Philadelphia’s only professional Native American dance company, Native Nations Dance Theater (NNDT), travels the world performing for audiences who, before the shows begin, often aren’t aware that Indigenous people still exist in America.

“When I travel overseas, they think the cowboys and soldiers from the movies killed all of us,” said Pauline Songbird Hilton, who has been performing with the company since her daughter, Vaughnda Hilton, founded it in 1991. At the start of some performances, “I can tell from looking into the audiences that they didn’t know if we were going to come out with bows and arrows, starting to shoot.”

Raising awareness about Native history and culture was the impetus for creating the company 30 years ago. When Vaughnda Hilton’s son was in first grade at Samuel Powel School in West Philadelphia, his teacher asked if she would make a presentation for the class. Dressed in Native regalia, she taught the students about the Lenape people, the first inhabitants of the Philadelphia area, which they called Coaquannock, or Valley of the Pines.

Shortly after the presentation, the school asked her to do it again. “There was a need in schools for a firsthand look at history from our perspective,” she said. “There wasn’t anything like a Native American speakers’ bureau that I knew of on the East Coast, especially Philadelphia.”

As a lifelong Native dancer and a former professional dancer with Philadanco, Hilton decided the best way to share her culture — Seminole Creek from her mother’s side and Blackfeet from her father’s — would be through dance. To find members for the city’s first Native American dance company, she needed to look no further than her own family.

Hilton grew up learning Native cultural dances from her parents and grandparents, and she has passed down these traditions to her children and grandchildren. In the summers, her family travels to a different powwow nearly every weekend. At these celebratory gatherings for Native culture, they might dance eight to nine hours a day for up to five days in a row. Well-versed in a variety of social dances, they are also celebrated performers of specific categories.

Her mother specializes in the Eastern Women’s Blanket Dance, which tells stories about the stages of womanhood. Since it originates from the Narragansett, Shinnecock, and Wampanoag people, Pauline Hilton respectfully sought permission from them to perform their dance and subsequently placed during competitions at powwows — a rare feat for a dancer from a different tribe. Vaughnda Hilton’s son, Andrew Lyn, is skilled at the Grass Dance, which initially served the purpose of flattening the terrain into a danceable floor. In his youth, Lyn earned the title East Coast Junior Champion and became the model other parents filmed to teach their own children the moves. Now his sons are also champions in the category.

Drawing from family, as well as friends who are practically family, Vaughnda Hilton can construct casts as large or small as the opportunity demands. Today, the company spans four generations, with Pauline Hilton the oldest at 82 years old and her great-granddaughter the youngest at 4.

“NNDT is basically a manifestation of my family’s culture,” said Vaughnda Hilton’s nephew, Leon Wingate IV. “We are our company. If we’re not performing and traveling around the world to educate others, we’re going to powwows, dancing, and sharing stories for ourselves.”

Opening Native American Heritage Month at the Barnes

With no space to gather, let alone dance, NNDT was unable to tour, even virtually, through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But this month, which is Native American Heritage Month, they are continuing their programming around Philadelphia.

Their first performance will take place at the Barnes Foundation on Sunday, Nov. 7, as part of Peco Free First Sunday Family Day. This month’s free-admission day highlights the museum’s Southwest Native art through the theme of wings. It is part of the Barnes Foundation’s larger effort to catalog, expand, and exhibit this collection by February.

Representing the local Native community, NNDT will host two interactive presentations in the afternoon. These will include demonstrations of several social dances from powwows, performed in handmade regalia to live singing and drumming. Audiences will be invited to learn and join in on some of the dancing.

“This attention to Native dance is very much rooted in our institutional history,” said Cindy Kang, associate curator at the Barnes Foundation. “It was through experiencing a Pueblo Deer Dance in the Southwest that Dr. Barnes came to be passionate about and interested in the cultures and artwork of Southwest Native people.”

Later in the month, NNDT will resume its annual appearance at the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Because Thanksgiving is a time of mourning for Indigenous communities, “it seems a little awkward, but it’s actually not,” said Levy Flying Eagle Newell, the vice chief of the Southeastern Cherokee Confederacy of Pennsylvania and a member of NNDT. “It’s a way of educating people by saying, we’re still here. We’re just like everyone else. Some people think Native Americans live on reservations, but a lot of us live in the communities.”

Expanding worldwide

After her first presentations at her son’s elementary school, Vaughnda Hilton received calls from neighboring schools requesting the same lesson. Word of mouth led to new opportunities throughout the tristate area and, eventually, up and down the East Coast. “Then it got kicked up a notch,” she said.

In 2004, NNDT went on their first international trip: a two-week tour in Canada. Since then, United States embassies and government-funded grants have brought them to England, Greece, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Turkmenistan, the Caribbean, and Kosovo. They also performed at the first inauguration of President Barack Obama.

During their trip to England in 2006, they were on their way to perform for members of the British royal family at the Royal Norfolk Show when their van swerved to avoid an oncoming car, drove up an embankment, and flipped over.

“When the van turned over, you don’t know if you’re going to live or die,” said Pauline Hilton.

Vaughnda Hilton watched her mother crawl out of the van’s window dressed in regalia and was prepared for a trip to the hospital. But her mother, seeing that no one in the company was injured, insisted on calling another van. “If I’ve committed myself to do something, only sickness and death are going to stop me,” she said. “I was determined to complete the journey, so we did it.”

With this kind of resilience, it is no wonder that Pauline Hilton has played an instrumental role in the Indigenous Peoples Day movement in Philadelphia. Approximately 30 years ago, she took a trip to Harrisburg as one of the founding members of the original committee. Though the group was unsuccessful then, their work laid the foundation for future organizations. This year, when Indigenous Peoples Day finally became an official public holiday in Philadelphia, celebrated on the same day as Columbus Day, Hilton received a certificate from the city acknowledging the work she has done for the region’s Native community.

“We’re not trying to stop people from celebrating Columbus Day, if that’s what they choose to do,” said Hilton. “We just want recognition of our own ancestors and our own accomplishments.”

Progress may be slow, but NNDT is undeterred, with an enthusiastic vision for their future. “A goal I would like to see is for NNDT to have a facility where we can bring our culture to the people and the people can come to us for firsthand education,” said Vaughnda Hilton.

As NNDT works to raise awareness and dispel stereotypes around Native people, its dancers also serve the Native community by providing an outlet for their creative talents. “I’ve been given a gift because I’ve been able to show off my culture for all the ones before me who didn’t get a chance to,” said Wingate. “We’re just trying to make the world aware of who we are, where we come from, and that we’re still around.”

Native Nations Dance Theater will perform at the Barnes Foundation as part of Peco Free First Sunday Family Day: Wings on Sunday, Nov. 7, at 1 and 2:30 p.m. More info: barnesfoundation.org.