Challenging Settler Colonial Choreographies During COVID-19: Acosia Red Elk’s Powwow Yoga

Tria Blu Wakpa*

Abstract

Scholars have often overlooked the vital knowledge in movement forms with Indigenous roots, such as powwow dance and yoga. This article offers the framework of settler colonial choreographies to describe how U.S. structures come to bear on the bodies and movements of Indigenous people and more-than-humans in ways that infringe on their freedom and futurities. Conversely, I analyze the Powwow Yoga workout videos that Acosia Red Elk (Umatilla Tribe) posted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her decolonial choreographies challenge settler colonialism by (1) centering contemporary Native peoples, women, and practices; (2) creating critical connections; and (3) orchestrating healing.
Keywords: Native American, indigenous, dance, yoga, settler colonialism, COVID-19, incarceration

We dance to change ourselves. Only when we have done this can we try to change the earth.

Leonard Crow Dog, Sicangu Lakota medicine man and spiritual leader (Crow Dog and Erdoes 144)

“Yoga is a light, which once lit, will never dim. The better your practice, the brighter the flame.”

B.K.S. Iyengar, the internationally renowned yoga teacher and practitioner (Yoga 35)

I don’t powwow as much and it’s because my message has changed. I have a message now to share and that is that we can heal ourselves through movement, breath, prayer, and mindful practices.

Acosia Red Elk, a ten-time world champion jingle dress dancer and the founder of Powwow Yoga (Goodman)

In Summer 2011, I was regularly teaching yoga to Lakota youth who were incarcerated at Wanbli Wiconi Tipi (Eagle Life Center), a tribal juvenile detention center on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, located on Lakota lands in what is often referred to as South Dakota, U.S. I concluded one of the classes as I usually did by inviting the young people to bring their hands to their heart center and collectively say, “Namaste,” a Sanskrit word, which I explained to the youth translates to “the light in me recognizes and honors the light in you.” Thoughtfully, one young man—a theorist in the flesh (Moraga and Anzaldúa xvii)—asked, “But what if your light is dim?”

The youth’s question, which I have considered ever since, suggests to me how the interlocking and enduring structures of U.S. settler colonialism and capitalism continue to detrimentally impact Native Americans. As connected to tribal nations, Native peoples challenge the settler state’s supposed authority and stability. U.S. systemic structures, which inform policies and practices, directly come to bear on the bodies and movements of Indigenous people and more-than-humans in ways that infringe on their freedom and futurities, what I term “settler colonial choreographies.” I define more-than-humans as air, land, water, the cosmos, and nonhuman animals (Todd 66; Tuck and Yang 5). From the late nineteenth century to the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the U.S. government largely prohibited Native dance and spiritualities (Shea Murphy, The People Have Never Stopped Dancing 85, 199).

My framework of settler colonial choreographies draws on articulations of “colonial choreographies” in and beyond Dance and Indigenous Studies, which often describe how colonizers have sought to control and subordinate Native and people of color bodies, movements and performances on and off stage with material consequences that have detrimentally impacted them (Belghiti; Madamperum Arachchilage; Marchinko; Le; Oh).

My theorization of settler colonial choreographies departs from these previous iterations by emphasizing how U.S. policies and practices have not only affected Native humans, but also Indigenous more-than-humans. Inspired by some of the scholarship on “colonial choreographies” as well as Susan Foster’s writing about social movements from a Dance Studies lens (397), this article conceives broadly of “choreographies,” which allows me to illuminate how the settler state has aimed to manage Native bodies and mobilities while Native people have participated in, negotiated, and rejected these goals.

Acosia Red Elk dancing at the Sydney Opera House (2019). Video source: Acosia’s YouTube site

Building on Harvey Young’s framework of “the Black body” (7–10) and in conversation with Elan Marchinko (20), I posit that settler colonial choreographies in part produce “the Native body,” a concept that emphasizes the commonalities in Native peoples’ experiences which result from the imposition of U.S. systemic structures and settler colonial stereotypes. Yet, unlike Marchinko’s theorization of the Native body, which is limited to how settler colonial typecasts are projected onto Native peoples (20), I am interested in how, despite the vast diversity of Indigenous peoples, similarities in Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies globally also create the Native body and inspire its movements.[1] As Young writes, “a remarkable similarity, a repetition with difference, exists among embodied black experiences” (5).

I contend that in the Native context, this similarity occurs not only because of Indigenous peoples’ experiences of ongoing colonization, but also shared understandings among many Indigenous peoples, which include “interdependency, reciprocity, equality, and responsibility” in relationship to human and more-than-human relatives, which fundamentally combat settler colonial and capitalist logics (Yazzie and Baldy 2). As Jacqueline Shea Murphy highlights, Native people have navigated settler colonial choreographies regarding the prohibition of Indigenous dance in a variety of ways, including “outright defiance,” “the taking underground of dance,” and “a complicated cooperation that worked both with and paradoxically against the restrictions and served to redirect their intended effects” (The People Have Never Stopped Dancing 44, 45, 46).

