Emma Pohipe Dann

Emma became a national and world-traveler, promoting her culture to both Indian and Non-Indian

Spiritual Grandmother of Our Modern-Day Dance

Emma Pohipe Dann can rightly be called the spiritual Grandmother of our modern day Dance. It was through her visions and urgings that she supported Clyde Hall and Dan Blanchard to rebirth the Ceremony as we know it today. Up until 1990, with one exception in 1974, the Dance had not been formally conducted by anyone for close to 50 years, and was in peril of slipping quietly into the history books with the eminent passing of those who still remembered the ancient songs, including herself.

About Emma

Emma Pohipe Dann, a direct descendent of the last Lemhi Chief Tendoy, was born November 10, 1919 in Gibson, ID. She grew up on the rez in a small cabin with her mother who made buckskin gloves that sold for 25 cents a pair back then. They didn’t have much money, so Emma would tie sagebrush together to make her own dolls. At 13 she travelled to Salem, OR, to attend the Chemawa Indian School, taking her treasured possession— a symbolic eagle feather with two pieces of beading about three feet long. As a young women back in Idaho she and other Indian young people would travel to the river crossing where a farmer would meet them and take them to work picking potatoes.

From such a modest beginning Emma wholeheartedly embraced her often-difficult life to become acknowledged later in life as a Tribal Elder, known and respected as a traditionalist of the Shoshone Tribe. In her time she was a recognized spokeswoman for the Lemhi Tribe, and a national authority concerning her knowledge of ethno-botany and the traditions of the Intemountain/Plateau Tribes. She was a world-class beader using patterns given to her from her mother and grandmother.

She became a national and world-traveler, presenting many lectures concerning the status of her tribe and the Shoshone Tribe, promoting her culture to both Indian and Non-Indian audiences for decades. In 1973 Mrs. Dann traveled throughout Europe under the sponsorship of the World Festival of Theatrical Arts, Nancy, France. In 1987 and 1989 she was in attendance at the Prayer for World Peace as spiritual elder and advisor under the sponsorship of The People To People, Heart to Heart Program in Quito, Ecuador.

Stories of Emma

Clyde has always referred to her as Auntie Em, even though she was not really an Aunt by birth. Emma was a distant relative and they both were from the same Lemhi Shoshone tribe. One of Emma’s daughters, Ellen, was in one of Clyde’s high school classes. He always saw Emma around, but was afraid to speak more than a few words to her because Emma had a reputation for being mean in some people’s eyes, but she was probably just outspoken.

Clyde at 19 was involved with an Indian Club— one of the first native-ethnic clubs ever— at Idaho State University in the early 50’s. One of the people who came to support the club was Emma Dann. Clyde recalls: “I remember the first time I ever really got to know her; we were setting up a tepee, and none of us had any experience before. We’d seen them, been in them, but the mechanics of putting one together was something that most of us had never done. Emma knew how to put up a Shoshone Tepee with 21 poles, so she brought her tepee. We had a big lawn out back of the high school, and she said: ‘I’m going to show you kids this once how to put this tepee up, and then you’re going to have to do it.’ So she showed us how to measure the poles and how to tie it and everything. We watched her put it up, and then she took it down. Now she said, ‘you’re going to do it.’ We monkeyed around with all the poles, and we put that tepee up while she was helping us. It wasn’t like she was there laughing at us— she was quite helpful. I think we put that thing up about 15 times before we got it right, but we learned how to do it. So that was my first experience with Emma Dann.”

What impressed Clyde most about Emma was how open she was with people. As a young woman Emma worked at the Challenger Inn, a ski resort in Sun Valley, Idaho, then owned by the Union Pacific Railroad. It was the place to go in the wintertime for skiing, and was a hotspot for movie stars. Emma worked for a number of seasons at a Saks Fifth Avenue store which had a shop at Challenger Inn. She used to do custom beadwork on women’s dresses and collars. She was friends with the Hemingway’s (as in Mary & Ernest Hemingway), having breakfast with them some mornings. She also knew many of the old-time movie stars on a first-name basis, and they’d give her things.

