The Grass Dancer

Wylie Bearstail performs a traditional grass dance at the National Museum of the American Indian (Photo by Ken White)

Wylie Bearstail performs a traditional grass dance at the National Museum of the American Indian (Photo by Ken White)


I love the book, The Grass Dancer.

Each story in the book kidnaps you on a journey through Indian Country, crossing over metaphysical and spiritual boundaries.

The book won the coveted PEN-Hemingway Award for Best First Fiction.

The author, Susan Power, is enrolled with the Standing Rock Sioux, and writes with an effortless and fluid style. I couldn’t put down the book once I started it.

The first time I saw a grass dancer was in Wisconsin–I had never seen the style at the Osage dances back home and this way of dancing looked different.

Powers writes that the grass dancer, “prepares the field for the pow wow the old-time way, turning the grass over with his feet to flatten it down.”

The Wisconsin grass dancer stood in front of a group of school children who were invited to meet with the American Indian dance troop before the evening’s performance.

I was one of the chaperone parents, tagging along with my daughters.

The very tall, very wide, black-haired grass dancer showed the kids his moves.

He arched his foot, lifting the inner sole upward, and slowly moved the right side of his moccasin a few inches across the floor.

“Does anyone know why I do that?” he asked.

“To flatten the grass?” ventured one pup.

The dancer smiled. “Yup.”

He asked all the kids to stand up, imagine the grass, and tamp it down with their feet.

The grass dance requires skillful, quick and symmetric movements: not just with the feet, but with the head, neck, shoulders, arms, knees, legs—every body part moves in rhythm to the drum.

Talking to the kids, the grass dancer points to his regalia and names each piece: porcupine roach, beaded cuffs, belt and lots of fringe.

“This fringe here,” he says. “I guess we used to use grass. But we don’t use grass any more.”

Today the dancer’s fringe is made from hanks of yarn.

“Can anyone tell me where this fringe comes from?”

The children fall silent and the grass dancer grins and says: “K-Mart.”

Blog #29 for Native American Heritage Month

Wylie Bearstail performs a traditional grass dance at the National Museum of the American Indian (Photo by Ken White, State Department)

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
This entry was posted in american indian, authenticity, Indian, journalism, writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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