Respectful human-to-human and human-to-more-than-human interdependencies as well as the tactics that Shea Murphy identifies might be understood under the umbrella of what I refer to as “decolonial choreographies,” which is also in conversation with the scholarship of Native and Performance studies scholars, such as Marchinko, Karyn Recollet, Bethany Hughes and Lilian Mengesha. Given the aim of settler colonialism is for “settlers [to] make Indigenous land their new home and source of capital” (Tuck and Yang 5)—which requires Indigenous physical and cultural genocide and reconfiguring human and more-than-human relatives as “property” and “resource” (6)[2]—Marchinko, Recollet, Hughes and Mengesha describe “decolonial” performances that “carve spaces” of “care” for Native people (Marchinko 24), imagine an “Indigenous futurity” (Recollet 91), “center relationality, obligation, and active caretaking” of humans and more-than-humans (Hughes 128), and “embrace time and slowness” (Mengesha 597). Decolonial choreographies, as I discuss in this paper, can also challenge settler colonial logics of patriarchy (Baldy 30), Cartesian dualism (Goeman 295), linear time (Mengesha 579), ableism and fatphobia (Cowing 14–16).

The decolonial choreographies that this chapter centers on are culturally-relevant practices that seek to (re)establish stability for Native human and more-than-human relatives’ wellbeing and survival. Like the quote by Leonard Crow Dog, which opens this article, the concept of decolonial choreographies combats anthropocentric and Cartesian logics by clarifying how movement modes provide transformative possibilities for humans and more-than-humans, with whom people are inextricably linked (Crow Dog and Erdoes 144). Settler colonial and decolonial choreographies should be conceptualized not as a dichotomy, but instead as interlocking. Because the violent imposition of dominant structures on Native peoples and practices has created the conditions for decoloniality to occur, settler colonial and decolonial choreographies are intertwined. As an example, settler colonial, binary gender norms have often influenced contemporary powwow dance, although this is also shifting (Atter).

Powwows are Indigenous social and ceremonial gatherings—which can be tribally-specific and/or pan-Native—that promote Indigenous identities (Kracht) and feature Native dance and song alongside other activities, such as “food, vending, gambling, and general merriment (although drugs and alcohol are strictly forbidden at the powwow grounds in virtually all communities)” (Roberts 153). In conditions of structural and literal confinement (such as detention centers), Indigenous people have leveraged settler colonial impositions in innovative ways for decolonial means. Moreover, the fluidity of movement modes means that choreographies can be read in contradictory ways that can reify and/or resist dominant social structures (Martin). Articulating how settler colonial and decolonial choreographies are connected, this article focuses on the innovations and insights of Acosia Red Elk—a citizen of the Umatilla Tribe, located in Pendleton, Oregon—who in 2015 began adding powwow dancing to her yoga classes and eventually founded the fusion movement style, Powwow Yoga.

Red Elk Jingle Dress Dancing at the 2018 Wildhorse Powwow, held on Umatilla land in what is often referred to as Pendleton, Oregon. Photo: R.A. McLean 

In 2011—like B.K.S. Iyengar’s observation, “The better your practice, the brighter the flame” (Yoga 35)—I replied to the young man in the yoga class I was teaching that although a person’s light may be dim, there are actions they can take to rekindle that light. Also imprisoned in a juvenile detention facility as a youth (Goodman), Red Elk is today an acclaimed, ten-time world champion jingle dress dancer, a co-founder of Pendleton Yoga: Dynamic Movement Studio, and a yoga teacher and dedicated practitioner. She attributes her transformation from a young person who was incarcerated to a ten-time champion to her participation in powwow dance (Goodman). Imprisonment is an underlying theme of this article. In part because settler colonial structures construct Indigenous peoples and practices as “deviant and criminal” (Ross 41, 107), Native youth and adults are disproportionately incarcerated in the U.S. (Lakota People’s Law Project). I consider confinement in regard to U.S. social systems, institutions—such as juvenile halls and prisons—and conditions that delimit Indigenous mobilities, relationships, and survival (Blu Wakpa and Blue Bird); in this way, imprisonment is inextricable from settler colonial choreographies.

In March and April 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—which, like other pandemics, has disproportionately affected Native peoples in the U.S. (Hedgpeth)—Red Elk filmed and posted two open-access workout videos on YouTube of her teaching Powwow Yoga, which as of May 8, 2021 have had approximately 26,000 views combined (“#1 Powwow Yoga”; “#2 Powwow Yoga”). This article analyzes these workout videos and interviews that Red Elk has given surrounding Powwow Yoga. Although powwow dance and yoga arise from different sociopolitical contexts, they both may be understood as rooted in Indigenous practices (Miller, Yoga R/Evolution 29–30), and have in some instances been legally prohibited (Miller, Yoga R/Evolution 39).[3]

In this article, I argue that modes of bodily training have the potential to change our actions and the world by illuminating and enacting Indigenous understandings that challenge settler colonial and capitalist constructions and building connections and communities that have the potential to lead to social movement organizing. Because of the commonalities in diverse Indigenous worldviews, conducting a choreographic analysis of yoga poses through a Native Studies lens can help to reveal the Indigenous South Asian epistemologies that may be underlying these postures—such as human-more-than-human interconnection and holistic understandings of the body (Blu Wakpa, “Hozho Yoga”). A primary methodology in Dance Studies, choreographic analysis conducts close readings of bodies and their movements to reveal vital knowledge, which challenges Cartesian dualism. As Jane Desmond discusses, many other fields frequently exclude “kinesthetic semiotics” and are instead “largely text-based or object-based, with literary texts still predominating” (30).

Scholars have often overlooked how Indigenous movement forms evidence the endurance of longstanding Indigenous “emergent strategies” or “how [humans] intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for” (brown 3). Red Elk’s decolonial choreographies challenge settler colonialism in interconnected ways by (1) centering contemporary Native peoples, women, and practices; (2) creating critical connections; and (3) orchestrating healing.

