2008-03-05 / Front Page
Dancer extols meaning behind the movements
Howell's 'White Eagle' performs Hoop Dance in Thompson Park
American Indian dancer Matthew "White Eagle" Clair held his audience spellbound as he performed a hoop dance at a recent meeting of the Intertribal Indians of New Jersey at Thompson Park, Jamesburg.
Wearing colorful purple regalia, White Eagle spun and twirled 28 2-foot hoops, interweaving them with his arms and legs and creating the silhouette and movement of different animals. The 50 people in attendance burst into applause as he brought the images of an eagle, turtle, alligator and butterfly to life.
Prior to performing, White Eagle shared a little about his own background.
"The first word I learned was 'mom,' then 'dad,' then Mik'Maq," he said, referring to the name of his tribe.
While there are Mik'Maq Indians living in Maine, White Eagle is from the Elsipogtog reservation in New Brunswick, Canada. He grew up speaking his language and learning the religious practices, music and dance traditions of his people.
When he was 19 he and a couple of friends decided to hit the "PowWow Highway." Pow Wows are American Indian gatherings that take place throughout North America.
"Visitors to Pow Wows can enjoy dance competitions, Indian food, arts and crafts," said Helen Rende, treasurer of Intertribal Indians of New Jersey. "Dancers and artists often travel from one Pow Wow to the next throughout the year."
"I really wanted to meet different people and learn about other native cultures," said White Eagle.
That's certainly what he did when he learned how to do a hoop dance, which is a tradition of the Hopi tribe, based in the southwestern United States.
"Hoop dancing was used for medicine by the Hopi people. When the dancer creates the different animals it's because they are asking for the spirit of the animal to help heal the person who is ill," White Eagle said.
One can't simply decide to be a hoop dancer, as it is rooted in sacred tradition.
"You have to get permission from someone who can teach you, not just the movements, but their meaning. You have to understand and be committed to the religious significance of the dance," he said. "I am not a medicine man, but when I dance I feel the spirit of the animals I create and every time I dance I pray for people. I dance for people who are paralyzed, the elderly, and children who are sick."
White Eagle has also learned other dances in his travels. He showed the audience in Thompson Park the clothing he wears when he does a Grass Dance, which is a tradition of the Plains Indians.
"Scouts would travel ahead of the band to find a good place to camp. The buffalo grass would be really high, so they would stomp it down so the elders and the children wouldn't trip and fall," he said. "I chose reds and yellows for my regalia because my tribe is from the East and are known as 'people of the dawn.' "
Amy Puchala, of Sayreville, enjoyed White Eagle's performance.
"What I really liked was not just the dance, but that he explained everything. He translated the words to the song; he explained the colors and beadwork. It was really great."
Brenda Davis, president of Intertribal Indians of New Jersey, said the group feels it is important that people hear about Indian culture and history from Indian people.
"Matt White Eagle is not just a terrific performer, he is also a wonderful educator," Davis said.
While White Eagle still travels to Pow Wows, he is enjoying his time at home more since he married his wife Allison. The two, who live in Howell, met when they were working at Wal-Mart.
"I never thought I would marry an Indian," said Allison, who was a state champion barrel racer. "In fact, I always thought I would marry a cowboy," she said with a laugh.
The couple had an outdoor wedding last summer that combined traditions from both of their backgrounds.Allison recently visited her husband's reservation in Canada.
"His family was very welcoming and the land is really beautiful," she said.
She also goes with him when he performs and lectures.
"He's always well received and I'm learning as well as his audience," Allison said.
White Eagle has performed and lectured at schools, museums, churches, historical societies and for Boy Scout troops. At one point he was a member of the professional American Indian dance troupe, Bear Creations.
"I really feel this is my calling. I think my ancestors and people are happy with what I'm doing," he said.
Groups interested in having White Eagle perform or speak can call him at (732) 804-8657 or (732) 330-8779. He can also be contacted by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Intertribal Indians of New Jersey also has educators, performers and craftspeople available to speak to the public. They can also be contacted by sending an e-mail to Intertribalindiansnj@yahoo.com.