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Native American Dance Fights Stereotypes

To conclude the "Warrior Dance," Ron Good Eagle jumped right up in the face of Terry Bridgett, a fourth-grader in the front row at Silverbrook Elementary School.

Terry jumped back as the gym full of students screamed with the last beat of the drum.

"I was just sitting there looking at him dancing, and then I jumped," Terry said.

This was just one of the surprises Good Eagle had for the students during a Native American song and dance show for the Silverbrook students. The demonstration by Good Eagle and his son, Ron Good Eagle Jr.; daughter Winona Kingbird and granddaughter Lilia. They are all members of the Lakota Sioux Indian Dance Theatre.

Good Eagle stressed the lessons that were passed down from his elders, telling the students the importance of listening to their elders.

"The stories I'm going to tell you are taught to us by our elders. Our warriors fought for this flag," he said, holding up a decorated stick with feathers sticking out. "There's seven feathers on this staff for a reason. Back in South Dakota there's seven reservations."

Good Eagle also set the students straight on the misconceptions people may get about Native Americans from television and movies. Screaming while tapping an open palm on the mouth was one example he stressed.

"What kind of Indian does that? That's what the TV and movies do. To us that's disrespectful," he said.

Fifth-grader Lyndsey Scott learned from that.

"I didn't know some things were disrespectful to them," she said.

Classmate Reggie McCain also saw that in the movies.

"Sometimes in the movies they go like that with their mouths and do [the] drums when they attack," he said.

Winona Kingbird noted that some people they've performed for didn't believe they were really Native Americans. Even the fact that she was seen doing something normal such as drinking out of a McDonald's cup surprised some.

"The perception is just what they've seen on TV. I think it's more of a cultural lesson," she said.

FOURTH- AND FIFTH-grade learning-disability teacher Sandra Dadgor looked at the value of having Good Eagle giving the lesson, instead of a video or books.

"It gives the children the opportunity to see exactly what the Indians do. It's live. The kids have the opportunity to ask questions," she said.

One girl asked about the outfit and the eagle feathers on the headdress. Good Eagle was surprised at the depth of the question.

"These [feathers] were passed down from generation to generation. It's against the law to have eagle feathers unless you're an Indian," Good Eagle said.

Chris Vaughn, a fourth-grader, heard Good Eagle use the term "Indian" more than once and was surprised because he was taught to use the term "Native American."

"Now we don't call them Indians. Call them Native Americans," Chris said.

The politically correct ways went only so far. Kingbird did the women's dance, which was never performed by men but they accepted that distinction. There were also words in the Lakota Sioux language that men did not use, but Good Eagle said Kevin Costner used those words when talking Sioux in the movie, "Dances with Wolves." Although Good Eagle credits "Dances With Wolves" with being one of the more factual movies, it still overstepped the boundaries.

"The movies are not right," he said.

Despite his group's effort to fight the stereotyping, Good Eagle admitted the brightly colored outfits they had on weren't totally realistic. Real animal skins weren't as bright, so the fabric store came in handy. Even their medicine dress, which was adorned with metallic noisemakers, was traditionally adorned with bullet shells.

"They used to use bullet shells to decorate the medicine dress; now they use lids of Skoal and Copenhagen [tobacco], it takes about 400 lids. The only time you'd see a fully beaded buckskin dress was on a special occasion. The outfit I have today [warrior dance outfit] is more contemporary with all the colors," he said.

AFTER KINGBIRD'S dances, she commented on how tiring a 45-performance tour is. The group had been away from their South Dakota home since Oct. 30, commemorating Native American Month all over the area. They also played at the Kennedy Center.

"I think that's why we're so busy," she said of the commemorative month. "Since we've been on tour, I've lost like seven pounds," she said.

They are with a touring group "Class Acts," which is based in Silver Spring, Md. Joan Burns, associate director, told how popular they were in November.

"We've filled about three weeks of programming in the metro area. Commemorative months serve a very useful tool to schools. It's very appropriate," she said.

Other area schools where the Good Eagles have performed included Fairfax County schools Flint Hill Elementary and Forestville Elementary, an Arlington school and a few schools in Loudoun County. Their acts are paid for by the local PTA.