With a famous shawl dancer mother, Julia Roach, a grandfather that was orphaned at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and another grandfather that performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Norman Roach, who hails from the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota is certainly no stranger to Native American history, tradition and dance.
Beginning his dance career in the 1950s after watching his grandfathers dance at pow wows, Roach was a fancy dance champion as a junior boy (ages 7-12), a teen (ages 13-17), as well as an adult. He was a dancer and choreographer for years with the American Indian Dance Theater group that traveled the world sharing the various dances of Native nations. Roach was featured in the PBS Dance in America series.
Roach, who is also an accomplished flute player and hoop dancer, is also known for his successful three-year direction of a major pow wow held within the sacred Black Hills, the heart and center of the Lakota Nation and peoples. He was also instrumental in the founding of the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow, the largest in North America, held each year in April in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Most recently, Roach has been asked along with Grammy-nominated artist and pow wow dancer Robert Tree Cody to consult on an upcoming film entitled Dance Hard, a dramatic behind-the-scenes look at two brothers and fancy dancers that travel the pow wow trail.
In a conversation with ICTMN, Roach talked about his life as a dancer, the strong ties to his history and heritage and what it means to serve as a consultant on behalf of the Native community.
How long have you been dancing?
I've been dancing since the late 1950s. I'd say about 1958 or 1959. I remember going to pow wows with my mother and grandfather in South Dakota and North Dakota.
That is a lot of years, how does it feel to carry that much tradition?
For me, that is the reason why I dance. It was a big part of [my mother and grandfather's] lives. It is a big part of my life. It is something that ties the generations together.
One of my grandfathers, To Chase Alone, was orphaned at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and as he grew up without his parents and he was raised by his extended family, he really held onto dancing. That gave him a big reason to survive and live and to dance for the people.
My mother's father was so much into his dancing he would travel all the way to Canada from North Dakota on horseback to attend pow wows and visit some of his people on the Standing Buffalo reserve, which I think holds the title of the oldest pow wow in Canada.
There is an amazing story about your grandfather, can you share that?
My mother told me that when my grandfather was about five years old, during the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 which was known as "Custer's Last Stand." He was orphaned during the battle. He was so distraught and sad about what had happened to his parents, he wandered off by himself. He was crying and didn't want to live anymore.
After he wandered away from the camp, a horse came up to him, stayed next to him and didn't leave him. He was five years old and might have been afraid of the horse. Eventually he gained the courage to ride him. The horse must have bent down for him to get on. This was in Montana and the horse went to the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota.
The horse must have taken him about 300 miles. It took him to water, to berries. If you can imagine, a five-year-old boy riding a horse without a saddle–that is amazing.
The horse took him to his relatives. The relatives were happy to see him, because they were wondering who survived the battle. The horse made sure he was okay, then turned and runs away, goes over the horizon, and they never see this horse again.
In our beliefs, the Lakota way, this is a spirit animal. Maybe the spirit was his dad or his mother to make sure he got home okay. That's how he got his name, To Chase Alone.
That's why I dance. The first pow wow my mother took me to, I saw my grandfather dancing by himself, and there were eight or nine females dancing. That memory is vivid in my mind to this day. I dance for him knowing the things that he went through. I honor him every time I dance.
Can you discuss your experience with boarding schools?
I went to a Catholic parochial boarding school and I also went to a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. At the boarding schools they did not allow us to speak our language, they did not teach it. They did not teach our history. They basically taught us to be a non-Indian. Everything about our past, our history and our culture was not promoted. My mother said the same thing.
We were beat regularly with something called a belt line. My mother told me that when she was in boarding school, if they spoke their language they would wash their mouths out with soap. When I think back, it was not a good childhood; I wouldn't wish that on anyone.
I still have those memories of boarding school, they stay with me always. The things that happened to my brothers and sisters and all my friends, what they went through, and the little ones that cry themselves to sleep at night, the first second and third graders…they did not have a big brother to hug or hold onto. That was our job to do that. I had an older brother so I was kind of okay, he watched out for me, but there were a lot of other kids who didn't have that, so we would comfort them.