Centering Contemporary Native Peoples, Women, and Practices

Because U.S. settler colonialism often operates to marginalize Native peoples and practices—frequently by (mis)representing them as extinct or on the verge of extinction (O’Brien xiii)—their visibility in the contemporary day is an important tactic of resistance. Relegating Native people and practices to the historic past operates as an attempt to obscure the ongoing violence of U.S. settler colonialism (Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker 3). If Native people no longer exist, non-Indigenous people can supposedly rightfully stake claim to Native lands, movement practices, and even Indigenous bodies and/or identities (Wolfe 388–89). Because Native movement practices are inextricably connected to Native sovereignties, epistemologies and ontologies, the settler state has often perceived them as a threat (Shea Murphy, The People Have Never Stopped Dancing 39; Blu Wakpa, Native American Embodiment 8). Thus, it is the imposition of U.S. settler colonialism—and along with it, the decentering of Native peoples, practices, and sovereignties—which structurally (mis)represents them as “deviant and criminal” (Ross 41, 107). As a result, the U.S. and its institutions have often either prohibited Native movement forms and/or attempted to leverage them for settler colonial and capitalist aims (Bloom xvii; Blu Wakpa, Native American Embodiment ix–x).

From the 1800s to the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the U.S. government largely outlawed Native dance (Shea Murphy, The People Have Never Stopped Dancing 29). Shea Murphy writes that U.S. colonizers viewed “Indian dancing as barbaric and immoral” (The People Have Never Stopped Dancing 40). Despite U.S. prohibitions of Indigenous dances, many Native people continued to participate in these movement modes (Shea Murphy, The People Have Never Stopped Dancing 76). Indigenous people danced in secret as well as in public settings—frequently policed by non-Native people—such as Wild West shows, which were often non-Native run endeavors (Moses 4–5). Although settlers banning Indigenous dance in private settings and encouraging it in the public sphere may seem contradictory, both strategies are congruent with settler colonialism, which again is interlocking with capitalism. Assimilating Native peoples—in part by prohibiting their lifeways—is a U.S. strategy to acquire more Native land, again monetized as “property” and “resource” (Tuck and Yang 6).

#1 Powwow Yoga with Acosia Red Elk

Countering settler colonial narratives, Red Elk’s Powwow Yoga videos clarify that Native peoples and practices exist and thrive in the present day—and in this case, in their original tribal territories. In the single-shot Powwow Yoga videos, the name of the studio—Pendleton Yoga: Dynamic Movement Center—is ever present on the back wall (Red Elk, “#1 Powwow Yoga”; Red Elk, “#2 Powwow Yoga”). Pendleton is not only the name of the town in which the yoga studio is located on the ceded and unceded land of the Umatilla Tribe (Sams), but also of Pendleton Woolen Mills, established in 1863, an (in)famous textile company in the area, which has appropriated Native designs and sold its products to Native and non-Native people (Hunt).

Although today some Native people prefer to buy from Indigenous-run textile companies, such as Eighth Generation, it is still common for Native people to honor someone with a Pendleton blanket at a gathering, such as a powwow. The name of the yoga studio thus capitalizes on Pendleton Woolen Mills’ prominence in Native and non-Native communities. However, in a way that can be understood as countering capitalism, Red Elk offered her Powwow Yoga videos for free on YouTube during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, when economic resources are/were scarce for many people. By posting the Powwow Yoga classes open-access on YouTube, Red Elk has gifted wisdom and wellbeing to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people globally. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, such “gift economy”—including as exhibited by more-than-humans—can provide vital insights into “reimagin[ing] currencies of exchange” in a way that “‘sustains life’” (Wall Kimmerer). Because YouTube is also utilized to generate economic and social capital, this illustrates how settler colonial and decolonial choreographies are interconnected.

Leighton, Burt and Red Elk begin in Child’s Pose with the Pendleton Yoga Dynamic Movement Studio logo displayed on the wall behind them in the #1 Powwow Yoga Video. Photo: Acosia Red Elk

Portrayals that foreground Native people in present day settings—such as a yoga studio—can unsettle settler colonial stereotypes (Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places 5), and the videos accomplish this on audio and visual registers. Both videos feature Red Elk and her daughter, Dancing Star Leighton, positioned in the foreground (Red Elk, “#1 Powwow Yoga”; Red Elk, “#2 Powwow Yoga”). They—along with Mary Burt, Red Elk’s best friend and the other co-founder of Pendleton Yoga—wear a tank top and yoga leggings, clearly conveying the contemporary time. Burt identifies as non-Indigenous, specifically of German, Irish, English, Dutch and “a little bit” of Native American ancestries.

Neither Red Elk nor Leighton wear signifiers of their identity; they are Native because of who they are and what they do (Shea Murphy, “Editor’s Note” 4, 7). Red Elk also envisions Native people—and in particular, Native women—as the sole teachers for expanding Powwow Yoga. Her centering of Native women is a critical decolonial tactic given that settler colonial discourses have often “silenced Native feminisms and supported interpretations of Native culture as traditionally patriarchal” (Baldy 30). Red Elk shared: “powwow yoga is for everybody, but in order to be a teacher, you have to be Native American or at least be able to claim descendancy” (“An Interview with Acosia Red Elk Part 7”). Given the enduring history of non-Native people appropriating Native dances and identities (Deloria, Playing Indian 7, 17, 129) and the state-sanctioned prohibition of Native practices (Shea Murphy, The People Have Never Stopped Dancing 31, 38, 40; Treglia 777–78), this is an important tactic of resistance and reclamation. In the #1 Powwow Yoga video, Red Elk also teaches powwow dances typically associated with the male or female genders and encourages practitioners to try all the movement styles, which can challenge binary gender norms and performativity. In featuring Red Elk and Leighton, the workout videos also demonstrate how Powwow Yoga has already become an intergenerational, Indigenous practice, which contrasts with settler colonial narratives that misrepresent Native people and practices as static and vanishing (Dippie xi–xii).

