George Abeyta stood in the oppressive afternoon sun, adorned in full regalia — 25 pounds of feathers, buckskin, ribbons, sashes, arm bustles, side drops, dance sticks, leggings, cuffs, apron, vest, moccasins and beadwork. With microphone in hand he played to the crowd last Wednesday night in Lander.
“Some credit Buffalo Bill Cody with originating the Fancy Feather dance,” he said. “They say he was trying to liven up the slower, traditional Indian dances in his Wild West Show. … Others call that nonsense. No white man could ever come up with something so great.”
The predominantly white audience chuckled at the good-natured barb while Abeyta and two other Fancy Feather dancers assumed their positions. The big resonant drum, “the heartbeat of Mother Earth” as Abeyta described it, beat back to life and the three men erupted into colorful clouds of fluid motion. Each twirled and leapt, shuffled and lunged, bounced and kicked, flirting, it seemed, with lost control, yet unerringly locked to the rhythm of the drum.
At least one part of the origin story was proven true. Whoever invented Fancy Feather was clearly going for lively.
Abeyta, and the dozens of Native American dancers who perform with him as the Eagle Spirit Dancers, appreciate that up-tempo energy as much as the audience. But with their free, weekly, outdoor exhibitions on the grassy dancing grounds of the Museum of the American West in Lander, they’re shooting for something altogether different.
People travel the world for glimpses of Yellowstone, the Tetons and Wyoming’s other natural wonders. Last Wednesday, for example, brought visitors from Wales, Hungary, South Africa, Japan and numerous American states to Lander. For the dancers, that annual migration is an opportunity to introduce tourists and townsfolk alike to the state’s equally spectacular, if less widely known, human landscape. It’s a chance to give a gift.
“We are taught by our elders that our songs and our dances are gifts from the Creator,” said Abeyta. He spoke while dressing for the performance; a process that at 45 involves generous quantities of athletic tape, even for the fit, long braid wearing, great great grandson of Chief Washakie. “What are we saying to the creator if we hide that gift away? No. We are blessed, and we are grateful. So we must share those blessings, pass them on.”
A large part of that gift is education. Serving double duty as emcee and dancer, Abeyta introduces each dance with deliberately chosen aspects of its history, methodology, and role in Native American culture. Then, like an art critic, or sommelier, he interprets for the audience what they’ve witnessed.
In this way attendees learn that the Grand Entry almost always processes from the East. In the Men’s Northern Traditional Dance they see the reflection of battle and hunt: subtle stalks, pounces, parries and thrusts. Shells and elk teeth, sewn onto dresses become symbols of wealth, strength and security in the Women’s Traditional. The Grass Dance, with it’s low shuffling footwork, ankle bells, and pronounced symmetry, is transformed into a healing prayer for a long gone crippled boy. Attendees hear falling rain in the rattling metal cones of a Jingle Dress Dance and feel the warmth and security embodied by the blankets of the Fancy Shawl Dance. Willow hoops animate, form beautiful creatures, and draw those assembled into the circle of life with the Hoop Dance. And, of course, there is the sheer acrobatic spectacle of the Fancy Feather.
As with most worthwhile gifts, this giving, too, requires sacrifice. Many of the Eagle Spirit Dancers are well-known champions. By committing to these weekly performances, they often forego opportunities to compete for renown and handsome cash prizes on the international “powwow trail.” Abeyta, for example, has driven more than 35,000 miles in the last 11 months, many of them racing back to Lander between far flung competitions in order to dance for grateful strangers.
Such commitment can largely be explained by the less overt aspects of the dancers’ offering. “We’re not just playing around or showing off here,” explains Abeyta. “There is good medicine in the dance. We aim to inspire and uplift. If someone is angry maybe they’ll find happiness, if they are sad may they find peace. There is real power in this.”
That power, Abeyta hopes, will resonate far beyond the individual travelers who happen by en route to the parks. “One main reason my family does this is to break down the stereotypes and the barriers to understanding. There’s a lot of racism in America. Let’s face it. That’s no secret. But if we can help dispel the Hollywood myth of the Indian, if we can help people understand a little better. … That’s better for everyone.”
– The weekly dances are held at 7 p.m. each Wednesday from June 17th through August 12th at Lander’s Museum of the American West. The dances are sponsored by the Tourism Asset Development Program — a partnership of the Lander Chamber of Commerce and Wind River River Visitor Council, funded by the Fremont County lodging tax. Sponsors also include the Shoshone Rose Casino and Fremont County Recreation Commission.