I got beaten with a belt, and you get over that, but the little ones… that stuck with me.
How did you become so involved in dancing?
We spent nine months in boarding school, but for three months in the summer they let us go. My mother would take me to pow wows, and that's when I really got turned onto them. Every decade I have danced. It's been a big part of my life.
Getting an education was important to my family. I did learn to read to escape the harsh reality of boarding school life, and I got pretty good at it. I read a book a day and won an essay contest when I was in eighth grade.
I got good grades and got the opportunity to go to college, to be a teacher and I enjoy teaching kids. Teaching is also a job where I get summers off and I get to the pow wows.
Where are some of the places your dancing has taken you?
I danced with the American Indian Dance Theater. My wife and I were selected to dance when they first formed the Dance Theater in the early 90s. We got to travel the world. We were kind of like a newer version of the Wild West show. We went to Paris, Germany, Italy and spent some time in the Middle East and all over Canada, Alaska and Hawaii.
It took me all over the world. I danced on national television, I've danced with Santana, been on Sesame Street all because of dancing. Even though I've gone through some hard times, pow wows, Indian dancing and my culture have been really good to me. All of the friends I met all over the world, all of that erased some of these bad memories.
You will be consulting on a Hollywood film along with Robert Tree Cody entitled Dance Hard. Can you tell us about that?
This will work out pretty good. Tree and I have been brothers for about 30 years. Three of my real brothers have passed away, and in tradition are adopted brothers sometimes become closer than our real brothers. He is the son of Iron Eyes Cody, so he has a lot of experience with the media and movies. I have been in a couple of movies which helps.
When I first met Tree he was a fancy dancer at the time and he was probably the tallest fancy dancer ever at 6'11" tall. He is also a very good flute player. I have played the flute as well; the most honored place that I played was at the World Trade Center on June 21, a few months before 9/11 happened.
Tree has been performing since the 50s also. It is great to work with them because we agree on a lot of stuff. The director Megan Clare Johnson had a few questions, so we are advisors, and the producer has done 27 films or so. Right now they are working on the funding process.
One of my grandfathers on my dad's side, Jacob White Eyes performed in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He created quite a splash in France. People still remember him, he was a very handsome man and left a lot of descendants out there [laughs].
But in terms of combining contemporary and tradition, Tree and I were some of the first groups that ever did that. There was a group called The Tribe. This was a group that put hip-hop dancers together. My wife danced with these hip-hop dancers. We also danced to nontraditional music. One year Tree and I and my family, who were traditional dancers, closed the Native American Music Awards to the song "Boogie Oogie Oogie." We received a standing ovation.
Sometimes some people just expect there only to be tradition, and they hang onto that kind of image. That's why the American Indian Dance Theater did so well in Europe. We were the premier show everywhere we went.
Have you experienced racism?
In South Dakota in the 1970s Russell Means fought a lot of battles against racism. Russell Means called South Dakota the most racist state in the country. AIM ran into a lot of racism. Things like that just made me stronger. I ran pow wows in Rapid City, South Dakota, and I was the only one to ever produce a pow wow in the sacred Black Hills.
I was invited to play a flute at a funeral, in Rapid City, South Dakota. There was a young Indian man who had committed suicide. He had married a white girl and her family was the rancher type. The Lakota side of the family asked me to play the flute at the funeral. I could tell there was a conflict in the room. I played "Amazing Grace." I felt at first that they didn't want me there and they were saying they didn't want any Native American music there. But I played that song and there was not a dry eye at that funeral.
The family came up to me, and they thanked me for being there because they said they had never heard "Amazing Grace" on a Native American flute before. I think the Native American flute and music can break barriers.
I think there are more good people than racist people. I'm not equating being racist with being bad, but you should not be racist. No matter who you are you should not think you are better than anyone else because of the color of your skin. Whether you are black, brown, or white you should not go through life carrying that type of baggage. You will not live a good life and you will not be happy with who you are.
I have a lot of non-Native friends that are white, black, and Asian and German. I have friends from France. I try to keep a perspective and teach different audiences that we are all in this together. We are all related even to the animal world, we are all here together.
I was set on this Earth probably to help with pow wows and Native American dance.