Conveying how Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies persist and prosper in the present day despite the U.S. government’s enduring attempts to force Native people to assimilate (Shea Murphy, “Editor’s Note” 1), the playlist for the “#1 Powwow Yoga” video begins with “Wa’wais (Skit),” a 2019 song by Snotty Nose Rez Kids (Snotty Nose Rez Kids). As Red Elk, Leighton, and Burt begin the practice in Child’s Pose, the song proclaims: “the culture of the Haisla is built on respect/ Respect for the land, the air, the water, the animals and each other” (Snotty Nose Rez Kids). The Haisla Nation, composed of Indigenous people, is located at the Kitamaat Village “at the head of the Douglas Channel in British Columbia” (“About the Haisla.”).

The specificity of the Haisla Nation combats settler colonial representations of Native peoples as a monolithic group (Durham and Fisher xi, 11). This illustrates how the Native body—while emphasizing the commonalities among pan-Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies globally—is also grounded in tribally-specific understandings and experiences. The song’s lyrics articulate a foundational, Indigenous value of human and more-than-human reciprocity, which underpins the Haisla Nation and other Native nations. This is significant because, as James Maskalyk and Dave Courchene argue, COVID-19 “emerged from pressure humans put on a global ecosystem”— in other words, a lack of human respect for more-than-human kin (Maskalyk and Courchene; Todd 74).

The playlist for the yoga classes, which include songs with drumming, further exemplifies Native worldviews in regard to human-to-human and human to more-than-human connections. As Bill Walker describes, “[t]he throb of the drum reminds us of our Mother’s heartbeat, and it is a fact that the dancer’s [sic] hearts will synchronize with the drum, indicating that our bodies exhibit a physical reaction to the sound and the rhythm . . .  Rather than exist as separate entities of drum, song, dancer, Earth, Nature, and individual, we become One” (26). Music and movement—dance and, I would argue, yoga—allow a person to “create harmony, not only for ourselves, but also for all creatures of the world, even those who do not dance” (Walker 26). Further challenging settler colonial hierarchies, Walker also notes, “[m]ost creatures do dance, somehow, ask a biologist” (26). Given Indigenous peoples’ vital knowledge, enacted through dance and beyond, and their proven track record of cultivating healthier climates than non-Native nations, Indigenous people worldwide are well positioned to be contemporary leaders in healing the earth (Maskalyk and Courchene).

Creating Critical Connections

The critical connections that Red Elk’s Powwow Yoga classes create likewise challenge settler colonialism in vital ways. First, the workout videos imply an often-obscured link between Indigenous movement practices from North America and South Asia. Red Elk received her certification in Buti Yoga, which led her to develop Powwow Yoga. The founder of Buti Yoga, Bizzie Gold, has encouraged teachers to integrate other movement modes into the practice (Red Elk, “An Interview with Acosia Red Elk Part 7”). Buti Yoga is “a movement methodology, which incorporates dynamic yoga asana with primal movement, cardio-dancing outbursts & [sic] deep core conditioning” (“Buti MVMNT Medicine”).[4] People teach and practice Buti yoga internationally, in over 27 countries, which illustrates how movement practices can facilitate the human-to-human connections that have the potential to lead to social movement organizing (“Buti MVMNT Medicine”). As Foster also demonstrates, bodies, movements, and physical training in direct action and protest have in some cases been indispensable to the success of social movements (410–11).

Red Elk’s Powwow Yoga videos plant the seeds for social movement organizing based on bringing people together without in-person collectivity. Creating human-to-human connections virtually, as the videos do, is particularly powerful during the time of COVID-19. This is because many people who are sheltering in place may have more limited social interactions with those whom they do not live and therefore might desire more opportunities to connect online with other people. Although Red Elk does not directly interact with viewers during the Powwow Yoga videos, she has liked and responded to participants’ comments in writing on YouTube (Red Elk, “#1 Powwow Yoga”; Red Elk, “#2 Powwow Yoga”), which evidences human-to-human linkages. Moreover, as Harmony Bench argues, “dance remains a social practice whether in a studio, on a street corner, or from a screen” (154–55). As a social practice, human-to-human interactions via movement modes can be a way of connecting (Kracht), expanding, and even building new communities, including for the purposes of “creat[ing] a new world” (Bench 93), which is how some scholars have theorized decolonization (qtd. in Tuck and Yang 31). The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and highlighted social inequities, which can provide, and in fact, has provided further impetus for movement organizing (Pleyers 298–99).

Powwow dance and yoga are well suited for practicing in constricted spaces, which may be especially common during the COVID-19 pandemic when people are often exercising in their homes. In powwow dance, performing in a near fixed position may even indicate one’s expertise (Walker 26). In a way that would likely be familiar to many yoga practitioners, Red Elk begins both the workout videos with Child’s Pose and closes them with a seated meditation following Corpse Pose; the powwow dances occur in intervals between the Vinyasa flow. The progression of the class from Child’s Pose—its name connoting youth and often a long life ahead—to Corpse Pose can be read as symbolically showing the “inevitable circle” of “life and death,” which is also a Native understanding and can challenge settler colonial logics of linear time (“Native American Pow Wow”).

