Umatilla tribal member Acosia Red Elk has spent years on the powwow circuit as a world-champion jingle dancer and collaborator with artists ranging from Supaman to Portugal. The Man. She has also combined different powwow dance styles and Indigenous teachings with yoga to create what she calls “powwow yoga” and “seven generations yoga,” with the goal to promote contemporary Indigenous healing through movement and dance.
The “Oregon Field Guide” team caught up with her for three days in October, in between trips to New York City to rehearse for and perform at the Joyce Theater with the Native dance company Indigenous Enterprise. She took us longboarding and jingle dancing in the hills surrounding Pendleton, let us sit in on an impromptu powwow dance class and a yoga class on the reservation, and shared some of her story:
We are here on the Umatilla homelands. The Umatilla, the Cayuse and the Walla Walla people, we are the plateau people of the Pacific Northwest.
Native people are doing everything today modern. We’re not just doing traditional things. We are doctors and lawyers. We are artists. I love to snowboard. I love to longboard. I love house music. We are living in all worlds, and we can show up in our indigenousness to anything as well.
My name is Acosia Red Elk. I’m a jingle dancer and a yoga teacher.
When I look back, I wanted to be a dancer so bad. But the reality I was in, I never thought it would happen. I went on to win a lot of competitions. One year I won 42 powwows in a row. That was interesting for me because I had to learn how to start accepting myself, too. Like, who am I to win this award? And that was something I learned along the way, to start loving myself and believing in myself, because I never did before.
When I was young, we weren’t really a powwow family. My mom and dad owned an auto body business, and they worked everyday in the shop.
My mom is Scottish, Dutch, French and Norwegian with a little bit of Seneca and Micmac in her, so she was this white woman that married this Native man.
When I was 6 years old, I caught on fire and burnt the backside of my body. I spent three months in the burn concern center in Portland, and that was really traumatic for my family.
My father started drinking again and couldn’t stop. And he died on my 9th birthday. And, you know, it just sent me and my siblings into a downward spiral.
When I would go to the powwow, I would watch them dance. And I was just in awe of how brave they were, and how proud they were. Fast forward, like, two years: my sister got a dress made for me. And when I opened the Christmas present, I was super excited.
But then I realized that I was going to have to dance that night at the Christmas powwow. And I was so scared. I just remember stepping my first few steps out onto the dance floor. And I started crying. I had been pitying my legs for the scars and what happened to me. I was just pitying my life. And then this was the body and the legs that were carrying me out onto the dance floor. So it was just a really special moment. And it changed me.
I got the powwow fever, and we just like hit the powwow trail.
I learned a lot from my kids’ dad. He taught me how to make regalia. He taught me how to be a better dancer.
Every dance has their origin story. The men’s traditional dance: You’ve got the feathers on their back. They’re the warriors. They tell the story of their battle.
The women’s jingle dress dance comes from a dream from about 1915, 1920, during the Spanish flu pandemic. A young girl was really ill, and her father was a medicine man, so he went to seek vision. And in that vision, he was brought into the sky by the northern lights people. And they sent him home with a gift that would heal the people and heal his daughter.
That gift was actually a sound. And the people got well when they heard this sound. And so they brought this dress to surrounding communities and it grew and grew in numbers.
And then our dances were taken away from us, and it was outlawed to even practice your culture in that way, especially doing dances.
When we were allowed to be able to start practicing our culture again, they started having what they called a powwow. People were coming from different tribes, and it was a celebration of song and dance. If you wanted to compete for prize money, you could. And so it kind of became like a sport.
For a lot of people, and for my husband and I, for a long time, we didn’t have work outside of powwow. Some years we would make up to $90,000 just off of dancing. There were years that we did 50 powwows in a year.
It’s a gift. The winning part is a perk. But the most important part is that you’re taking part in your culture. You’re in the circle. You’re adding to the vibrancy of it. You’re adding to the vibration, because every single person adds so much to it. And every single time that we have more people coming in and joining, we are building back up our strength and our culture as a people.
