Pete Bearheels dances a traditional Dakota chicken dance as he represents the Prairie Island Dakota.  PHOTO BY GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
Pete Bearheels dances a traditional Dakota chicken dance as he represents the Prairie Island Dakota. PHOTO BY GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
"How we teach our children is through participation and sitting at the drums. These songs are not written down...they're passed from generation to generation," said Prairie Island Dakota dancer Paul Dressin, speaking to the gathered audience at Historic Forestville's Dakota Drum & Dance program, held this past Saturday at the Minnesota Historical Society's vintage village inside Forestville-Mystery Cave State Park.

"We are not a professional dance group - this is a family. We go to schools to share our Dakota culture. The Dakota people were here for centuries, and they are compassionate and spirited people. In the last years, we've had to be very resilient people. When we're at schools, we're sharing about our people, our music, our dances. Many of you probably don't know how much Dakota influence there is in your language, how many words are Dakota...but 'Chaska,' 'Mankato,' 'Winona,' and also 'Minnesota,' and even though many of you may not know that the Dakota people are still here, we are still here, and we have dances, we still dance...you'll see men's traditional, women's traditional, men's fancy and women's fancy, grass dances, chicken dances, jingle dress dances and our grand entry."

The grand entry featured all the dances of the people, accompanied by five men on the drum, after which the drummers played the Dakota flag song, or the Dakota Nation's "national anthem," then a song for veterans and another during which audience members were invited to do their best "tribal boogie woogie" and learn a few native dance steps. Next, Dressin performed his men's traditional dance, then explained that the clothing each dancer wears, or his regalia, is handed down through families and represents elements of nature and Dakota traditions. "When I dance, I'm telling a story, and I dance for my elders, veterans, family that can't be here or family that has passed on. The dances go back to ceremonies that were held, and they include the crow hop, the double beat and the sidestep." He continued, "What I wear also reflects the story. I carry a pipe bag, a dance stick, a fan, this otter pelt. The regalia is gathered through a process...many times, an uncle, a grandpa, someone I hold dear in the community gives me something and says, 'I want you to carry this or wear this', like my feather cap, 'because I can't dance anymore'. Although we're not blood relatives, this is an extended family. It doesn't matter if there's a powwow and I have only $40 for gas to get there. I know that wherever I go to a powwow where my extended family is, that's all I need. When I get there, my extended family will take care of me. They're very caring, giving and understanding."

Grass dancer Cole Jacobson introduced himself first in Dakota, then in English, and related, "The style of dance I like is grass dance, given to us by the Omaha people of Nebraska, and it's called 'grass dance' because before we can dance in the high grass, it has to be flattened because it's very tall. The style of my movements and regalia mimics the movement of grass." Jasmine Fiddler shared her women's traditional dance after introducing herself in Dakota. "Women's traditional dance is very stationary because women were not allowed in the arena, so they would stand outside and show their love for the dance by taking steps in place and dancing by bending at their knees. I love to express myself through dance, and I like to do women's traditional dance because it is more traditional."

Kyle Bearheels, who dances men's fancy dress dance, flashed past spectators in a virtual kaleidoscope of movement. A chicken dancer, Pete Bearheels, decked out in bright orange regalia complete with a bustle of feathers, careened around the circle before Helena Campbell, who is also the Prairie Island Dakota Junior Princess, spoke and danced, demonstrating shawl dance. "Hello, my name is Helena, and my Dakota name is 'Wild Horse Woman'. I dance the fancy shawl dance. The shawl represents the butterfly going from flower to flower. It caught my eye because of its fast flashiness." Her steps were light and quick as she flitted from one end of the sacred circle to the other, around and around. The jingle dance, a healing dance passed to the Dakota from the woodland tribe of the Ojibwa - from northern Minnesota - was performed by young dancers Kemma Johnson and Laurel Campbell. One of the drummers stated, "It's very powerful, and it was given to us by the Ojibwa. We have taught our children how to do this dance because we want to pass it on to the next generation."

Dressin closed the powwow presentation by inviting the audience to participate in a social dance, or a full circle of people sidestepping and moving clockwise, signifying community and family, and thanking those in attendance for taking the time to learn about a treasured Dakota tradition.