Rumsen Ohlone Tribe
DANCE ORIGIN: Ohlone Territory, United States
To honor San Francisco’s original people, the Festival presents the Rumsen Ohlone Tribe’s Humaya (Hummingbird) Singers & Dancers. The dance presented evokes a time—tens of thousands of years—when the Ohlone lived sustainably in the Bay Area, in villages from San Francisco in the northwest to Big Sur in the south and Mt. Diablo in the east; when Bay Area rivers and bays overflowed with waterfowl and fish. As reflected in the dancers’ regalia, the Ohlone dressed in skins, woven tule, and ornamental shells. They built homes of tule rush and willow and developed artistic basket-weaving, and practiced dance as a powerful form of healing. For the Ohlone, dance is prayer, and prayer shapes community life. Sometimes the people dance in gratitude and sometimes as a request, sometimes overnight, and sometimes as part of four to nine-day ceremonies.
The Humaya Singers and Dancers of the Rumsen Ohlone Tribe maintain their cultural traditions and values by teaching the ways of dancing through ceremony. The tribe supports a thriving Ohlone cultural life including a song and dance group, and weekly sweat lodge healing ceremonies. The dances are performed at schools to teach multicultural issues and as powerful means of prayer and good health. Tribal chairman Tony Cerda says, “You’ve been taught that the Ohlone people no longer exist but we do and we take great pride in sharing our cultural traditions including dance with those around us.”
In the spirit of Ohlone oral tradition, the following descriptions of dances are from a conversation with Chief Tony Cerda:
“We start with the Star Child Song, a prayer to the universe and the Creator. Then an entrance song calls in dancers and spirits of our ancestors. The counterclockwise dance represents eternal life cycles, turning the clock back. We place abalone and sage in the center to cleanse the space and honor the spiraling center of the universe: this is where we dance.”
“The dancers move in concentric circles: inside is the natural world and outside is the spirit world. When we change to clockwise direction, this represents our natural life-cycles. We start in the east, the place of springtime, rebirth, and our birth; then we dance to the south, where things come closer to the earth, where everything grows; then to the west, the place of rain and harvest, where as adults we harvest our life; and then we dance to the top of the circle: with its white hair, earth is resting, as we elders are resting to prepare for a new birth.” “The first dance honors women, as the sacred givers of life. Then we dance the acorn dance, to honor trees for their food, shade, lumber, firewood and for acting as the lungs of Earth. Next, we dance a prayer to water, lifeblood of Mother Earth, nourishing life. We sing the ocean-water song, while dancers move like waves, and call our 12th generation great-grandfather Chanjay to join us.”
The dancers often perform the humaya hummingbird dance, the eagle dance, or the bear dance. In the eagle dance, masked dancers fly in and out of the life-cycle dance, carrying prayers between worlds. The eagle and hummingbird are also part of a creation story that includes Pico Blanco Mountain in the Ventana Mountains. The Rumsen Ohlone Tribe are Bear Medicine people, and the male dancers wear a bear claw around their necks, with a hole for the creator eye, to “see what’s going on”. As initiation into the Bear Clan, young men fast for four consecutive days, in four consecutive years. Tony Cerda’s grandson Henry Munoz dances today: he began his initiation cycle when he was twelve.
The dance regalia includes necklaces of olivella and abalone shells, and black and white markings for protection. Dancers carry baskets with medicine wheels representing the four directions. The feathers of turkey, quail, blue jay, and raven direct prayers up to the spirits. Wearing animal skins reflects a spiritual understanding: these regalia are literally the dancers’ ancestors joining them. San Francisco’s indigenous people are truly related to all local forms of life: they traditionally prayed to the spirits of animals and plants to feed their families, and promised in return to give their bodies also for food.