But the Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico, it’s the biggest powwow in the world. Basically if you win at that powwow, you’re world champion for a year.
The first time I got first place at that one was the biggest win that I had ever had. I was 24 years old, and I don’t think anybody had won a contest there from my tribe.
It’s interesting to think about, growing up as a half-breed and sometimes feeling like, where do I belong? Where do I truly belong? And are these people looking down on me? And never feeling super confident about my tribal enrollment and being a Native, you know, and then becoming a powwow dancer, and then representing my tribe at different powwows. I had to learn how to start trusting my voice as a leader and gaining that confidence, knowing that I was carrying the name of my tribe with me and representing them, too.
With that came a lot of girls from our home wanting to become dancers. When I moved back home in 2008, I started teaching tribal dance class here for the young girls.
This is where it starts. They learn the steps, because those first steps are really hard to learn. There’s a lot of footwork and stuff involved, and all of that is good for the brain. It’s good for your joy, for your happiness, for your heart. And it ripples outward into the whole family.
There’s this really beautiful thing that happens when somebody in the family finds dancing, and you see it do its work on them. And it ripples outward into the whole family. It’s like that sound of the jingle dress— it’s the sound of the bells, the sound that the regalia makes. It ripples outward and people feel it.
Powwow dancing is just a special gift for everybody.
When I started yoga, my dancing became so much better.
I went to my first yoga class eight years ago. In this class, she said, “take a deep breath and let it go.” And I just started crying.
In my mind, I was like, “Oh my gosh, I have to get certified as soon as possible because I want to travel around and share this practice with as many Native people as I can so that we can start healing faster. Because we have a lot of trauma to heal from, and yoga can help us do that.”
I was teaching yoga and they were like, “You should add some powwow dancing in there.” And I took them through fancy dancing and jingle dancing, and the men’s grass dancing, just because the moves are lower for men. And I wanted to teach my classes in more of an indigenous view, indigenous perspective, and I think a lot of people really responded well to that. And that became powwow yoga.
I didn’t really think it was going to go that far, and then everybody wanted to learn more about powwow yoga — all of these tribes and different programs, even internationally. I was just going do it for Native people at first. And then I thought, well, this is movement, and movement and music is universal. It doesn’t belong to any of us. And this is just something to offer to people as a movement method, as expanding their movement vocabulary. And then while we’re dancing, I’ll teach them about the dances and where they come from and what they represent.
This is the alarm clock generation. We’ve been hitting snooze for a long time and people are starting to get up and wipe their eyes and look out of foggy lenses. People are using their voice and being brave.
Everybody is looking to be a part of something special, something bigger. And as Indigenous people, art is part of healing.
I got to do a collaboration with Supaman. He is a hip-hop influencer. And that was about six years ago. And that really opened the doors for a lot more contemporary collaborations.
I got to do a really neat music video with Portugal. The Man and Weird Al Yankovic. My dad loved Weird Al. We used to watch Weird Al — I know all of the old Weird Al songs. And [PTM’s] always highlighting Indigenous people and issues. So I’m really honored to have been a part of that.
They also came out with a little video and there’s a t-shirt that you can buy where all proceeds go to clean water projects for tribal nations.
I am a part of Indigenous Enterprise, which is a Native American dance troop. We get to travel all over and share our cultural dances — sometimes performing with musicians and different bands and groups.
As a matter of fact, we got to open a show in New York City for Indigenous Peoples’ Day [at the Bowery Ballroom]. They had built this circle, and I don’t even think they knew we were coming out. It was a lot of younger generation, and a lot of them had never seen that type of dancing before. And so it was really neat to know that they were exposed to modern-day Natives sharing the beauty — our pizazz — in today’s world.
So we’re coming back to ourselves. We’re using our culture to be more strong today, and sharing it with people so that we can build bridges.