History of the Hoop Dance

General History

          To understand why Native American dance is the way it is today, one must look at the history of the Native American people.  During the 1880s to the 1930s, the United States federal government tried to assimilate indigenous people (Native Americans) to the ways of the average American citizen.  At this time they sent young Native American children to schools far from their reservations and away from their families.  These young children were given new American names and banned from participating in anything associated with their Native American culture including dance.  This devastating time for the Native American people led them to find ways to resist those bans and ultimately made them stronger as a culture.  They began to unite as multiple tribes across the country and fight back by appealing the new laws set for them.  This led to the pan-Indian movement and the rebirth of their rich cultural traditions.[1] 

Creation of the Hoop Dance

          The origin of the hoop dance is unclear; however there are a few different stories or oral traditions passed down from generations.  Some communities say that the Creator sent a dying man the gift of wooden hoops and the dance as one last way to touch the world before he was gone.  In the Southwest, many tribal reservations believe that cliff-dwelling people created the hoops and dance so that their children could gain better dexterity.  The most well-known story told is the legend originating in the Anishinaabe culture.  They said that there was an unusual boy that was born into their tribe that was not like the other boys.  He had no interest in the activities that all the other young boys played like hunting and running.  Instead he preferred to be all alone and watch animals.  His father was so disgraced with his son that he disowned him, hence he was given the name of Pukawiss, meaning disowned or unwanted.  That did not stop the boy from watching the movements of animals like eagles, bears, snakes, and birds.  He started to emulate the movements of the animals and created the Hoop dance from those movements.  The other Indian children noticed his dance and he began teaching and performing this dance for the community.  Pukawiss became well liked in his village and everyone enjoyed learning his dance.[2]

Revival of the Hoop Dance

          Although the exact origin is unknown, many of the Native American dance scholars believe that it is the Pueblo people that are responsible for the popularity and revival of the hoop dance now.  A famous Jemez Pueblo named Tony White Cloud is the dancer that was instrumental in bringing popularity to this dance.  In the 1930s, he was the first dancer to reinvent the hoop dance and publicly dance with multiple hoops and was titled the “founder of the modern hoop dance.”  He used hoops made of willow branches that were hand painted with different Pueblo symbols on them.  Other Native Americans discovered his modern interpretation of the hoop dance at the various expositions and ceremonies throughout the United Stated in the 1930s and began performing it themselves with various modifications.  At that point it was still only popular between the Native American tribal communities, but that all changed in 1942 when White Cloud debut his hoop dance in the movie, Valley of the Sun, starring Lucille Ball.  White Cloud also had the opportunity to travel and perform throughout America and Europe during World War II to promote war bonds with Gene Autry, also known as the “singing cowboy.”  He then danced the hoop dance again in another movie titled “Apache Country” in 1952 starring Gene Autry.  He became one of the first famous Native Americans for his revival and rendition of the hoop dance.  Many of the hoop formations that remain today are from his original choreography.[3]

Tony White Cloud

[1] Legends of America. “Native American Dances.”  Legends of America. Last Modified August 2015. Accessed November 2, 2015. http://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-dances2.html.

[2] Treglia, Gabriella, “Using Citizenship to Retain Identity: The Native American Dance Bans of the Late Assimilation Era.” Journal of American Studies 47, no.3 (Aug 2013): 777-800. Academic Search Premier, EBSCO Host (accessed November 5, 2015).
[3] Johnston, Rhea et al., “The Never-Ending Circle of Life: Native American Hoop Dancing from    Its Origin to the Present Day.” JOPERD: The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 6, no. 80 (August 2009): 21-30. Academic Search Premier, EBSCO Host (accessed September 25, 2015).