If you’re familiar with Native American culture in Arizona, then you may have heard of Derrick Suwaima Davis, a Hopi and Choctaw man who recently won first place for the seventh time at the Heard Museum‘s annual hoop-dancing competition. Widely renowned for his work in preserving Native American culture and values through artistic performance, Davis began participating in powwows at age 3. He has been the artistic director of Native Trails, an annual event in Scottsdale, for the past 12 years, and he continues to speak on Native American issues and culture. We asked Davis about who he is and what hoop-dancing means to him.
Q: How were you introduced to hoop-dancing?
A: When I was a young boy, our family would go to the powwows in New Mexico. My mother is Hopi and my father is Choctaw, so this was how they would participate in each other’s cultures. At the powwow, my father was a singer, my mother was a backup singer, and myself and my siblings were all backup dancers, so we could all participate there and be apart of the intertribal gathering. Powwows introduced me to hoop-dancing, and I started dancing at the age of 3. I remember coming home and bending branches into hoops or playing with the round sofa cushions, and even though I wasn’t making designs, in my imagination I was hoop-dancing. My father made me and my younger brother a pair of hoops, and we danced with them. It wasn’t until I came down into the Phoenix Valley for higher education that I was asked to be a part of Equal Spirit Dance Troupe. A few years after that, the Heard Museum held its first annual championship hoop-dance contest, and that helped all of us inspire and motivate each other to improve the art of hoop-dancing.
Q: Are art and creativity central to the values of Native cultures?
A: When you think of the culture itself, it had to be artistic and creative. The architecture, the food, the song and dance are ways the native cultures express gratitude to all of the creation that we depend on, all of life. If our environment’s healthy, then we will be healthy too.
Q: What does hoop-dancing symbolize?
A: The dance itself originated with the Pueblo people. It originated as a “healing dance,” where the shaman or the patient would pass through the hoop and the patient would be healed. The dance is a way to carry the culture through song and dance. For me, the dance still carries that meaning of healing. In the hoop itself, in the circle of life, there is no dominance, and everything is created equally and has a unique purpose. Plants and insects come to exist first, and finally, human beings come to join the circle of life with the responsibility of stewardship. I use five hoops to honor this. The first hoop, I think of as the first world, where life is very small. And then we move to the second world, where life is prosperous. The third world, things become out of order. And those who want to live a good life make it to this fourth world, where we are guided to our various centers. We become stewards and guardians, and through our architecture, our songs and our dances, we do our best to encourage what’s below this Earth, what’s on this Earth and what’s above this Earth to be healthy and balanced. So when I’m dancing, this story is being told. It is where the spirit joins the physical. We culturally go through rites of passage, like the dancer who moves through hoops and picks up hoops.
Toward the end of my routine, I make a ladder design to encourage the audience and the buildings and even the grass to give of their purpose, to be strong and to pay attention to our purposes as a way to become whole. At the end of my routine, I dance with all five hoops and create a globe. The globe is acknowledging that the different cultures around the world are preparing to pass on the Earth and we are role models for our children. If I listen to my life’s purpose, then I would be a good example for my children to listen to their life purpose. Not that my children will grow up to be me, but whatever their life purpose is, hopefully they will grow to pay attention to their purpose in life to makes themselves complete and whole.
Q: How has your relationship with hoop-dancing changed over time?
A: When I first started dancing, there was a lot of technique and joy, but maybe I wasn’t as connected to what the purpose of the dance is. Now, at age 46, I am married with three boys. My wife and I lost our firstborn. Out of life lessons like these, I connected with what this dance actually represents. The themes of the dance are universal. When I am doing a public performance, I am dancing with all my culture. I understand how I am being a cultural ambassador — that I am not just out there being me, but that I am out there being all those who have advised me through life, and I am there with those who made the drum, with those who made my dance clothes and even the dance stage I am dancing on. I feel we are all dancing together. It is my way of honoring my surroundings. I see a lot of mistakes from the younger ones — how they struggle to get over their nerves or dance too cautiously. I have learned that you just have to go out there and have fun, and if you stay connected with the dance well enough, you can better share it.
Q: Where can we learn more about Native American culture?
A: Native Trails is an event currently being held at Scottsdale Center for the Arts. It helps teach about Native cultures. It’s held most Thursdays and Saturdays through April 5. A calendar can be found online at www.scottsdalenativetrails.com. You can also book private events through the Charles Agency.
Q: What words of wisdom do you have for aspiring artists?
A: In all of our lives, there is a time for fasting and understanding the purpose it serves. Some people may experience it when the power goes out, or when their water gets shut off, or when natural disasters occur. It brings people back to a humbler state, and we want to help each other. Today we are so bombarded with messages and commercials and being sold products marketed as necessities, but when you look back generations, people lived a simpler life: planting foods, enjoying the season of the year, taking time to be creative and honoring themselves, instead of listening to what is being marketed to them. And it is true that we only grow when times are difficult. When things are too comfortable for us, we don’t learn. This is the purpose of fasting: to let go of the physical aspects of life and focus on spirituality. One of the sayings I use at home is “Do the best you can with the least amount possible,” because this is where you will find your strength. This is also why I use only five hoops. Others use 10 or even 50 hoops, but then it seems to lose the purpose of what hoop-dancing really is. I hope we can be humble and use only what we need. Most of all, I hope we can all be positive, make some beautiful days and be well.
– Alexandra Winter