Meskwaki filmmaker explores the Shawnee dance: Rediscovering Tecumseh’s vision

By Arigon Starr
News From Indian Country 1-09

Tecumseh, the legendary Shawnee leader, advocated unity among all Indian people. His dream was to create a coalition of tribes to form one unstoppable force. He worked to realize his goal by visiting as many Indian communities as he could, spreading his message with fiery speeches and traditional song and dance.

Filmmaker Conrad Brown hopes to help realize Tecumseh’s vision with a powerful new documentary, “The Shawnee Dance (Tecumseh’s Legacy).” Currently in pre-production, Brown hopes to gather as many Native nations as possible at the upcoming 95th Annual Meskwaki Indian Pow-Wow held at the Tama, Iowa, Meskwaki Nation Settlement from August 6-9, 2009.

“Tecumseh was a great man. His life was cut short, he died at forty-five, two years younger than I am now. It amazes me, the amount of travel he did and in those times. There were no cars, he did it by horse all over this country. One month he’d be here, then he’d pop up there, always trying to unite. To defeat the United States was his goal, to save his homelands. He is one of my historical heroes,” Brown enthused. “If I was alive back then, I would have followed him anywhere. He’s the man.”

Brown’s documentary will focus on the Shawnee Dance, a little known legacy the great traveling Chief of the Shawnee Tribe left behind almost two hundred years ago. “The dance was taught to the Sac and Fox and the Kickapoo tribes by Tecumseh when he traveled amongst them as he tried to form an alliance of Native tribes,” said Brown.  “The dance is unknown today to the relatives and descendents of the Great Chief, yet, it is a much beloved dance to the tribes fortunate enough to have received instruction. These tribes suffered hardships of warfare, disease, Christian attempts at conversion and the forced removal from their homelands. Despite this fact, the dance survived. As a result of time, the dance has evolved into a social dance for the Sac and Fox. The Kickapoo retained the dance in its original form – a religious dance.”

Brown is a member of the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa/ Meskwaki. His Indian name is Qwa skwa mi and he’s a member of the Fish Clan. He’s also a traditional singer with a great love of the music he heard in his youth.

His transformational journey from traditional drummer/singer to filmmaker began in a humble, humorous way. “I have to laugh because the thing that got me to thinking about this project is I started selling corndogs at our Pow-Wow,” smiled Brown. The once plentiful crowds at the annual Meskwaki Pow-Wow had dwindled and all the vendors felt the economic pinch. “I started thinking about how to increase our attendance and I was working with the songs. Then, it just hit me.” 


Conrad Brown grew up within his tribal community and has fond memories of his grandmother. “My grandmother and all my old aunts would go and dance the Shawnee Dance once a year during our Harvest Festival. Sometimes they would dance it at a small gathering in our tribal gym. I used to sit there and watch as they danced it hard, laughing and singing along. During the year, she would sing the songs over and over again. I would listen but really never tried to catch them. After she was gone, I heard the songs and thought of her, heard her voice. She was a good singer,” Brown recalled.

Brown’s memories and respect for tradition propelled him to uncover the origins of the Shawnee Dance. “My Grandmother’s stories got me motivated to start doing research on how this dance got here. I read everything I could get a hold of on the internet, Jesuit manuscripts and such. It consumed me,” Brown stated.

His enthusiasm evolved into solid research and the impetus to turn his knowledge into a documentary. “My ultimate hope is to have this documentary aired for a couple million viewers to let them know that there is history beyond what is taught in school, not found in school books. This is history you find at home and amongst your elders.” Brown has advice to young, aspiring Native filmmakers. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your elders. Ask while they are still here, because when they are gone, that’s another piece of our oral history that disappears forever that you can’t get back. Ask now and retain that knowledge. Teach your children this knowledge. Pass it on. It’s our duty for the generations to come.”

Brown has also been assisted by scholars Professor Steve Warren from Augustana College, Professor Colin Calloway from Dartmouth College and Professor R. David Edmunds from the University of Texas. Also supporting the documentary is the First Nations Composer Initiative, who recently awarded a production grant to Brown. The group will also be on hand to film their own documentary about Brown’s project.

Brown plans to have a film crew on site for the upcoming Meskwaki Pow-Wow in August. He hopes that Tribal Elder groups will encourage their leadership to arrange for bus tours to Tama, Iowa, to be part of the celebration.

“I want every Native Nation that Tecumseh tried to unite in his alliance to be here,” Brown said. “In this way, at least for one weekend, these Algonquin tribes can fulfill his vision of unity. I wish to complete his quest. If we can take one weekend and become united again and renew old alliances maybe it will send the people a message. This Shawnee Dance has the potential to unite. The dance is that powerful.”

For More Information:

The 95th Annual Meskwaki Indian

Pow-Wow. Tama, Iowa, Meskwaki

Nation Settlement – August 6-9, 2009

Meskwaki Casino Hotel

1-800-728-GAME extension 2000

Conrad Brown

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