The Dance of Turtle Island: NFL's Vikings Honor Native Heritage Month

Robert DesJarlait

On November 22, the Minnesota Vikings organization hosted a special halftime event at TCF Bank Stadium in recognition of Native American Heritage Month. In front of 52,000+ fans, the RedBone Singers and Dancers performed in a historic performance – the first time that the Vikings featured a halftime show with Native American dancers.

Although the halftime show wasn’t televised nationally, the Vikings later released a video of the dance performance, one that has been seen by over 300k viewers on the Internet.

The performance highlighted Native American pride in a city that has been at the center of a decades-long struggle against NFL stereotypic mascots and logos.

In 1992, an anti-mascot march and rally, led by AIM leader Vernon Bellecourt, was held at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, where Super Bowl XXVI was played between the Washington Redskins and Buffalo Bills. In November 2013, over 2000 marchers rallied at the Metrodome to protest at the Vikings game against Washington.

In November 2014, two marches converged at TCF Bank Stadium where the Vikings were playing Washington. (TCF Bank Stadium serves as an interim stadium for the Vikings while their new stadium is built.) One march, called the Peoples March, was led by a coalition of grassroots activist groups. The other march was led by the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media. Over 4000 people rallied outside the stadium with speeches by local politicians and civil rights activists.

In October 2015, Jessica Ryan was contacted to organize a dance venue that would showcase Native American culture. Ryan is an enrolled member of the Brothertown Indian Nation. She is an attorney with Bluedog, Paulson & Small P.L.L.P. Ryan’s practice has largely centered on issues related to child welfare and tribal sovereignty; she is well connected to the Twin Cities Native American community.

Ryan contacted the RedBone Singers to help organize the halftime show. RedBone is a Twin Cities drum group that has played at contests and traditional powwows, presented exhibitions at local schools, and have participated in local community events such as feasts and wakes.

RedBone assembled some of the best youth and adult dancers to participate in the show. A total of 18 dancers were chosen, three for each category – Men’s Traditional, Women’s Traditional, Grass Dance, Jingle Dress, Fancy Shawl, and Men’s Fancy.

A week before the event, rehearsals were held at Winter Park, the Vikings training facility in Eden Prairie. Timing was critical. The exhibition had to be choreographed to fit within a 6 minute time frame.

On game day, the temperature hovered at 25 degrees. When the exhibition began, the dancers were joined by the Lakota Women’s Warrior color guard that formed a line in front of the RedBone drum with their service flags held aloft.

Two groups of dancers lined up on opposite sides on the 50 yard line. The RedBone Singers sat at the 49 yard line on the Vikings side of the field. To the tempo of a grand entry song, each line danced out and formed a circle around the Vikings logo at the center of the field. RedBone did one pushup per song for each dance category that came out and performed a break dance. At the conclusion, the dancers danced off the field in one line to the rhythm of a retreat song.

Jerry Dearly served as the emcee. Dearly is a well-known powwow emcee and has appeared at powwows in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Dearly is from Pine Ridge and was one of the original Porcupine Singers.

In addition to the halftime exhibition, the pregame show featured a tribal flag presentation. Twenty-seven tribal flags from tribal nations in Minnesota and Wisconsin presented their tribal colors on the field.

Rep. Peggy Flanagan (D-FL) of the MN. House of Representatives sang the national anthem. Flanagan is an enrolled member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.

The drum and dance exhibition at TCF stadium was a historic event. Although exhibitions have been featured at other professional Minnesota sports games, this was the first time such an exhibition was held at a Vikings game. Significantly, it was held in a sports venue known for its use of stereotypic logos and mascots. The Minnesota Vikings countered such imagery with a display that honored Native American culture.

For the dancers, it was a remarkable moment in time. They danced not only for their tribe and families; they also danced the people of Turtle Island. And in that moment of time when the dancers made their soul-spirits visible, they were reminders of the vibrancy and beauty of Native America.

Click here to check out Native American Tribal Drum & Dance.

Robert DesJarlait is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe. He is a journalist, artist, and environmental activist. He was one of the dancers who performed at the Vikings halftime show.

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boujoie's picture
Beautiful! ~ Beautiful! My heart sings & deeply resonates Our joy! Many Blessings to our drummers, singers & dancers for making such excellent use of the opening given to shine out from the dark. Joie Bourisseau: Anishinaabe-Ojibwe, enrolled in the Mackinac Band(s) of Chippewa & Ottawa Indians.