Every time I’m near Battery Park at the southern end of Manhattan I try to go to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Located in the former Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House, the museum is one of two Smithsonian museums located in New York City. (I also recommend visiting NMAI’s sister museum in Washington, DC – it’s one of my favorite Smithsonian museums.) NMAI hosts some great special programming (in fact, I wrote about one event here), but the museum also offers some great exhibitions. One of those exhibitions, Circle of Dance, illustrates Native Americans’ diverse cultural experiences by exploring the costumes, traditions, and history associated with various dance forms.
One of my favorite costumes in the exhibition is this one, Quechua Danza de Tizeras, or the Scissor Dance. According to the exhibition, the dance has roots in the Andean Mountains of Peru. I was fascinated to learn how, after the Spanish arrived, dancers were persecuted because of Roman Catholic beliefs that their gymnastic dance movements were enabled by the devil. Catholic priests attempted to ban the dance entirely but were unsuccessful, and instead the dance was incorporated into Christian religious observances in the region. Today, the dance is performed at Christmas and New Years, but it is also part of festivals where descendants of the Andean peoples celebrate their own traditions and heritage. I love the intricately embroidered clothing and hat, as well as the combination of colors in the costume.
I also loved this colorfully patterned outfit, titled Yakama Girl’s Fancy Shawl Dance. From my research, I learned that the Yakama Nation is now based in the state of Washington in the northwest United States. The exhibition explained the purpose of the Fancy Shawl Dance and other dances taught to Yakama children:
Yakama boys and girls are trained at a young age to keep the rhythm of the drumbeat … in order to nurture inside them the belief in Wáashat, the Yakama longhouse religion. Through dancing, the work of their bodies, children are taught to serve their elders, their families, and their people.
When I look at this costume, I can visualize the young Yakama girls whirling in time to the drumbeat, enjoying themselves while still honoring tradition.
The next costume was labeled Cubeo Óyne Dance. It is a mask that would be used by a dancer impersonating an animal spirit during a mourning ritual practiced by the Cubeo, who live in Brazil and Colombia. Like the first dance I described earlier, this one was also discouraged by Christian missionaries.
And this magnificent headdress from the Hopi Butterfly Dance costume also caught my eye. The geometric patterns and colors are interesting, but as you look closer you will see even more details, such as butterflies and cornstalks.
Although Circle of Dance is not a permanent exhibition, visitors still have plenty of time to see it. The exhibition is not scheduled to end until October 8, 2017. The exhibition is located within the special events space on the museum’s ground floor, however, and there may be limited access if a special event is taking place when you visit. In addition to the beautiful costumes featured here, there are a variety of other costumes whose stories give even more of a glimpse into varied Native American traditions and cultures.
Want to visit NMAI yourself? If traveling by subway, take the N or the R trains to Whitehall station, the 1 train to the South Ferry Station, or the 4 or 5 train to the Bowling Green station. If traveling from Staten Island, the museum is only a few short blocks from the Whitehall ferry terminal. NMAI is across the street from Battery Park, and I encourage you to visit the park either before or after your trip to the museum. Another added bonus: the National Museum of the American Indian is free!