the pow wow in Arizona, the Apache Gold Pow Wow.
What was your most memorable moment as a fancy dancer on the pow wow circuit?
Winning at the first mega-pow wow in Tomah, Wisconsin in 1984. It was the first time all the dancers from the north and the south were together. It was the northern fancy dancers and the southern fancy dancers, about 75 dancers, kind of like a dance-off. I had great apprehension because it was the first pow wow with the north and the south competing together. I was really proud of winning that. That’s one thing nobody can ever take away from me. That’s part of pow wow history. There was a lot of big money there, so of course everybody showed up, a lot of drum groups and a lot of dancers, north and south, from Canada.
And also part of pow wow history is the first woman to spin, my mother. She did continuous spins, not just one spin; she just went ‘round and ‘round and ‘round, real fast. No one could ever take that away. It was something that she started, something she should be remembered for.
We’re planning to do a Memorial All-Around Dance Contest for her at the Oglala Nation pow wow at Pine Ridge in early August. And next year we hope to do a Women’s Fancy Shawl Memorial for her. Pine Ridge was one of the biggest pow wows in the 1960s, and my mother did win there. They used to do the Sun Dance in the morning in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and that’s where they kept the Sun Dance alive because no one else was doing it then.
What is the status of Dance Hard, the proposed feature film about a pow wow fancy dancer for which you are a consultant?
We’ve got three producers who are interested right now. Two of them are doing documentaries. And my friend Bobby Unser, Jr. really wants to help me. A lot of casinos have expressed interest. We just have to follow through with them. It takes quite a while to raise the money you need for a project like this.