Like many of our culture’s most beautiful art forms, Native American fancy dance began as an act of political resistance. Traditional ceremonies and practices were officially banned by the Secretary of the Interior’s 1892 report, “Rules of Indian Courts.” First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution be damned, you’ll find “Dances, etc.” and “Practices of medicine men” under Offenses. As a reaction to this oppression, ceremonies moved underground.
That was, of course, a different time. Fancy dance has not only been accepted into the cultural atmosphere, but it’s an art form celebrated around the world. The dance itself is complex and involved, movement like the amorphous play of water over a stone—liquid against the rhythmic report of drumstick and buckskin. The regalia is dazzling and hypnotic, all feathers and cross-pieces and kaleidoscopic patterns, beadwork catching the light from a hundred different points at once.
Larry Yazzie (Meskwaki) is one of the most celebrated fancy dancers on the planet. He’s also the Founder and Artistic Director of Native Pride Productions, a performing arts/theatrical company based in Minneapolis, not to mention an actor and a model, cultural educator, influencer, and an inspiration. We recently sat down with the World Champion Fancy Dancer to discuss pandemic-induced new beginnings, preserving tradition, and his stunning “Last Frontier” collaboration with Jacques Marie Mage.
JMM: Where’d you grow up, and what was that like?
Larry Yazzie: I grew up in a small community called the Meskwaki Indian Settlement, which is in central Iowa. My mother, my father were very fluent in the language of the Algonquin dialect, also known as Meskwaki, which means “People of the Red Earth,” and I grew up going to ceremonies, listening to the stories of my people. I still attend the ceremonies today.
Dancing is my first love. I started at the age of seven years old. I can honestly say that dancing has saved my life. I’m 54 years old, and I’m still doing the fancy dance—it requires stamina, it requires speed, agility, to keep in time with the rhythm of the drum.
I always humble myself, and I always come back to my community, to my home fire, to my lodge fire, to my ceremonies, just being grateful. We have to come back to our cultural ways, to ground ourselves, find peace, find that vision, that answer we’re looking for in life.
How’d you handle the pandemic?
When Covid hit over a year ago, it was an opportunity for me to push the reset button. So I went to Colorado—a very good friend of mine invited me to her place, a place to recreate myself. So I put away the alcohol, the smoking, the bad choices. And I started reinventing myself: hiking, skiing, eating well, working out. That really grounded me and brought me back to nature. And it brought me to a new chapter in my life.
Can you talk a little about your collaboration with JMM?
So, being in Aspen—you know, it’s a very upscale community. I walked into this one shop, they were selling Jacques Marie Mage sunglasses. And I put ’em on, and when I put ’em on, man, it just felt so awesome. They were heavy and I looked cool in ’em. And this guy in there, Randy, he said, “You need to model these glasses.” He says, “Let me get in touch with JMM.” And I thought, Yeah, like he’s gonna give me the time of day.
But then JMM reached out to me. He said, “I like the concept. I like your look. I want you to be part of my Last Frontier campaign.” And I was just blown away. I was so excited. [laughs] Next thing you know, I was sitting in L.A., sitting in this rooftop restaurant and looking at the Hollywood sign. And I said, “Man, I’ve made it.”
When you’re dancing, do you enter into a certain headspace?
Your everyday worries go away when you dance. You’re in the moment. When I put on the regalia, when I tie on the eagle feathers, when I braid my hair, when I put on the paint, I’m going to battle, man, I’m going to battle for my spirit, for my people, for my ancestors.
Any advice for Native kids coming up?
Whatever it is that’s driving you inside, don’t forget that you are Native. I encourage the kids to be proud of who they are. Despite what we’ve been through, historically, we are warriors, and I’m proud of the fact that my ancestors fought for who I am today. That’s what I want our youth to recognize as well.
Written by Andrew Stark
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