Indigenous Enterprise, a collective of Native champion dancers from the United States and Canada, made its Joyce Theater debut on Tuesday.
A multidisciplinary performance with educational elements, the show — titled “Indigenous Liberation” and running at the Joyce through Nov. 14 — is a vibrant celebration of Native American culture and ancestors.
After the troupe’s Nov. 9 premiere, Indigenous Enterprise CEO and founder Kenneth Shirley said it was “powerful” to perform on the Joyce’s stage, where New Yorkers, who may have never met a Native American person, and his family, who made the trip from Arizona, gathered under one roof to witness the milestone. Shirley, a Diné (Navajo People) champion Fancy Dancer, explained that he sees the performance as a way to celebrate his lineage and as an opportunity to dispel stereotypes about Native people.
The program features traditional music and dances performed in competitive and traditional powwows, from the Men’s Chicken Dance to Women’s Jingle Dress Dance. The dances are complemented by a film that includes animation artfully contextualizing each dance’s origin and significance.
In one section of the performance, Acosia Red Elk, a champion Jingle Dress Dancer from the Umatilla people of Oregon who also dances in the show, narrated in the film that the Hoop Dance is thought to have started in Taos, N.M. as a prayer for collective healing. Jorge Gonzales-Zuniga, a three-time world Hoop Dance champion from the Salt River Pima Maricopa tribe, entered while the video played. He deftly spun the hoops on his wrists as he ran backwards and tucked his body to nimbly jump through the rings. Lifting several hoops that were laying on the ground with his foot, the dancer morphed the hoops into recognizable images like a butterfly, bird and globe.
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The artists’ regalia, the clothing worn by the performers while dancing, also played an integral role in the performance, providing both symbolic meaning and an extension of a dancer’s movement. Tyreen Lodgepole, who is Diné, wore a feather that stretched upward from a band made of beading, porcupine and deer hair that encircled his head, signifying a direct connection to a higher power. Laryn Oakes’ Fancy Shawl dress cascaded around her when she spun, creating imagery of a bird’s majestic wingspan while in flight. Oakes’ dress and its intricate beadwork were made by friends whom she considers family. Her kookum, which means grandmother in the Cree language, also contributed.
“She sat up all night,” Oakes, who is of Plains Cree, Meskwaki, Navajo and Nakota ancestry, said after the show of her 84-year-old grandmother’s insistence on repairing her moccasins right before traveling to New York. “It’s very family oriented.”
While committed to preserving their traditions, Indigenous Enterprise is also influenced by popular culture. Some of the troupe’s dances include nods to hip-hop, with moments of explosive floorwork and a loose, grounded style.
Through its apparel arm, the group sells merch like a t-shirt with an image of the faces of Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Chief Manuelito and Chief Redcloud etched in the Grand Canyon.
“As cultural ambassadors, we’re not doing this for clout or likes or anything like that,” Shirley said. “We’re doing it to let people know that we’re still here.”
Shirley’s mission of sharing Indigenous culture was well on its way by the end of Tuesday’s performance.
“I’ve never seen costumes and dancers like that,” said Fernando Silva, a 28-year-old Manhattan resident originally from Mexico. “It was very impressive to me.”
John Hunter, 79, a frequent Joyce concertgoer, was struck by the group’s commitment to their culture and craft. “It was nice to see traditional forms of dance from certain areas of the Indigenous nations,” the retired New Yorker said. “Certainly the dancers are very practiced, very proficient and very good dancers. And they seem to bring, I think, a genuine authenticity to their culture, which we don’t really know.”
Indigenous Enterprise began touring together in 2015 and has since performed in iconic venues such as the Sydney Opera House. In June of 2020, they became the first Native American dance group on “World of Dance,” Jennifer Lopez’s competition TV show on NBC. And in 2021, the group performed in President Joe Biden’s virtual inaugural parade.
As Shirley and his collaborators relished the show’s opening night, he reflected on why he dances. “It means inner peace for me. Joy. It brings me back to my culture as a Native American.”
“Indigenous Liberation” continues at the Joyce through Sunday, Nov. 14. For tickets, visit the Joyce Theater website.
Top Image: Indigenous Enterprise. Photo: Danny Upshaw.