Documentary features local dancer
A man from Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation is one of a handful of dancers who will be featured nationwide Saturday in an NBC documentary about American Indian dancing.
"The World of American Indian Dance," the first documentary produced by American Indians and about American Indians to air on major network television, features several clips of Rooster Top Sky, 19, dancing, including a fancy dance overlooking the Little Bighorn River near Crow Agency in Montana.
"It's pretty much just basically a contemporary style of dance," said Top Sky, who usually spends every other weekend in the spring and summer dancing at powwows across the United States and Canada. "It's one of the top dances to compete in because it's so athletic and acrobatic."
Top Sky is also interviewed in the program at least twice.
Top Sky was one of several dancers selected to be highlighted in the hour-long documentary. He was picked from thousands of dancers filmed during about 40 hours of footage in different locations in Montana, said Jerry Reed, a spokesman for the Oneida Indian Nation.
The nation, based in central New York state, produced the film in partnership with Four Directions Entertainment, an American Indian-owned television company it started with the help of two American Indian television producers in June 2001.
Top Sky, who has danced "ever since I could walk," said he was first approached by the documentary's producers and then filmed in August of 2001.
"Making a movie was something else because you get to be in different parts of the mountains," said Top Sky, who said the crew filmed him in different spots in the Bighorn Mountains.
Top Sky said he was paid for appearing in the documentary, but cannot remember how much.
"The footage is really quite outstanding," said executive producer Dan Jones, who is a Ponca Indian, adding that the film was taped with four cameras and also used aerial shots from helicopters. Jones said a crew of about 30 people worked to make the movie, which features dances in the Billings area, including at the Yellowtail Dam and at the Little Bighorn Battlefield.
Most of the footage was shot at the annual Crow Fair powwow in Montana, Reed said. The event draws dancers from around the United States and Canada every summer, and is attended by more than 50,000 people, according to a press release from Four Directions Media.
Jones said the Oneida Indian Nation was a substantial source of the film's funding, but raising the money wasn't the major obstacle to be overcome: It was getting NBC to give the show a chance.
"We've been on cable and public television, but the majors are hard to crack," Jones said. "We pitched them for a right to show this."
The program will air at 1 p.m. MST on Saturday, and will be followed by the world bull riding championships, a fact Jones took advantage of when pitching NBC for a slot.
"I just said, 'Hey, you got a chance to get cowboys and Indians.' We got a foot in the door," Jones said, adding, "If people like what they see, they need to tell NBC about it."
The documentary, which has been two years in the making, is not just about the modern competitive powwow, Reed said, but also about the history of dance, "what it was and what it evolved to be." He said it includes footage from Thomas Edison's early attempts to film Indian dance, as well as a section on the U.S. government's crackdown on dances that were considered subversive, like the Ghost Dance and the Sun Dance in the late 1800s.
"Really it's through music and dance that Native Americans keep their history," Jones said.
The documentary also features a section on war dances and one focusing on newer dances that have emerged to express a changing culture.
"This movie is just one piece of the whole pie of making sure (Native Americans) get the opportunities they deserve," Jones said, adding that Four Directions Entertainment also runs a project that tries to connect American Indians with jobs in movies, television and theater.
According to the company's Web site, "American Indians have been under-represented and misrepresented in mainstream media and entertainment for generations. It is our hope that, as opportunities increase for American Indians, our young people will see positive and authentic role models providing a more accurate picture of what it means to be Indian in today's society."
The documentary is an important opportunity for both Indian people and non-Indians, Jones said.
For Indians, he said, it is an opportunity for children to have role models in a cultural setting rather than on sitcoms.
For others, he said, the program is "an opportunity to see the real thing in all its splendor."
"I hope they learn more about the Native American culture and their heritage, (and) styles of dance," Top Sky said.
Top Sky attends Stone Child College.