Red Elk has also expressed how powwow dance and yoga can complement each other. In the videos, yoga provides a way to consciously open and close the practice, warm up and strengthen the body, and prepare for the dances.[5] Red Elk has shared that yoga has helped her to strengthen her entire body and develop healthier eating habits (“An Interview with Acosia Red Elk Part 7”). For Red Elk, Powwow Yoga is about “empowering [people] to start caring more about their bodies and about their minds. And realizing that it’s all connected. That everything we do is connected and every choice that we make has a rippling effect” (Goodman). Holistic understandings of the body are central to yoga and powwow dance. However, interestingly for Red Elk, yoga allowed her to practice this philosophy in a way that powwow dance alone did not. The holistic nature of both powwow dance and yoga also challenges the false dichotomy and hierarchy that Cartesian dualism imposes.

Powwow dance and yoga practices can promote positive and inclusive human-to-human relationships, which settler colonial discourses, intertwined with ableism and fatphobia (Cowing 14–16), can disrupt. A means of creating respectful relationships between humans is recognizing and honoring that people have different abilities. Red Elk encourages people to modify their movements according to their abilities and gives them tangible examples of how to do so. Whereas settler colonial yoga discourses frequently center and cater to able-bodied, in shape, and even thin people—particularly in regard to dance and yoga (Miller, “Eating the Other Yogi” 9)—a comment on the “#1 Powwow Yoga” video also affirms the accessibility of the workout to a diversity of body types and levels of fitness (noyes20b). Virtual workouts, which people can do in privacy and without leaving their homes, may also appeal to some individuals.

Beyond human-to-human interactions, powwow dance and yoga practices can further make visible and help to nurture respectful relationships between humans and more-than-humans. Some powwow dances have origin stories that enact meaningful human and more-than-human interconnections and/or movements that draw on more-than-human actions (Axtmann 12). The Grass Dance—a men’s form, which Red Elk teaches in #1 Powwow Yoga—is a way of “blessing the ground . . . so nothing would happen to the people” (Axtmann 11). In this movement mode, dancers “‘wag’ or shake their lower back replicating [nonhuman] animal movements” (Axtmann 12).

Honoring human and more-than-human relationships in contexts of confinement—or shelter in place during the COVID-19 pandemic—can be a tactic of survival, resilience, and even resistance since people’s time outdoors may be severely limited in these contexts (Blu Wakpa and Blue Bird).[6] Yoga also foregrounds human and more-than-human linkages (Iyengar, Light on Yoga 42). Poses are often named after more-than-humans and involve positioning the body in ways that highlight human and more-than-human interdependencies (Blu Wakpa, “Hozho Yoga”). For example, in Child’s Pose, one’s forehead—or Third Eye—is in literal connection with the earth, which connotes human interconnectivity with the land, again a central concept in Indigenous value systems. Corpse Pose entails a person lying supine on the ground in a way that connects almost their entire back body with the earth, which supports them. In name and position, Corpse Pose may also remind humans that after they are deceased, they, more-than-human animals, and plants literally become the land. Red Elk also creates her own movement innovations in Powwow Yoga, which facilitate body and land healing.

Leighton, Burt and Red Elk do the Grass Dance in the #1 Powwow Yoga video. Photo: Acosia Red Elk
Orchestrating Healing

Ongoing settler colonialism has detrimentally impacted Indigenous human and more-than-human health, wellbeing and survival in a multitude of ways, which Indigenous movement forms can counter. In some instances, the U.S. government and non-Native settlers have nearly annihilated Indigenous more-than-human animals who were/are vital to Native cultural and physical survival in order to manage Native movements and make Native people dependent on the settler state (Estes 133-134; Weisiger 8, 63–64). As a part of treaty agreements with tribal nations, the U.S. has provided and continues to provide Native people from federally-recognized tribes with commodities, which are typically non-Indigenous and often unhealthy foods (Vantrease 57).[7] These ongoing legacies continue to harm Indigenous humans and more-than-humans in the present day. As Red Elk explained:

Our diets are poor. Our nutrition is poor. We talk about our first foods, but a lot of people are not eating those foods that were originally with us, that are a part of our DNA. Our salmon, our deer and our elk and our roots and our berries. And our water. Those were our first foods that as Native people in the beginning of time, those foods sacrificed themselves for us to be healthy and to live here on earth. And we made a promise that… we would always protect them. And we would hold ceremonies for them. We would honor them, which meant we would hold ceremonies when it was time to harvest. We would hold feasts and sing songs for their particular being. For their particular harvest time. We would also make sure that the land was pure and clean and that the animals were all living in balance and harmony to keep those plants and animals safe and strong, growing. Also, for the fish in the waters, that we would keep the rivers healthy, so that they would be able to remain, living in those areas with us…We had a really small run [of fish] last year. Tribes will come together and say hey, we’re going to stop fishing this river for this year. Because we need to keep that balance and that promise. We can’t be taking more than we need… It’s been forty years since we dug a certain root. And now, they’re strong again. So now, we’re going to start digging them again… That’s the way that we protect [more-than-humans] is by making sure it’s balanced and that we don’t take too much.

Goodman

Beyond illuminating how settler colonialism has created imbalance by disturbing Native people’s diets, Red Elk’s words describe how Native people maintain reciprocal relationships with Indigenous more-than-humans despite prevalent, structural injustices.

