Larry Yazzie’s world is vibrant—colorful, alive and beautiful. That energy inspired him to pick up his dancing shoes at the age of 7. Now 45, this multi-talented dancer, singer, educator and international lecturer has become a much sought–after performer here and abroad—a de facto Native cultural ambassador.
A member of the Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa/Meskwaki, Yazzie is a two-time World Champion Fancy Dancer. His credits include performances at the Olympics, the Kennedy Center, and international festivals in Japan, Ireland, France, Brazil, Norway and, most recently, Jordan, at the annual Jerash Festival. Last year, he received the 2012 A.P. Anderson Award for his significant contributions to the cultural and artistic life of Minnesota; in December, he portrayed a Mayan priest in a Mayan episode of America Unearthed, a History Channel Series on H2.
In 2003, Yazzie formed Native Pride Dancers; he recruited family members and talented artists to join him on tours to provide high-energy shows featuring Native songs, dances, flute playing and storytelling. A few years later he formed Native Pride Arts, a nonprofit organization that offers workshops, lectures and teachings.
Photo by Christal Moose
This year promises to be a busy one for Yazzie with overseas trips, as well as performances in Washington, D.C. and the Minnesota State Fair. He will be teaching at the Kaha:wi Dance Theater in Toronto and in several pow wows in Iowa and Idaho.
Yazzie recently spoke to Indian Country Today Media Network about his love of dancing, his inspirations, Native stereotypes, the formation of his Native Pride Arts, and his hopes for the future.
How would you ?describe the stage you are at in your life today?
I have learned to accept the obstacles and challenges that come my way and to deal with them. Life’s not easy sometimes, but I’ve done my best to keep trying to move forward, to express my art and share it with others.
What is your greatest achievement?
We took our dance troupe to the Middle East in July 2012. I never imagined going there before. It was amazing to help make a difference in their countries.
Who inspires you?
My totally devoted but demented fans—you know who you are. All kidding aside: the kids in the audience, the ones who want to learn, all those who are eager to learn.
What does dancing mean to you?
Dancing is expressing myself, sharing my spirit, sharing my energy and sharing my gift.
What inspired you to dance?
The energy, the colors, the beauty and the challenge of the fancy dance.
What would you tell aspiring fancy dancers?
Create your own style. Respect the dance. Respect the feathers, the beadwork and keep the traditions alive.
How do you think the pow wows have evolved today?
They have become very commercialized. The competition pow wow purses are much higher and have sparked more interest in dancers and pow wow attendees.
Tell us about growing up and how that has influenced your career.
I grew up poor. I found dancing as an outlet or tool, and it has helped me become who I am today, professionally and spiritually. That’s what helped me to create what I’ve created: I share the dance, stories, and I create production to tell about the culture today.
When did you decide to be an “ambassador” for the Native people?
I didn’t. It just evolved that way. I wasn’t out to become a particular spokesman or public figure. Things just came to me: nonprofits, government agencies, museums and schools enabled me to become an ambassador.
Why did you go for it?
I accept what’s given and try to create opportunities for other people in the schools and for those around me.
What to you is the most common stereotype of non-Natives regarding Native Americans?
I find that many people think we’re all the same: We all live on reservations; we all get casino money.
How do you address that?
Through stories, lectures, presentations. For example, everyone hears about the “Hollywood beat”—the drums that sound in the movies when the Indians appear on the screen. Of course, we don’t dance to the Hollywood beat.
You are an international lecturer, educator and performer. Do you still do a lot of traditional pow wows?
Yes. The main traditional pow wow I go to is the Meskwaki Pow Wow. I’m honored to be the master of ceremonies and this year counts as the 99th annual Meskwaki Pow Wow. It is the biggest honor for me to be entrusted by my community to tell the story and history of our dances to visitors from around the world.
Why did you decide to establish Native Pride Arts?
I wanted to be able to create opportunities for schools and underserved communities. A very benevolent man, Robert Rampi, a certified public accountant, played a very key role in helping create Native Pride Arts. We are grateful to him.
What distinguishes Native Pride Arts from the other groups?
Our group is made up of many dancers who are artists, professionals, champion dancers, students and inspiring individuals in their own right. They continue to strive to take care of themselves professionally, spiritually and educationally.
Tell us about Native Pride Dancers (Ed's note: See ICTMN's story on the group by clicking here).
Our group is inspirational, majestic, beautiful, entertaining, interactive and funny. Our dancers are champion dancers. And we’ve also taken young dancers in and assisted in developing them to move forward with their dancing—for instance, Joe Artishon, a young traditional dancer from Minneapolis.
What’s in store for the troupe?
We would like to do more collaborations with other artists outside of our Native culture—hip-hop and other forms of modern dance.
Performances? Are there going to be any international engagements?
We had inquiries about Egypt and Israel. Those trips have not been confirmed but we definitely look forward to taking our group on another international tour soon.
What’s it like to be performing with your son Jessup?
Awesome. It feels good that I’m passing on the traditions onto him, so he won’t forget where he comes from—his roots, his identity.
Is any of your family involved in Native Pride Art other than Jessup?
My 6-year-old-daughter, Samarra, dances with us. My auntie, Dana Davenport, has danced with us. My little granddaughter, Sade Kapayou, danced with us last summer at a production at the Meskwaki Convention Center in Tama, Iowa.
What else do you want to achieve?
I would like to create a Native arts school, a charter school; I’d like to write a book and I want to help other Native communities to bring arts into their schools.
Photo by Christal Moose