A group joined hands forming a large circle filling the Olney-Bissell School gymnasium Thursday morning. When the drums began playing, they dipped their bodies up and down together while staying linked together in a friendship dance.
Students and educators from the school joined members of the Pikuni Legacy Dance Troupe from Browning in the dance that concluded a presentation on Blackfeet culture and dancing as part of the school’s recognition of American Indian Heritage Day, which occurred on Friday and is designated by the state as an observance to commemorate Montana’s American Indians and “their valued heritage and culture.”
Olney-Bissell’s Debbie Briggs said the presentation was part of a larger curriculum of activities at the school designed to teach students about American Indian culture.
“This is a great way for us to celebrate other cultures,” she said.
Jenna Skunk Cap, cultural consultant with the dance group, began the presentation by explaining the history of the Blackfeet and noting that today the Blackfeet Indian Reservation is home to about 17,000 members of the Blackfeet Nation.
She told students how the fall was the time that the Blackfeet traditionally have hunted to prepare for winter, including hunting buffalo to make tepees, but some of that has changed.
“We live in houses just like you guys,” she said. “We still use tepees for special celebrations.”
She said just like the students at Olney-Bissell, her dancers participate in sports and attend school.
“We also keep in touch with our own culture,” she said, explaining one of the reasons to be involved in dancing.
Seven members of the Pikuni Legacy Dance Troupe, ranging in age from toddler to high schoolers, danced into the gym in a grand entry dance. Each dancer stood before the students as Skunk Cap explained the regalia they wore and the cultural importance of the different pieces for specific dances or special occasions, and how dancers must earn or have gifted to them certain pieces such a feathers.
Then the dancers performed their unique dances — the jingle dance, a traditional dance, the chicken dance, the grass dance and the fancy dance.
Skunk Cap said dancing is learned through “total physical response.”
“You can only learn by doing,” she said. “Some dancers are old, some are young, but you have to watch, practice and be involved.”
Following the presentation, Skunk Cap invited students up to join the dancers at the center of the gym to try dancing to the drums and join in for the friendship dance.
“We celebrate with dancing,” she said.