According to Red Elk, Native humans care for Indigenous more-than-humans through various movement modes: ceremonies, feasts, songs,and other actions that protect their balance and purity (Goodman). Such reciprocal relationships require humans and more-than-humans to make “sacrifice[s].” Frequently, sacrifice necessitates conscious intention, discipline, and endurance, which movement modes—such as powwow dance and yoga—can help one to cultivate. Traditionally to participate in Jingle Dress Dancing, a young woman must demonstrate “sacrifice and self-discipline” in order to perform the form (Browner 55–56). The #2 Powwow Yoga video weaves four rounds of Jingle Dress Dancing with a yoga flow. Often considered a women’s movement mode, the Jingle Dress Dance originated as a healing dance during the Influenza Pandemic of 1918–19 (Child). In regard to the Jingle Dress Dance Society, Tara Browner writes:    

A young woman who wished to join the society was to be of good moral character and a role model of proper behavior. In the year preceding her initiation, she was put on a “berry fast” by an older woman and not allowed to eat berries for that year. The fast represented sacrifice and self-discipline. Each day during the fasting year she was to attach one cone to her dress and say a prayer. At the end of the year she was inducted into the Jingle Dress Society and taught the dance. In the Jingle Dance, one foot is never to leave the ground, so the dancer always remains connected to the earth.

55–56

The process of joining the Jingle Dress Dance Society not only teaches young women to recognize the importance of being in respectful relationships with more-than-humans, but also gives them the tools to honor that responsibility. On a movement level, the dance—in which “one foot is never to leave the ground”—also illuminates human and more-than-human interconnections (Browner 55). Similarly, in yoga, a practitioner typically remains in physical connection with the earth at all times. Inverted poses in yoga teach people to literally find balance in challenging positions while using different parts of their bodies to maintain contact with the land—such as one’s hands, shoulders, chin, crown of the head, and forearms. As Red Elk indicates—when she discusses the root that tribes did not harvest for forty years, so it could flourish again—sometimes tremendous sacrifice and self-discipline is necessary to restore balance (Goodman).

Likewise, yoga teaches “sacrifice and self-discipline” (Alter 412) and challenges the concept of “sacrifice” as a deficit (Krishnananda 33). The Jingle Dress Society and Red Elk’s interview provide an example of how “in giving, we do not lose,” a “principle governing all life and existence” (Krishnananda 33), because humans are inextricably interconnected with their more-than-human relatives. As B.K.S. Iyengar understood: “yoga teaches us how to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured” (Yoga for Sports 108). Red Elk clarifies that humans’ ability to “cure what need not be endured” (Iyengar, Yoga for Sports 108) extends into the web of human and more-than-human relations. To alleviate the current climate crises—which some view as interconnected to the origin of COVID-19 (Maskalyk and Courchene)—humans must be self-disciplined and willing to make sacrifices.

Leighton, Burt and Red Elk lunge and lift their “cups” up to the sky during the water meditation in the #2 Powwow Yoga video. Photo: Acosia Red Elk

Red Elk specifically references water, as a more-than-human that Native people “made a promise that . . . [they] would always protect” (Goodman), and her “#2 Powwow Yoga” class features a water meditation that she created, which imagines and enacts human reciprocity with this more-than-human as a way of healing. Indeed, protecting the water is not only at the heart of this movement sequence, but also recent Indigenous movements, such as the 2016–17 gathering at Standing Rock to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline (Hersher). Red Elk’s water meditation follows the fourth and final Jingle Dress Dance round and serves as a transition from the dynamic, fast-paced movement to beginning to cool down the body. The pace of the water meditation—as well as yoga in general—can be a way of “embrac[ing] time and slowness,” which again Lilian Mengesha identifies as a decolonial tactic (Mengesha 597) that challenges settler colonial logics.

Like the Jingle Dress Dance, Red Elk’s water meditation highlights human and more-than-human reciprocity and can help one to cultivate skills of mindfulness, sacrifice and self-discipline, which are necessary to honor these relationships. Red Elk begins her water meditation in Tree Pose with her hands in prayer at heart center. She closes her eyes and takes several deep breaths. “Think about your roots,” she instructs. Red Elk’s pinkies and thumbs remain touching while the rest of her fingers separate into the shape of a lotus blossom or a cup. She says, “Make a cup. Press it into your heart.” Red Elk steps back with her right leg at an angle, so she is in a deep lunge, a pose that is physically challenging. “Lower down,” Red Elk says. “Lift the arms up to the sky.” Her gaze, perhaps her intention, follows her cupped hands. She takes the same, angled lunge on the opposite side. “Hover,” she commands. Moving back to the center, she states: “Shoot the hands up. Filling up the cup. Bring it back down to the heart.”

Red Elk makes connections between the sky, water—which is necessary to sustain human life—and the heart, one of the most vital parts of the human body; she will also link the water with mother earth. Red Elk instructs, “Sink down into your low squat. Your Malasana. Little pulse. Our sacred water.” For the “low pulse,” Red Elk slightly lifts and lowers her hips while in the squat, another strenuous motion. Still pulsing in Malasana with her hands cupped at heart center, Red Elk walks backwards, ploddingly and arduously. In Malasana, she circles to the left, the heart side. She says: “Share a little bit of your water with your neighbors.” Red Elk lowers her imaginary cup towards the earth. While in Malasana, she shifts to the other side and performs the same action, creating balance in the body and beyond, as the imaginary water spills out onto the land. She narrates: “Moving with intention. Share your water with your mother and earth.”

#2 Powwow Yoga with Acosia Red Elk—focusing on Women’s Jingle Dance. Accessed 24 May 2021

Red Elk makes offerings, sacrifices, to human and more-than-human relatives; her words, “mother and earth,” unite humans—and in particular, women—with the land. Because Native people are interconnected to Native lands, violence to the earth also constitutes violence to Native bodies (Kolodny 4; McClintock 30). Red Elk discussed:    

My friend said something: he was talking about how certain rivers are drying up and it scares him, because he comes from the salmon people…and he is scared for earth and for our culture and our customs and our ways and our salmon, because some of the waters don’t even have salmon in them anymore. Some of the waters are basically almost like drying out. And I said, “That reminds me of our bodies, because our blood is getting sick. It’s not flowing the way it’s supposed to and then I feel like everything that you just said about the earth is in us too! So, if we can fix this, then we can fix earth. But if we don’t fix this, then who is gonna fix earth?” So everything is super-connected. And so, that’s the message!

