As I hang up the telephone after interviewing Vaughnda Hilton of Native Nations Dance Theater I realize, with some embarrassment, that the number of contra bassoonists I’ve met exceeds the number of Native Americans I’ve encountered. Within the boundaries of the music and art worlds, the museums and academic departments where I feel at home, the Native American presence turns up only scantily, and only in museums. After talking to Hilton, I marvel at its complexity, its integrity, and its invisibility.
Hilton, founder and executive director of Native Nations Dance Theater (NNDT), as well as one of its performers, is among those swimming upstream to preserve the Native American heritage. Articulate and sensitive, she sketches it for an outsider and rejoices in its vividness.
The public has an opportunity to sample some of the accessible aspects of Native American life when a group of NNDT performers bring a "Native Nations Mini-Powwow" to Mercer County Community College. The performances, suitable for families, take place in Kelsey Theater on Saturday, October 15. (Certain aspects of the tradition are sacred and open only to members of the Native American community.)
Philadelphia-based NNDT, founded in 1991, is a traveling non-profit professional company. It presents the traditions of more than 20 tribes in the United States, Canada, and Central America. Delwin Fiddler Jr. is chairman of the group.
Wearing elaborate costumes, the company sings, dances, tells stories, and plays musical instruments, seamlessly blending movement, narrative, and music. By Native American traditions, powwows are not performances outside of normal activities but are integrated into ordinary life. There are dances for the seasons, times of day, daily activities, and celebrations such as weddings and birthdays.
The word "powwow," Hilton says, comes from the Algonquin word meaning to confer or to join in council. "A powwow is a gathering of Native and non-Native people where everyone comes to participate," she says. "It’s a gathering where you experience dancing, singing, drumming, and Native foods like corn soup, wojapi [a pudding made with berries], buffalo stew, and fry bread [a fried bread]." The Kelsey performance is a theatrical event that simulates a powwow.
‘If Native Americans live in a city they go to powwows to stay in touch," Hilton says. "There’s a powwow every week. Family groups travel around to different powwows. From one week to another we see the same people. Professional dancers and drum groups travel around the country, participating in powwows and competing for money. If we win one weekend we save the money and go to the next powwow. You can make a living at this if you win a lot."
While particular tribes have unique dances, some common features are widely used. One traditional element consists of a walking pattern where the foot is tapped and then a forward step is taken. However, while many tribes dance in moccasins, Aztecs dance with bare feet.
The roles of men and women differ in the dances. The traditional men’s dance tells of a battle or hunt. The traditional men’s dance from the Lakota people of the central plains is a solo where the performer wears an eagle bustle on his back. However, some tribes have multiple performers, Hilton says.
The women’s dances – such as the Eastern Women’s Blanket Dance in the Kelsey show, which comes from the Narragansett people – tell the story of womanhood, Hilton says. "They show the love and caring a woman has to show to her family. The Narragansett dance is also a courtship dance. The dancer makes different designs and formations with the blanket while dancing."
The dances leave room for innovation, Hilton says. "Most of the dances are improvised, but there is a basic foundation. Still, innovation and individuality are valued."
The interplay of instrumental and vocal practices embodies traditional practices, she explains. The Kelsey show includes drums and flutes, as well as singing. Most of the vocals are what Hilton calls "vocables," syllables like "La-la-la." Some songs played on the drum involve words. "Lakotans sing northern drumming songs in a nasal high pitch," she says. "The men drum and sing at the same time. Women back up the male singers. Women stand behind the drum and come in at very high pitch and only at certain points in the song."
The Kelsey performance includes dances of celebration and omits religious and ceremonial dances, Hilton points out. "Sundance and naming ceremony dances are sacred to Native people and should be respected as sacred," she says. "Ceremonial dances will not be presented in our performance as we are respectful of our many different ceremonies."
Hilton was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1964 and named Vaughnda at birth. She says: "Native American people are named in a variety of ways – from lineage, heritage or something a child does repeatedly, like ‘smiles a lot.’ Later on they can be given a different name in a naming ceremony. If Native Americans are born in a hospital, the hospital often insists on a name before the child leaves. Vaughnda is my hospital name; it’s an old Hindu name that means strength.
Her mother, a retired biology teacher, is named Pauline Songbird. Hilton says she is an accomplished singer and will be performing the Eastern Women’s Blanket dance. She is Seminole-Creek. Hilton’s father, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, was in the United States Air Force.
Hilton began performing at age five. "Most of us start our children off in the dance arena as soon as they can walk," she says. "Andrew, my son, started dancing at two years old." Andrew’s father is Andrew Lyn Sr., who is three-quarters Chinese and one-quarter Carib-Indian. He is originally from Antigua. Hilton met him in college. At the time he was her sensei (mentor) in martial arts. The two married and started a martial arts and fitness studio in 1987. Since 1991 they have run the Philadelphia-based Ju-jitsu Shotokan Karate Association summer camp for children. Andrew Sr. now lives in Delaware; Vaughnda lives in Philadelphia with her mother and son.
At 18, Andrew Jr. is an artist-designer for Native Nations Dance Company. He also has a trademarked company, Xkloosiv, which deals in T-shirts and other clothing with hand-painted designs. Andrew specializes in cartoon characters, his mother says, both known characters and those he invents. "He will paint on just about anything, jeans, hats, cups, glasses, and indigenous wares – shields, turtle shells, and rattles."
Hilton is a third degree karate black belt; Andre Sr. is a fourth degree black belt. They compete nationally and have won national tournaments.
In the 1990s Hilton developed Shotobox, a martial art system designed for women. "A lot of women were interested in martial arts but didn’t want to wear a uniform and didn’t want the rugged traditional class. Shotobox is self-defense for women. It uses kicks, punches, and blocks, but has an aerobic format. It’s like Taebo, but came earlier." In 1999 she brought out the Shotobox manual and video.
Hilton earned a bachelor of arts degree from Florida’s St. Leo University, where she triple majored in dance, theater, and education. In 2002 she graduated as a paralegal from the PJA School in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. She has worked as a paralegal and without abandoning Native Nations Dance Theater, she would like to become an attorney.
"A Native American can be named at different times for different reasons," Hilton says. "It means something spiritual when you’re given a certain name in a naming ceremony. I’ve had one naming ceremony, when I went to South Dakota for the Sun Dance. I was named ‘Yellow Eagle Woman’ because of a recurring dream I had about eagles. Dreams are important for Native Americans. My dream was about a yellow eagle walking along beach. A yellow eagle is almost mystical; eagles are not yellow. Someone named ‘Yellow Eagle’ is one who has foresight and can see what’s beyond what’s really here."
Native Nations Mini-Powwow, Saturday, October 15, 2 and 4 p.m., Kelsey Theater, Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road. Native American dance and song. $8. 609-584-9444.