Connecting the Future & Past: Powwow Dance Teacher JaTanna Feather on the Saving Grace of Dance5.19.2020
For Cherokee dance instructor JaTanna Feather, 33, dance keeps her connected to the future as well as the past. She is the owner and lead teacher of Kanohesgi Storyteller Dancers, a nonprofit organization that teaches Cherokee children as young as four how to dance in the traditional Cherokee style and compete in powwows across the nation.
The name “Kanohesgi” translates to “The one that goes around telling the people.”
“Our kids are telling their stories through dance. They are the future and our culture holders,” says JaTanna.
With the onset of COVID-19, most of the big powwows across the country have been cancelled, but many of JaTanna’s students have participated in “social distancing powwows”—online powwows where dancers share their videos through Facebook groups. (See our recent blog on the online powwow phenomenon.) It’s a way they can keep the storytelling alive, even when gatherings can’t take place in person.
In the Beginning
JaTanna started making appearances at powwows when she was only three months old. Her father, a champion Cherokee dancer with American Indian Dance Theater, used to bring her into the dance arena. At seven years old, JaTanna started competing in the “fancy shawl” category. Her mother, a professional beadworker, would make regalia for the family, sometimes spending as much as a year and a half working on a single outfit.
“If you ask a real powwow, they would say an outfit is never really done,” laughs JaTanna. “You’re always really working on it, adding to it. You always have to be fixing it at the powwow.”
Growing up, JaTanna’s family would take off in the summer and travel a new powwow circuit, making their way up and down the United States.
Those powwows, she says, were the best part of growing up, and dance became a way to understand the past.
Passing on the Language of Dance
“English is not my ancestor’s language. My Cherokee language was lost before it got to me. Dance is my language. It’s how I speak, culturally. It helps my soul, and it helps me keep the connection to my ancestors,” says JaTanna.
“So many stories we have are from word of mouth and sometimes those stories don’t get translated properly because there aren't always English words for our words, but the dance and song are the same. In Cherokee culture, the dances haven’t changed. That’s our one connection that can stay always the same. And that’s why I continue to teach it the way I was taught.”
A Saving Grace
In 2016, JaTanna went into kidney failure because of complications with lupus. Unable to keep her job, she had to forge a new path, and that’s when she decided to start teaching dance. It was a life saving moment.
“My whole life changed. I had stopped dancing, and it was affecting my mindset, and with lupus I was having a lot of pain.”
Teaching dance to her students helped JaTanna alleviate her pain and reconnect to herself.
“I might be teaching my students, but, in reality they’re helping me,” she shares.
“The kids push me, and push their families to learn more about their cultural heritage. I always tell my parents: You guys saved me, and there’s no thanks necessary. My biggest thing is keeping the kids involved and excited to learn more about their culture. The fact that they love it is a bonus.”
JaTanna has been on the waiting list for a kidney transplant for four years now, and should get one in the next year. And while it may open a new chapter in her life, one thing is certain: Dance will remain at the heart of everything she does.
Dancing for Those That Can’t
Today, JaTanna has grown her dance school to 20 students and added three teachers. She plans to eventually offer digital dance classes as well.
One of the mottos of Kanohesgi Storyteller Dancers is to dance for those who can’t.
“We dance for those who cannot dance, for the sick, for the elderly, and for the disabled.”
As for COVID-19 shutting down powwows across the nation, JaTanna offers this bit of advice:
“I would say to those stuck at home and wanting to go to one, that ‘Life is a Powwow’. Wherever you are, just dance! Dance your heart out!”