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American Indian Dancing Exhibition

Image of Native American DancingWe are pleased to announce our summer exhibition outside Special Collections & University Archives titled “American Indian Dancing: Ethnic Stereotypes, Community Resources, Living Traditions”.  What follows is the Curator’s Statement from Olson Fellow Gyorgy Toth who will shortly be finishing his two years with us as an indespensible part of the team as well as finishing his PhD in American Studies.

Curator’s Statement

A culmination of my training as a scholar and an archivist, this exhibition aims to showcase items from the holdings of our Special Collections and University Archives related to American Indian dancing. This topic cannot be separated from the longer history of Euro-American and Native American relations, which includes trade, mutual cultural influences, violence, material and cultural dispossession, resistance, and revitalization.

The Native Peoples of the Americas had used music and dancing in their communities for social functions, cultural expression, and spiritual events for thousands of years before Europeans ever landed on their shores. Yet the rest of the world learned the meanings of American Indian dancing largely through European eyes, and with European biases. Our collections are especially rich in items that illustrate how Euro-American explorers, scientists, artists and cultural entrepreneurs imagined, depicted and understood American Indian dancing. Our Harvey Ingham Collection contains a great number of accounts about American Indians ranging from the scientific to the popular, the lurid, and the sensational. The Redpath Chautauqua Collection’s wealth of talent brochures yielded many examples of how Euro-Americans impersonated Indians, and how some Native Americans advocated for their nations, as they educated and entertained primarily white middle class audiences in the late 19th and early 20th century. Dr. Betsy Loyd Harvey graciously lent her expertise to our installation on ‘playing Indian’ on the Chautauqua circuit.

Even as Euro-Americans appropriated some of their culture to define Americanness, Indians never stopped using music and dancing for their own purposes. To provide a corrective to the many Euro-American images of American Indian dancing, I turned to our collections of Native American-produced materials. From the Records of the Latino-Native American Cultural Center and other University Archives collections emerged items that powerfully link our own university’s history to the larger Native American revival of the post-World War Two period. Foremost among them are items produced by the UI’s American Indian Student Association for their annual powwow. Please support this cultural festival by donating to The American Indian Student Association, The University of Iowa, 308 Melrose Avenue, Iowa City, Iowa  52246 Fax: 319-335-2245 Email: I am especially thankful to Christine Nobiss for lending her beautiful powwow artwork to decorate this exhibition.

Like the origins of the powwow, the meanings of American Indian dancing are many-layered. In them, Euro-American biases like fascination, good will, business and cultural exploitation, masquerading, tribute and scientific interest are intermixed with Native agendas and motivations that include cultural revival, resistance to domination, profit ventures, and social and spiritual functions. Instead of judging just one aspect, we need to be aware of how these meanings are all intertwined in any image or performance of Indian dancing. Only this way can we truly appreciate the history and enduring vitality of American Indian dancing.


Gyorgy “George” Toth –


PhD Candidate, American Studies

Robert A. Olson Fellow, Special Collections and University Archives

The University of Iowa


The exhibition is on display anytime the Main Library is open in the third floor corridor outside Special Collections & University Archives and will be on display through early September