” We are always here. The Native Nations Dance Theater continues its legacy during Native American Heritage Month.
Philadelphia’s only professional Native American dance company, Native Nations Dance Theater (NNDT), travels the world and performs for audiences who, before performances begin, are often unaware that Indigenous peoples still exist in America.
âWhen I travel overseas, they think the cowboys and soldiers in the movies killed us all,â said Pauline Songbird Hilton, who has performed with the company since her daughter, Vaughnda Hilton, got it. founded in 1991. At the start of some performances, “I can tell by looking in the audience that they didn’t know if we were going to come out with bows and arrows, start shooting.”
Awareness of Indigenous history and culture was the starting point for the creation of the company 30 years ago. When Vaughnda Hilton’s son was in first grade, her teacher asked her if she would agree to give a presentation for the class. Dressed in Native badges, she taught students about the Lenape people, the original inhabitants of the Philadelphia area, which they called Coaquannock, or Valley of the Pines.
Shortly after the presentation, the school asked him to start over. âThere was a need in schools to have a first-hand look at history from our perspective,â she said. âI didn’t know of anything like an office of Native American speakers on the East Coast, especially in Philadelphia. “
As a longtime Indigenous dancer and former professional Philadanco dancer, Hilton decided the best way to share her culture – Seminole Creek on her mother’s side and Blackfeet on her father’s side – would be through dance. To find members for the city’s first Native American dance company, she didn’t need to look any further than her own family.
Hilton grew up learning Indigenous cultural dances from her parents and grandparents, and she passed these traditions down to her children and grandchildren. In the summer, her family goes to a different powwow almost every weekend. At these gatherings to celebrate Indigenous culture, they can dance eight to nine hours a day for five consecutive days. Well versed in a variety of social dances, they are also famous performers of specific categories.
Her mother specializes in the blanket dance of Eastern women, which tells stories about the stages of femininity. As she is from the Narragansett, Shinnecock and Wampanoag peoples, Pauline Hilton respectfully requested their permission to perform their dance and was subsequently placed in powwow competitions – a rare feat for a dancer from a different tribe. Vaughnda Hilton’s son, Andrew Lyn, is gifted at Grass Dance, which initially aimed to level the playing field into a dance floor. As a youth, Lyn won the East Coast Junior Championship title and became the role model other parents filmed teaching their own children the moves. From now on, his sons are also champions of the category.
Drawing inspiration from family, as well as friends who are practically family, Vaughnda Hilton can build casts as large or small as the opportunity requires. Today the company spans four generations, with Pauline Hilton the eldest at 82 and her youngest great-granddaughter at 4.
âNNDT is essentially a manifestation of my family’s culture,â said Vaughnda Hilton’s nephew Leon Wingate IV. âWe are our company. If we don’t perform and travel the world to educate others, we are going to participate in powwows, dance and share stories for ourselves.
Without space to gather, let alone dance, the NNDT was unable to tour, even virtually, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But in November, which is Native American Heritage Month, they continue their programming around Philadelphia.
Their first performance will take place at the Barnes Foundation on November 7 as part of the PECO Free First Sunday Family Day. This month’s Free Admission Day shines a light on Indigenous art from the museum’s southwest through the theme of wings. This is part of the wider Barnes Foundation effort to catalog, expand and exhibit this collection by February.
Representing the local indigenous community, NNDT will organize two interactive presentations in the afternoon. These will include demonstrations of several social powwow dances, performed in handmade badges for live singing and drumming. The public will be invited to learn and participate in some of the dances.
âThis attention to Indigenous dance is deeply rooted in our institutional history,â said Cindy Kang, Associate Curator at the Barnes Foundation. “It was while experiencing a Pueblo deer dance in the Southwest that Dr. Barnes became acquainted with and interested in the cultures and works of art of the indigenous peoples of the Southwest. “
Later this month, NNDT will resume its annual appearance at the Thanksgiving Parade. Because Thanksgiving is a time of mourning for Indigenous communities, “it sounds a bit awkward, but it’s not,” said Levy Flying Eagle Newell, vice chief of the Southeastern Cherokee Confederacy of Pennsylvania and member of the NNDT. âIt’s a way of educating people by telling them we’re still here. We are like everyone else. Some people think Native Americans live on reservations, but many of us live in communities. “
After her first introductions to her son’s elementary school, Vaughnda Hilton received calls from nearby schools asking for the same lesson. Word of mouth has led to new opportunities throughout the tri-state region and eventually along the east coast. âThen it took it up a notch,â she said.
In 2004, NNDT made its first international trip: a two-week tour of Canada. Since then, US embassies and government-funded grants have taken them to England, Greece, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Turkmenistan, the Caribbean and Kosovo. They also performed during President Barack Obama’s inaugural inauguration.
On their trip to England in 2006, they were about to perform for members of the British Royal Family at the Royal Norfolk Show when their van swerved to avoid an oncoming car, climbed an embankment and overturned.
âWhen the van rolled over you don’t know if you’re going to live or die,â said Pauline Hilton.
Vaughnda Hilton watched her mother crawl out of the window of the uniformed van and prepared for a trip to the hospital. But her mother, seeing that no one in the company was injured, insisted on calling another van. âIf I made a commitment to do something, only illness and death will stop me,â she said. âI was determined to complete the trip, so we did. “
With that kind of resilience, it’s no wonder Pauline Hilton was instrumental in the Indigenous Peoples Day movement in Philadelphia. About thirty years ago, she made a trip to Harrisburg as one of the founding members of the original committee. Although the group failed at the time, their work laid the foundation for future organizations. This year, when Indigenous Peoples Day finally became an official holiday in Philadelphia, celebrated on the same day as Columbus Day, Hilton received a certificate from the city recognizing the work it has done for the region’s Indigenous community. .
âWe’re not trying to stop people from celebrating Columbus Day, if that’s what they choose to do,â Hilton said. “We just want recognition of our own ancestors and our own accomplishments.”
Progress may be slow, but NNDT does not let itself be discouraged, with an enthusiastic vision for its future. âOne goal I would like to see is for NNDT to have a facility where we can bring our culture to people and people can come to us for first-hand education,â said Vaughnda Hilton.
While the NNDT strives to raise awareness and dispel stereotypes surrounding Indigenous people, it also serves the Indigenous community by providing an outlet for their creative talents. âI received a gift because I was able to show my culture to everyone who came before me who didn’t have the chance,â Wingate said. “We’re just trying to make the world understand who we are, where we’re from and that we’re still here.”
The Native Nations Dance Theater will perform at the Barnes Foundation as part of PECO’s Free First Sunday Family Day: Wings on Sunday, November 7 at 1:00 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. More info: barnesfoundation.org.