RAPID CITY, S.D. — Ashley Henderson brought tears to her great-grandmother’s eyes the first time she performed for her.
The 13-year-old said her 90-year-old matriarch thought a big part of her culture was lost until she watched Ashley and her sister, Angelica, dance the way she used to in their special handmade outfits.
The sisters originate from the Hidatsa tribe, one of the three affiliate tribes in North Dakota. The family now lives in Box Elder.
“We’re the first to bring the culture back to our family,” Ashley, a student at Douglas Middle School, said. “She thought the tradition was broken. She always had dreams of us dancing.”
[PHOTO: Daron White Eagle performs a shall dance Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013 at South Canyon Lutheran Church in Rapid City, S.D. (AP Photo/Rapid City Journal, Chris Huber)]
Every Wednesday, the two sisters and dozens of other young people and their families fill the Woyatan Lutheran Church in Rapid City for dance practice.
The drum beats and voices reverberate through the halls as Daron White Eagle calls the dancers to the sanctuary.
White Eagle started the club five years ago with eight students as a way to preserve Native American culture for those who live in or near Rapid City.
He said he would go to powwows and see children just running around almost aimlessly.
“I would ask them why they don’t dance,” White Eagle said. “They said because no one ever taught them.”
White Eagle, 54, said it started with an idea and a single drum. Now, the dance troupe has grown to more than 50 dancers, at least two drums, a small powwow ground outside the church and multiple awards for their dancers at powwows throughout the region.
He said it’s important as it provides a constructive activity for young people who he says need to keep focused and busy.
And he welcomes people of any ethnicity who are willing to learn.
“If they’re here dancing, they’re not out there raising heck,” White Eagle said. “When we started, we thought maybe we could be that stepping stone. When they come through here, they learn that you don’t need drugs and alcohol. You have to be of clear mind and healthy body.”
White Eagle enforces strict rules to instill a deep sense of respect for culture, family and themselves in hopes of giving them some of the tools necessary to be successful throughout their lives.
Kenny and Roxy Bull Head said they felt like they found an extension of their family when they discovered the dance troupe soon after moving to Rapid City in March from Mandan, N.D.
The parents of five boys, who range in age from 4 to 9 years old, have strong beliefs about how they want their children to grow up. Unlike many of their peers, the Bull Head boys are not allowed to play video games, for example.
The Bull Head family spends the majority of their time together in the summer going to different powwows. They are nearly always together as all seven members either dance or sing.
Kenny said they keep the boys immersed in this aspect of their culture because it’s a positive use of their time, and it’s important that it lives on.
“It’s something we want to pass on to them,” Kenny, 29, said. “It keeps us busy and it’s a lot of time together as a family.”
Roxy, 30, said they were excited to find the people at Woytoyan Lutheran Church to be so welcoming and the practice to be full of such vibrant energy.
“To have a place to celebrate and come together,” she said. “There is a lot of good going on here.”
Delores Hayes, 74, echoed the sentiments of those young parents as she sat watching and waiting to dance herself.
She said dancing is something her large family of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has always done. She said it is one of the most positive things in the lives of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“It gives you a good feeling,” Hayes said. “If you feel bad, you just dance and all your problems go away.”