The year Gramma Rovina got sick, we went to longhouse. We were sitting on the bench together, my Onondaga Beaver grandmother keeping me right under her wings, and it came time to dance. I didn’t know she was sick. And for some reason when the women got up to dance she didn’t join in. I timidly stayed by her side, unsure of what to do. The women danced right past me and Gramma scolded me…”go on, get out there!”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it is your responsibility….” She replied.
Of course, like any ten year old being yelled at by their Gramma…I listened! I ran into line and shuffled my way around the stoves. This small moment became significant to me. Later in life, I became a full-time dancer.
Rovina Mabel General died the following spring of cancer. And twenty three years later I found myself facing that same word; Cancer.
I will never forget April 25th. Hearing the words, “…you have breast cancer…” took the dance right out of my legs. It took my breath away, robbed me of that ‘thing’ inside that propels each step forward one after the other.
The following weekend Gathering of Nations Pow Wow – the world’s largest competition Pow-Wow – was broadcast live over the internet. There I sat, emotionally exhausted in front of my computer. I felt like my life was hanging in the balance. I didn’t do dishes for days, or cook, or shower. Everything felt like it was ending. Until I saw them dance.
As I was watching the dancers from all nations give it their all and dance their hardest, slowly my heart began to turn. As I watched the people dance – their feet propelled my heart forward and suddenly I experienced what it means to dance for those who can’t.
And Gramma’s words came back to me again. “…it is your responsibility…”
I actually tried to bargain my way out of dancing all those years ago. I didn’t think I was good at Esganye and was afraid the other girls would make fun of me. But Gramma scolded me again, saying “All these old people up here are too sick to dance, but you are healthy and young…you have to dance because it is your responsibility.”
Now I see clearly. Gramma Rovina, and all those other ladies needed me to dance. They needed that active life-giving Spirit within me to propel their hopes forward to a new generation of little Onkwehon:we. It’s what the Creator has given us to share when we dance, and it’s what the people receive when we dance. It is healing, and it overflows in abundance when we share in that experience together.
A year and half later I can gratefully declare that I am now cancer free. Somehow it feels like a teaching in my life has become complete. Perhaps it is fully one facet of why we dance – and it unites us. It’s not a Haudenosaunee “teaching”, or an Onondaga “way”, but something good that is able to permeate nationhood, race, and all forms of religiosity. I have received hope. And now that I am well, and beginning to dance again I will pass on that hope…because it is my responsibility.
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