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Jackson Hole, WY News

Shoshone-Bannock tribes share culture through dance, beads, storytelling

Shoshone-Bannock members remind Jackson of area’s indigenous origins.

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Nukah’whups dancers

Do you know the story of how humans got their belly buttons? Sure, there’s the science of the umbilical cord, but among the Shoshone, there’s a more clever tale.

According to tradition, humans were molded by the Creator, shaped like clay and set to dry. One day the Creator asked the curious Coyote to stand guard over the newly formed population.

“Watch over my children,” the Creator instructed, “but do not touch them.”

Nukah’whups dancers

Leela Abrahamson performs a women’s traditional dance wearing a buckskin dress made by her grandmother.

Recounting the origin story Saturday to a crowd at the Center for the Arts, Rose Ann Abrahamson embodied Coyote as a suite of audience volunteers played the parts of the clay people.

As soon as the Creator (played by another audience member) turned away, Abrahamson went along one by one, poking each clay human in the stomach.

“Ladies and gentlemen, that’s how we all got our belly buttons,” she said to a round of applause.

The story was part of a day of celebration and education, as the Shoshone-Bannock members brought beads, dance and wisdom from their Fort Hall Reservation back to their aboriginal homeland.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, with its majestic peaks and summer huckleberries, was once home to these tribes’ ancestors, and many of their traditions are rooted in the natural landscape of this region.

“You are in a very powerful place of my people,” said Abrahamson, who, in addition to playing an excellent Coyote, is also the great-great-great-niece of Sacagawea.

A high school teacher by trade, she wouldn’t let spectators lie safely in the shade of the aspens. As she recruited reluctant volunteers to the stage, a subtle transformation took place. Even in the simple skits, where the teacher taught phrases in sign or Shoshone, participants left with enlightened smiles, having realized a newfound way to communicate.

Then, as the young dancers’ bells jingled from the wings, the next performer took to the stage.

Leela Abrahamson, Rose Ann’s granddaughter, was dressed in elaborately frilled buckskin with Czechoslovakian beads, a dress crafted by her grandmother specifically for the women’s traditional dance.

Nukah’whups dancers

Nukah’whups dancers Nakoosa Moreland and Willow Abrahamson dance the Jingle Dance at the Center of the Arts on Saturday. The Jingle Dress Dance is a healing dance that originated Ojibwe country.

“We know that we are connected to our sogoviaq, our Mother Earth,” Leela’s mother, Dustina Abrahamson, explained. “Like our Mother Earth, we are able to bring forth life. We’re able to nurture that new life like our Mother Earth. As a woman we are taught growing up that we want to stand proud and walk in beauty.”

Leela’s dance was indeed a kind of elegant walk. She rose on elevated toes revealing vibrant feathers set on a stark white base, her 3-foot frills swinging in time and seeming to encompass the entire stage.

Next up were two of the youngest tribe members, Tate Degwahnee Johnson, 6, and Cedar Lonelodge, 4. They took the stage together, Tate with the powerful stomps of a future chief, and Cedar with the vibrant twirls of the butterfly she was tasked to embody.

It was Cedar’s first time dancing for an audience, but her captivating performance elicited a flurry of cheers.

Nukah’whups dancers

Nakeezaka Jack performs the men’s fancy feather dance Saturday at the Center of the Arts. Jack is one of the six Nukah’whups dancers from the Shoshone tribe that held an educational event for Jackson Hole residents.

Willow Abrahamson and Nakoosa Moreland performed the dance of healing, the music of their jingle dresses falling in time with a Fort Washington drum recording.

They thanked Center for the Arts DJ Bryce Franich for being their honorary drummer and presented the Center’s creative initiatives director, Oona Doherty, with a beaded necklace as thanks for hosting.

Shoshone-Bannock tribal leaders canceled their last two Indian festivals — annual powwow-style celebrations of life — because of COVID-19. As such, Saturday was a chance for the tribe to not only share its culture with Jackson but also find collective healing.

Nukah’whups dancers

Tate Degwahee Johnson, 6, and Cedar Lonelodge,4, sip on drinks and watch Nakoosa Moreland dance the Jingle Dress Dance on Saturday at the Center of the Arts. The Jingle Dress Dance is a healing dance that originated Ojibwe country.

“For native people, we don’t separate spirituality from everyday life,” Abrahamson said at the end of the day. “It’s all combined.”

As Jackson’s diversity converged at the downtown arts center, the Abrahamsons and their tribal family encouraged everyone to connect with their innermost center, too, explaining that the Shoshone language translates Toe-gwate (as in Togwotee Pass) as “the center.”

It is at this central point, the eldest Abrahamson said, that you can see the chief and, by extension, the Creator, who works through us all. 

Contact Evan Robinson-Johnson at 732-5901 or ERJ@jhnewsandguide.com.

Evan Robinson-Johnson covers issues residents face on a daily basis, from smoky skies to housing insecurity. Originally from New England, he has settled in east Jackson and avoids crowds by rollerblading through the alleyways.

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