EcoFest Hosts First Smoke Dance Competition, Draws Crowd

Irk Hopper of the Beaver Clan competed in the smoke dance competition Saturday (c) 2014 Gabriella Kreuz

Onondaga Nation dancer places runner up to cousin in smoke dance competition

Barbara Cooke explains why the meaning of social dancing transcends competition

By Gabriella Kreuz, Syracuse, N.Y. (NCC News) — Native American culture is captured beyond the street names in Central New York.  Members of the Iroquois nations those streets are named after, share their history and commitment to stewardship through powwows and festivals.

As part of the 2014 Stage of Nations Blue Rain EcoFest, over 100 dancers from within the Iriqouis Confederacy danced in Hanover Square Saturday.   Performers from all age groups showcased their favorite social dances accompanied by live singing.

At dusk, the festival featured its first “smoke-dance” competition.

Though there are many tales of how it originated, the Native American smoke dance refers to historical war dances that involved smoke in some form, whether it was billowing out of a fire pit or a pipe.  There was no actual smoke at the EcoFest’s competition, but the dancing did seem to spark the audience.

A large crowd gathered around the stage, clapping along with the tribal beats and whistling at contestants.  Youngsters, ignited by the energy, ran around simulating their own festive dance moves.

Director Irving Lyons said it was one of the largest crowd he’s seen since EcoFest started in 2009. Lyons says the experience is meant to encourage the community to share in the Iroqouis tradition.

“I think its osmosis,” Lyons said. “People come to this event and it’s a total immersion experience.”

Onondaga Nation dancer Barbara Cooke says she feels similarly.

“It’s just amazing, it’s just energy,” Cooke said.  “It’s like putting it out there, how I feel when I spin, the energy flows off my dress and into the people.”

28-year-old Cooke made it to the finals of her age group in the dance competition.  She and her competitor shared more than first and second place; they were family members. In tie-break fashion, Cooke fell runner-up to her cousin Keriann.  Cooke says just participating makes the experience a winning one because she enjoys the opportunity to educate the public.

“It’s my favorite,” says Cooke.  “Aside from the powwows and competing, telling people about who we are makes me feel the best. “

The Stage of Nations Blue Rain EcoFest is the largest in the northeast. Tables of homemade food, jewelry and clothing accompanied the dancing. As director of the festival, Lyons says he felt it was important for people to learn something about the place his ancestors held in history.

“This is the birthplace of Western democracy,” said Lyons. “I don’t think a lot of people know what our contributions are.”

The biggest contribution, Lyons says, being the fact that the U.S. Constitution was modeled after the Iroquois Confederacy.  He says he believes the Native American festivals, like EcoFest, provide that opportunity for the community to hear the voice of his people.

“It’s important for us that people know we’re here,” said Lyons. “We’re here in friendship, and respect for the environment.”

VIDEO: Dancers of all ages compete in smoke dance for cash and prizes