“An Interview with Acosia Red Elk Part 7”

Red Elk articulates the inextricable linkages between humans, water, nonhuman animals, and the land. She views healing oneself—including through movement practices—as integral to healing human relationships with more-than-humans. Leonard Crow Dog also expresses this understanding in the quotation that opens this article: “We dance to change ourselves. Only when we have done this can we try to change the earth” (Crow Dog and Erdoes 144). Although Crow Dog’s words could be interpreted as reflecting linear logic, some Native people engage in dance and ceremony throughout their lifetimes, which may indicate how movement modes, personal growth and human-to-more-than-human interactions can be conceptualized as a cyclical and interconnected process.  

Leighton, Burt and Red Elk share their “water” while in Malasana during the water meditation in the #2 Powwow Yoga video. Photo: Acosia Red Elk

As evidenced in her water meditation and beyond, Red Elk views yoga as a powerful mode of healing. In regard to the Native context, she shared:    

[Yoga] is the tool that’s going to help us as Native people release our trauma. There’s no other way that I [know] of. Even the ceremonies that we hold. The spiritual leaders that you go to, they don’t teach you that you can heal yourself. And that is the most important thing. Because if we don’t heal ourselves, one at a time, and let go of the past and all of our anger and resentment and fear and pain, then we’re never going to move forward. So it’s going to take us as a nation, as a people, to heal one at a time.    

Goodman

Red Elk again underscores how Native people healing on an individual level connects to the wellbeing of Native nations. She views yoga as a way that Native people can process and dispel the disproportionate amount of historical and enduring trauma caused by settler colonialism in order to contribute to positive Indigenous futurities (Goodman). As Red Elk identifies, Native practices and yoga combined can provide vital modes of healing for Indigenous peoples and nations. She also described how powwow dancing and the drumbeat, which accompanies some of the songs in her playlist, facilitate Native people’s wellbeing:           

Powwow dancing actually brings healing to the body by stomping feet to ground[,] earth, to the drum beat. The drumbeat is one of the best forms of therapy, like being next to a drum, drumming on a drum, dancing to the drum, singing with the drum. They say it’s one of the best, most therapeutical forms of healing. So you can imagine dancing to the drumbeat with a group of people all in unison.

Red Elk, “An Interview with Acosia Red Elk Part 7”

Red Elk clarifies that healing can occur by making mindful connections with the earth, participating in various movement modes, and dancing with community. Yet, the prevalent structures of settler colonialism and the enduring challenges it causes—which the COVID-19 context has in parts exacerbated—may still thwart people’s abilities to thrive.

Acosia Red Elk #1642 – Sr Women Jingle / #mafpowwow2020. Video source: Acosia’s YouTube site
Conclusion

This article analyzes how Red Elk’s Powwow Yoga workout videos and interviews challenge settler colonial choreographies, which have sought to manage the bodies and movements of Indigenous people and more-than-humans in ways that threaten their stability and undermine their freedom and futurities. I articulate how settler colonial choreographies in part produce the Native body, a concept that underscores the commonalities among Indigenous peoples—in terms of their worldviews and the imposition of colonizing structures—while simultaneously accounting for the vast diversity of Native understandings and experiences. The Native body also underscores that Indigenous bodies and movement practices contain, create, and articulate critical knowledge.

Settler colonial and decolonial choreographies are intertwined because dominant structures have influenced Native peoples and practices and created the conditions for decoloniality to occur. The decolonial choreographies that Red Elk shares, which can (re)establish stability for Indigenous human and more-than-human wellbeing and survival, are both innovative and overlap with previous and enduring tactics. Red Elk’s use of the digital sphere—which makes her workout videos available to global audiences shortly after she posts them—challenges settler colonial stereotypes of Indigenous peoples, practices, and knowledges as static, vanishing, and contemporarily irrelevant.

Yet, Red Elk’s contributions during the COVID-19 pandemic to fortify Native bodies and wellbeing through Powwow Yoga also echo the creation and circulation of the Jingle Dress Dance amid the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 (Child). As Mark Thiel writes, from 1918–19, “[a]mong the Ojibwa, Cree, Dakota Sioux, and others, . . . the [Jingle Dress Dance] spread rapidly, apparently facilitated by friends and relatives traveling between communities” (16). Evidenced in the Powwow Yoga videos and the Jingle Dress Dance, respectful human and more-than-human interactions—a principal value for many Indigenous peoples worldwide—remain pertinent today, and according to Maskalyk and Courchene, are “the cure” to the COVID-19 pandemic. Together, the Jingle Dress Dance and Powwow Yoga videos illustrate how Indigenous movement forms interlock with past, present and future—including previous and enduring social movements—and have the potential to facilitate meaningful change through community interactions and innovations as well as illuminating and enacting alternatives to settler colonial and capitalist constructions.  

