The sound of jingle dresses broke the silence of an empty hallway at Northwest Classen High School, drowning out the American Indian music the dancers were using to keep time.
The girls are from different schools and tribes, but through dancing they have found a common interest.
Their teacher, eighth-grader Skye Wapskineh, said she's watched her two pupils, elementary student Katallina Hubbard and high schooler Alicia Fink, improve over the past year.
“They've caught on pretty well because they didn't have a beat or anything at first. I'm really proud,” Wapskineh said.
They meet a couple of Tuesdays a month to practice alongside other dance classes and a drumming class organized by the Native American Student Services program at Oklahoma City Public Schools. The courses are part of a larger effort to help American Indian students learn about their heritage and succeed in the classroom.
“A lot of our students know that they're Indian, but some of them don't even know what tribe they're from,” Native American Student Services cultural program coordinator Andrea Mann said.
Wapskineh said she attended her first powwow as a preschooler. She has been dancing ever since, and participates in the district programs. She is a member of the Native American Student Dance Troupe, which performs at events and in classrooms throughout the year.
Alaina Poole, a junior at Classen School of Advanced Studies, attends the fancy shawl class. She and her mother make tribal regalia on commission, and she already knew the southern shawl style, but fancy shawl is more contemporary.
“It's just dancing with a shawl with really complicated footwork,” Poole said.
Ties to tradition
Fink was studying ballet when stories of her family's Choctaw and Cherokee heritage inspired her to also learn tribal dancing.
“It kind of upset me that I wasn't more into the culture,” she said.
Watching the jingle dress dancers run through their routine, Anna Fink, Alicia's mother, said the Choctaw Nation headquarters in Durant is too far away to visit regularly.
“They have to have a connection somewhere, because if they can't connect to pass it down, it's going to be lost,” she said.
The disconnection between Indians and their tribal centers might exist in part because many traditions are passed down orally. While public schools can't fill the role of a family member, the school-based programs can provide support, program administrator Star Yellowfish said.
Learning about their cultural heritage can boost students' self-confidence, Yellowfish said.
“One of the girls on the dance troupe said, ‘I never used to tell anyone I was Indian, and now everyone knows,'” she said.
The classes bring families together, and parents and guardians are always invited to attend, Yellowfish said. Terry Bennett, a freedman in the Choctaw tribe, said the classes offer a chance for his grandchildren to learn things he's never known. His ancestors were granted tribal status in the years after the Civil War, but their cultural traditions weren't carried to his generation.
“We know about it, but we don't know enough about it,” Bennett said.
His grandson attended a spring break camp with the drumming class, and his granddaughter is learning the fancy shawl dance.
“It's going to take some time, but the little ones are diving in. They're going to have a chance to tell their families about it,” he said.
The Native American Student Services sponsors a powwow in November, an art camp, mentor programs and a color guard.
The program also offers counseling, assistance with school supplies and uniforms, ACT preparation, a reading program and student awards, Yellowfish said.
After the dance classes at Northwest Classen were well underway, the sound of drums filled the building. Inside one of the classrooms, students sat in a circle, listening to teacher Mike Kihega's instructions.
“As long as we've got one beat, then everyone can dance the way they dance,” he said.