Dance has a big place in Bolivian life. Whether it’s a celebration in a tiny country town or a city-wide blow out in the bustling highland metropolis of La Paz, there will be plenty of music and movement. This week something new came to the Andean country, as the Yellow Bird dancers from Arizona brought pow wow to two Bolivian cities.
The United States Embassy in Bolivia is currently sponsoring an exhibit called Fifty Years of Pow Wow at The Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz (MUSEF). The traveling exhibit by the American Indian Center of Chicago and the Field Museum traces the Chicago Pow Wow through the years with photographs and video. The Yellow Bird group then brought pow wow to life in La Paz for a crowd of over two hundred people.
It was the first time in Bolivia for the Yellow Bird group, which has toured the world and performed in countries from Turkmenistan to Austria and Armenia. Despite their extensive travels, Bolivia stands out to group member Doreen Duncan (Arikara-Hidatsa-Mandan). “I’ve really enjoyed coming to Bolivia-everyone here looks like me,” she said. In Bolivia over 65 percent of the country’s roughly 10 million people self-identify as indigenous. “Most of us live in urban settings,” Duncan said of Native Peoples in the United States, “so we don’t see our people that much. Here everyone looks like someone you know-our taxi driver looked like our tribal chairman!”
The six-members of the Yellow Bird groups who traveled to Bolivia are Doreen Duncan, her husband Ken Duncan (Apache), their son Ken Jr., Gya Watson (Apache), David Brush (N. Cheyenne), and John Snezzy (Apache). The group wowed the crowd with the hoop and grass dances, plus a mix of several other pow wow and traditional performances, despite feeling the lack of oxygen at 12,000 feet above sea level in mountainous La Paz.
The members of Yellow Bird also met with indigenous Bolivian leaders in La Paz and spoke with them through interpreters. “We talked about our healing ceremonies and retaining our languages,” Duncan said. From La Paz the group traveled to Sucre, a town in central Bolivia, where she looked forward to visiting rural communities.
Milton Eyzaguirre Morales, director of outreach for MUSEF, sees definite links between the dances performed by the group and those of different indigenous groups in Bolivia. “These dances are tied to ritual and belief. That is something European-style dance has lost,” said Eyzaguirre Morales, who was particularly struck by a dancer portraying the flight on an eagle.
Another similarity between Yellow Bird’s dances and those practiced in rural Bolivia are their references to nature. “Every living thing is in balance,” Eyzaguirre Morales said of Yellow Bird, “and they’ve told that in dance.”