Department, Office of Diversity, Dean sponsor lecture, dance demonstration by Piscataway Indian Nation singers, dancers

The Etownian November 28, 2012 0

On Wednesday, Nov. 28 at 11 a.m., the sociology and anthropology department, in conjunction with the Office of Diversity and Dean of Faculty, sponsored a lecture and dance demonstration by the Piscataway Indian Nation Singers and Dancers. Founded by Mark Wild Turkey Tayac, grandson of the late Chief Turkey Tayac and son of current Chief Billy Redwing Tayac, the group has traveled the world – from Canada to Mexico to Europe – educating audiences of all ethnicities and ages about the origins, traditions, songs, dances and beliefs of the Piscataway people. The group has approximately 20 performers who visit colleges and universities, museums, government agencies and schools across the United States and abroad, and they have received numerous awards for their demonstrations. In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, Elizabethtown College welcomed Tayac and three talented members of the Piscataway Indian Nation Singers and Dancers to the College for a dance and lecture in the KAV.
“We are descendants from a very strong and beautiful people,” Tayac said in his introductory address. He explained that the Piscataway Indian Nation, in its 17th-century prime, possessed a territory in the Chesapeake Bay area that was the largest of any other nation on the east coast, dominating all of Maryland, portions of Delaware and New Jersey and even tracts of land in Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. The Nation has existed for nearly 15,000 years, evidence of their presence in the landscape dating back to prehistoric times. The expansiveness of their territory and the borders of their homeland, Tayac said, is defined by how far-reaching the use of their native language was in these areas.
After their decline in late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Piscataway populations were greatly reduced due to invasion from foreign explorers and settlers, conflicts between the natives and the Europeans (as well as conflicts between the native tribes themselves) and widespread disease. However, the Piscataway population has now risen to 25,000 in Maryland, and the Nation is state-recognized by the Maryland government. Tayac has now devoted his life to locating and connecting with young native descendants and reminding them of their roots, encouraging them to maintain their native cultures, traditions and beliefs in the modern world. His goal is to reestablish and retain native culture and to educate the public on traditional culture through fun, entertaining and informative performances. Central to the Piscataway culture are the practices of dance, song and storytelling, all traditions which pass cultural history on from generation to generation.
Opening with several traditional songs, Tayac and the three performance group members sang to the heavy beat of a central drum, each keeping his voice in time with the others and each taking turns striking the drum between them. “The drum represents the heartbeat of life,” Tayac said. He explained that in traditional music, the beat of the drum is meant to mimic the sound of the heartbeat, symbolizing the force that keeps us all alive and well. The heartbeat is a symbol of life, love, pride and a sense of community. The drum is an essential element of the traditional songs and dances, especially in the “pow-wow,” or “gathering of the people.”
For both the songs and the dance demonstrations, the Piscataway performers were dressed in traditional garb, shining with bright color and adorned with beads and feathers. The outfits were elaborate, exotic and intrinsically beautiful. Dances were sometimes performed as a group, but most were individual, showcasing the talents of a particular performer. According to Tayac, dances are the Nation’s way of celebrating, giving thanks and building community. They strengthen the people’s pride in their community, family and nation as a whole. Many dances are dedicated to honoring a specific animal, such as the “crow-hop” dance, the snake dance, the eagle dance and the rabbit dance, which were all performed for Etown’s audience.
Animal dances are special, Tayac said, because they honor the creatures of the Earth for the things they give to man (food, clothing, guidance and protection) and they emphasize their important roles in the people’s stories of Creation. The eagle is a revered animal in Piscataway culture; they believe that the Creator sent the eagle to the people for protection and guidance, and also to ensure that the people remained on the right path. The rabbit dance is one of the only dances in the Piscataway culture that involves a large group of people, and it is referred to as a “social dance.” Members of the College audience were chosen at random to step into the dance circle and participate in the dance, portraying what an authentic group dance might look like. Tayac described the rabbit dance as one that can go on for up to four hours, and it is meant to serve as a time of quality bonding, especially among young people, where the participants can get to know one another, build strong bonds, make meaningful connections and possibly even develop a romantic relationship.
Other dances included the men’s grass dance, which is made to mimic the movement of wind through tall grass; the hoop dance, an elaborate, complicated and fascinating feat of dance and interwoven hoops that represent cultural elements; and of course the fierce and exciting war dance, meant to represent a young man going into battle and demonstrating “the highest acts of bravery,” as Tayac described it. War dances demonstrate pride in one’s individual and culture identity, strength and sportsmanship.
Piscataway teachings often include an emphasis on “walking in harmony” with oneself, with others and with Mother Earth. They stress the importance of a cultural identity, maintaining a pride in that identity, and passing on the traditions and beliefs of the identity to future generations. But above all else, Tayac said that no matter who we are, “We are all members of the human family.”

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