In the COVID-19 context, Red Elk’s open-access workout videos also offer human-to-human connections—albeit virtual—and make powwow dance, yoga and their underlying epistemologies more accessible at a time when in-person interactions and physical exercise classes and/or cultural programming are limited for many. This is perhaps particularly valuable as yoga and powwow dance can operate as exclusionary practices. For example, U.S. mainstream depictions frequently (mis)represent yoga practitioners as thin, White, middle class women who are virtuosic athletes; yoga studios and powwow dance classes may be non-existent in some areas; yoga classes can be costly; and some people may view powwow dancing as necessitating Native regalia, which can require significant skill, time, relationships and/or monetary expense to create or acquire. Conversely, the Powwow Yoga videos demonstrate how people with a range of backgrounds, body types and abilities may perform these movement forms in basic attire with limited equipment. They also exemplify how yoga and powwow dance can require little physical space and can be practiced in homes and contexts of confinement, such as detention centers.

Although Indigenous movement modes have powerful possibilities to restore Native people’s balance and wellbeing, structural and material change to support Indigenous survival is still necessary. Because of social structures and their material consequences, the literal Native body is particularly vulnerable not only to incarceration, but also disease and death, and pandemics are no exception (Hedgpeth). Andrea “Andi” Circle Bear—who was Cheyenne River Sioux, the mother of five children, and only thirty years old—was the first woman who was imprisoned in federal custody to die of COVID-19 (Gali and Gomez). Red Elk’s water meditation likewise reminds of enduring, structural inequities with life and death consequences. Handwashing—and thus, the accessibility of safe, running water—is critical to slow the spread of COVID-19. Yet, on the Navajo Nation, one of the places where COVID-19 has hit the hardest in the U.S.—“[m]ore than a third of the population doesn’t have access to running water” (Hansman).

When Red Elk states at the beginning of the water meditation: “Think about your roots,” not only does she allude to a person’s ancestry, but also their shared connections to human and more-than-human kin (“#2 Powwow Yoga”). In “#1 Powwow Yoga,” Red Elk elaborates:         

Thinking about your roots that shoot all the way to the core of the earth that keeps you connected to above, below, and beyond. We also have a root system that works like electricity, lightning in the sky. It’s the whole underground system right beneath us, holding us up, helping hold one another up. When we share space every time we gather, we share that connection.

#1 Powwow Yoga
Leighton, Burt and Red Elk finish their practice in a seated meditation at the end of the #1 Powwow Yoga video in which Red Elk instructs participants to “think about their roots.” Photo: Acosia Red Elk

Countering settler colonial choreographies, Red Elk instructs us to find the deep connections that have existed, that continue to exist and sustain life, knowledge which colonizing structures have often sought to dim—if not extinguish. She instructs us to nurture these relationships through thought, feeling, movement, prayer, and action, to nurture, in community, these relationships which have the potential to light an alternative, perhaps decolonial world into being. Sometimes just a little movement can cause a dim flame to dance bright.

Acknowledgements: I thank the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Gabrielino/Tongva Tribe, the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, the Kumeyaay Nation and the Mishewal Wappo Tribe, on whose lands I resided and worked while conducting research and writing this article. I could not have written this article without the knowledge, expertise and generosity of Acosia Red Elk, Haley Laughter who introduced us, Dancing Star Leighton, and Mary Burt. For their support strengthening this work, I am grateful to: Gigi Argyropoulou, Stefanie Sachsenmaier, Susan Foster, Kate Mattingly, Sammy Roth and Miya Shaffer. I am appreciative of Miskoo Petite, Jr. and Pat Bad Hand, Sr.—the former and current administrators, respectively, at Wanbli Wiconi Tipi juvenile hall—and the spiritual leaders, teachers, staff, and youth at the facility whom I have had the opportunity to work with and learn from. This article is dedicated to Andrea “Andi” Circle Bear and her sister-in-law Sarah Circle Bear, both of whom perished while imprisoned.


Endnotes

[1] Marchinko is critical of “‘pan-humanity,’” which undermines Indigenous peoples’ unique political status. Although settler colonial constructions often problematically misrepresent Native peoples and their understandings as a monolith, pan-Indigeneity—in part based on commonalities in worldviews—has also been a useful organizing strategy for them.

[2] Tuck and Yang also write, “At the same time, settler colonialism involves the subjugation and forced labor of chattel slaves, whose bodies and lives become the property, and who are kept landless” (6). Notably, although settler colonial discourses often solely represent Black peoples as slaves, in the U.S. context, colonizers also enslaved Native peoples (Tuck and Yang 6).

[3] Miller underscores, “However, we should think critically of accounts that paint yogis as universally reviled and socially marginalized throughout South Asia historically, especially given the complex ways British colonialism relied on and exacerbated caste and ethnic differences” (37).

[4] A trademarked style of yoga, Buti has been critiqued by some as “not yoga” for various reasons (butiyoga.com/blogs/news/an-open-letter-to-shiva-rea). However, this controversy is beyond the scope of this article.

[5] The conscious beginning and concluding of a class may also occur during a powwow dance practice and happens during many powwows, which typically have opening and closing ceremonies.

[6] At the same time, it is important not to conflate imprisonment and shelter in place.

[7] There is no one treaty that specifies the U.S. government would supply rations; this varies by tribal nation (Vantrease 57).


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*Tria Blu Wakpa is an Assistant Professor in the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at UCLA. She is a scholar and practitioner of Indigenous dance, North American Hand Talk, martial arts, and yoga. Her forthcoming book project tentatively titled, Settler Colonial and Decolonial Choreographies: Native American Embodiment in Educational and Carceral Contexts, theorizes Indigenous performances in and beyond institutions of confinement. She has received major fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the Fulbright Program, the UC President’s Postdoctoral Program, and the Hellman Fellows Fund. She has taught a wide range of interdisciplinary and community-engaged classes at public, private, tribal, and carceral institutions.

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