Kenneth Shirley, a Diné champion Fancy War dancer from Phoenix, Arizona, grew up immersed in Native culture. He took pride in being from a region that recognized 22 Native tribes. So when he founded the intertribal dance troupe Indigenous Enterprise, and was later given the opportunity to perform at the Sydney Opera House in Australia in 2018, he was surprised by an audience member’s comment: “I thought you [Native Americans] were extinct.”
Indigenous Enterprise, founded in 2016 and made up of Native dancers from across the U.S. and Canada, is on a mission to increase the visibility of Native culture. By bringing Native dances experienced at powwows to new audiences, Shirley is making sure his community's very existence will never be called into question again.
“We’re trying to bring Indigenous representation to new heights,” Shirley explains. He wants to show audiences that Native Americans are “still thriving and the culture is very much still alive.”
In just seven years, the troupe has built an international following, competing in the fourth season of NBC’s prime-time show World of Dance, performing in a music video with Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas, and dancing for thousands of basketball fans at the NBA finals in 2021. The dancers have been featured in Vogue and the New York Times, and recently attended the Met Gala, where Shirley and fellow dancer Dominic Pablo showed up in full regalia.
The spirit of a powwow drum made a profound impression on Shirley when he was just two years old. “He heard the beat of the drum and he wanted to dance ... and he wouldn’t stop,” says Mary White Shirley (Diné), Kenneth’s mother, who also grew up dancing at intertribal gatherings.
“I’m so amazed, and I’m so proud of my son,” his mother says. “Nizhóní—beautiful! Kenneth is living his prayer. Our people, once upon a time, prayed for [him].”
Founded on what Shirley calls the “Three Ps”—preservation, performance and progression—Indigenous Enterprise focuses on representation and uplifting sacred dances and rituals. The material they perform has survived various attempts at cultural erasure imposed by both political and religious groups over centuries. “A hundred years ago, Natives were being thrown in prison for what we are doing today,” says Shirley.
In 1883, the U.S. government passed the Religious Crimes Code, banning Native communities from practicing dances and ceremonies central to their culture. This legislation would pave the way for other forced assimilation programs, including removing Native children from their families to attend residential schools. Shirley’s own grandfather, his namesake, was forced to attend a residential school, where he was beaten for speaking his Native language.
Like many survivors of the policy, Shirley’s grandfather combatted the impact of forced assimilation by going to powwows and learning the songs, dances and traditions practiced by members of various tribes who would gather across the country.
Powwows have become an integral space for Native communities to teach youth and preserve their culture. Powwow dancer Blythe Norris (Diné, Tsalagi, Iswa) is from Maricopa, Arizona, and has been performing the Jingle Dress Dance for 10 years. “It’s a safe haven ... for youth to watch their elders [and] listen to their teachings,” Norris says.
Indigenous Enterprise dancer Jorge Gonzales (Salt River Pima–Maricopa), a champion hoop dancer, was introduced to the art at the Boys & Girls Club on his reservation by his mentor, Kevin Dakota Duncan (Arikara, Hidatsa, Mandan San Carlos Apache). Gonzales, who has been dancing since 2016, has mastered performing with 11 hoops simultaneously. Gonzales joined Indigenous Enterprise to not only educate non-Native audiences, but to show Native youth “you can strive to be whatever you want to be.”
Men’s Prairie Chicken dancer and Shirley’s cousin Ty Lodgepole (Diné), who has been with the group since its creation, says he loves being a part of what he sees as a cultural and generational shift. “This is such a renaissance time for Native American culture, and we’ve gotten the okay from elders and mentors to present what we're presenting,” he says, “to show true, authentic Native American culture.”
Watch as Indigenous Enterprise takes us on a journey through Phoenix, dancing in front of the Smithsonian-affiliated Heard Museum dedicated to Native art; at Arizona State University Mountain; and in front of vibrant murals inspired by Native culture.
Krista Allen also contributed to this article.
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