The Mountain Times
by Derek Halsey
Long before Christopher Columbus sailed west with the intent of finding a more direct route to India for reasons of commerce, the human species had already found its way to what is now known as the North American and South American continents. Columbus had no idea that two massive land masses existed in between Europe and South Asia, yet when he did arrive, he found that the lands had already been discovered and settled by the Original Tribes.
What we know now is that human beings migrated to the two continents 20,000 to possibly 40,000 or more years before the rest of the world knew they existed. Amazingly, the two continents had been free of the human species for millions of years, containing dinosaurs and other ancient species over 63 million years ago and hosting the unique animals of the last Ice Age that were still alive when the migrants arrived. Once here, the new arrivals travelled throughout the landscape and eventually split into separate tribes.
One of the biggest tribes that exists here in modern day U.S. is the Cherokee Tribe, whose eastern band is headquartered in Western North Carolina, with the western band found in Oklahoma due to the the ill-fated and forced Trail of Years march.
The biggest Original Tribe located in the U.S., however, is the Navajo People with their Navaho Nation. A big part of the Navajo tradition is the art of dancing. Those dances, which have evolved over thousands of years, represent the organic evolution of art in the New World and they are used to tell ancient stories, to honor the spiritual leaders and ancestors of the tribe that have left this world and moved onto the next realm, and to celebrate nature as an integral part of their existence.
Kenneth Shirley grew up on the Navajo Nation reservation in Arizona and at a very young age, he became enamored with the dances of his people. Now, as an adult, Shirley has created a troupe of performers who present the dances of the Original Tribes in a wonderful show that uses video and music to accompany the live, full-costumed performances.
Called Indigenous Enterprise — Indigenous Liberation, Shirley and his team of intertribal dancers will perform at the Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, November 16, at 7 p.m. Tickets for the performance are $28 for the general public, $23 for residents of Watauga, Ashe and Avery Counties, and $10 for all students.
If you buy your tickets online at theshcaefercenter.org and use the code word “BOGO,” you can now buy one ticket and get another one free.
The official description of the Indigenous Enterprise — Indigenous Liberation show says that the performance, “showcases traditional dance with dazzling regalia and a contemporary flair, with the group presenting a range of powwow styles, from fancy dance to jingle dress dance, as they bring their rich cultural heritage to life with this dynamic performance of dance and song.”
As the Mountain Times interviews Shirley about his upcoming Indigenous Enterprise show here in the High Country, he and his dance mates have just performed in New York City. Over the years, the troupe has performed at the Super Bowl, at Lincoln Center, and overseas at venues such as the Sydney Opera House in Australia.
While calling upon the ancient tribal traditions, the group also seeks to move the art form forward with new ideas, apparel and music. Shirley is not only a dancer, he is also a filmmaker and he brings that skill to the Indigenous Enterprise shows by combining original video and music that the live dancers perform along with as the story is told.
Shirley achieved a Bachelor of Arts degree at Arizona State University in 2018, and since then he has collaborated with Mickey Free, the Black Eyed Peas and more creatives.
Other members of the Indigenous Enterprise troupe include Ty Lodgepole, a champion prairie chicken dancer of the Diné Tribe (which is a traditional name of the Navajo Tribe), Acosia Redelek, a champion jingle dress dancer of the Umitila Tribe, Jorge Gonzales, who is a champion hoop dancer from the Salt River Pima Tribe, Dominic Pablo, who is a championship fancy dancer from the Navajo Nation, and Freddy Gipp, a champion grass dancer from the Apache Tribe in Oklahoma.
“I grew up in the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona,” said Shirley. “Life there was awesome. That is where the majority of my family lives, so we got to grow up close to my cousins and other relatives. I started dancing when I was young because my Mom was into it. She introduced me to the PowWow Circle when I was about two years old. I just kept at it and fell in love with it when I got older. I always wanted to dance and travel, and now that is that we do.”
There are Original Tribe PowWows held almost every weekend in various parts of the country, which enabled Shirley to hone his tribal dance skills as a young man. All of that led to him starting and owning the Indigenous Enterprise company, which provided a newfound ability to bring the traditions of his people to the rest of the world with a modern flare.
“I started putting on shows at community colleges and elementary schools in Pheonix, and from there, we went on to perform at various festivals in Arizona,” said Shirley. “Then, we got hit up by Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas to do a video, and then we worked with the Sydney Opera House. The video with Taboo was seen by the “World of Dance” TV show on NBC that featured Jennifer Lopez and we competed on that program. We also performed during the Presidential Inauguration for President Biden in 2021. From there, we have performed in all kinds of different places, and now we get to come to North Carolina.”
Shirley is excited to share his vision with the folks in Boone.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect it to get this big,” said Shirley. “As a filmmaker, I decided to make some animation to go with the dancing that portrayed the Origin Stories of each dance, andthat has worked out for us. It requires a lot of organization and working as a team, but I am used to it at this point, and it all feels good. I appreciate places like Appalachian State University and venues like the Schaefer Center for helping us to share our story, and I appreciate being able to go to places like the mountains of North Carolina.”