Emma was a traditionalist, but she was also a world-wise woman. When she wasn’t working at the Challenger Inn she took care of her great uncle, Andrew Honena who was 16 years old at Custer’s Last Stand. Now he was an old man, under Emma’s care. With Clyde’s growing interest in Indian things, he would go down and do interviews with Andrew, and talk to Emma too. Clyde wasn’t quite sure why Emma took a liking to him, but their friendship lasted for the rest of Emma’s life on this earth and beyond.

Over time Emma took Clyde under her wing, and they began traveling together around the country and around the world to over 14 countries. His first introduction to the Dance was when they toured Europe with a dance troupe Clyde had put together. Clyde remembers: “In one of the segments of the dance performance we did a little demonstration of our Dance. On tour she sang the Mountain Butterfly song and the White Ash Cliffs song, giving a little talk about them. The Mountain Butterfly song was one of her favorites.” Privately she told Clyde how she used to dance the Naraya as a young girl.

The Rebirth of the Dance

It was Emma who introduced Clyde to the Shoshone elders who knew the songs and had danced the dance of legend up until around the time of Clyde’s birth in ’51. In the summer of 1974 the Shoshone elders danced the Naraya one more time for the benefit of the Shoshone young men and women, including Clyde. They said that they would teach them the old songs and what went on, but that it was the ending of a cycle. Clyde says: “They told us that if we wanted to carry the Ceremony on, then it was up to us, that it was in our hands.”

Many years later, Emma began to take Dan Blanchard aside to teach him some of the old songs of the Dance. Says Dan: “She wanted to make sure that these songs stayed alive. It was very important to her. She use to tell me that as a young girl she would be under the skirts of her aunts or grandmother hearing those songs, but nowadays there weren’t many people who sing them anymore. And after watching us and watching what we do with the Long Dance, she felt it was time to teach some of these songs so they would survive.”

Clyde and Emma tried to kick-start the Dance at home in Ft. Hall, but there was too much division among the native people back home. Emma was a traditionalist, but she was viewed as eccentric in those days, back when it wasn’t fashionable to be known as traditional. The people disdained her says Clyde, they weren’t hearing what she had to say in the early 70’s when it was believed that the only way to survive was to let go of the old ways and learn how to fit in with modern culture. Forget about those old things folks would tell them. After awhile, Clyde realized that they would have to find a different location and a more receptive audience if the Dance was to survive.

The first attempt at reviving the Dance of legend was made in the winter of 1990 in Utah with the Long Dance led by the Aho Mitakoyasin group under the supervision of Charles Lawrence. Auntie Em was there, as well as Hopi Grandmother Carolyn Twangyawma, Musqueam Elders Vince & Edna Stogan, and Bear Boy LaRose of the Southern Ute Nation. The first Long Dance was danced as an observance of the 100th anniversary of the Sioux massacre at Wounded Knee, SD. They sang a set of four songs at that first Dance in the Wasatch Mountains. Dan remembers those rough-and-tumble early years when he was but 19 years of age, helping to put on four Dances a year with anywhere between 90-180 dancers. The Long Dance managed to thrive for several years until the small core group of leaders simply ran out of steam.

On their many trips together around the country and the world, Clyde & Auntie Em talked again about how the Dance needed to come out again. As it had certainly worked for the Aho group, they decided to make an inconceivable leap. They went on a scouting trip to New York City to meet with another group led by Charles Lawrence— the New York Council— to see if they would be open to putting on a Dance there. According to Clyde he made an offering to Charles and the group, they accepted, and the rest is history.

That winter Emma suffered a series of strokes which curtailed traveling from then on. She never was to make it to the first Dance in New York in 1991, even though it was a dream come true for her. After the first Dance at the unlikely venue of the Episcopalian Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine on the upper West Side of Manhattan, Clyde gave Emma a full report. Clyde remembers: “She was so happy. She clapped her hands, saying how glad she was, and how it made her heart sing.”

While she was able to witness from afar the growth of the Dance in New York and the miraculous birth of a second Dance in Maine in 1996, her health confined her to the reservation. Four months shy of her 80th birthday Emma passed to the other side camp on July 3, 1998 in Pocatello, Idaho.

In Memory

Nearly two-thirds of the songs we now sing at our Dance are songs that Clyde and Dan learned from Emma. She was this unique and very remarkable lady, born in a sagebrush arbor on the reservation, who didn’t even have a record of her own birth. Raised in a traditional manner, somehow she managed to survive the infamous native boarding schools back then. In spite of it all, she opened herself up to non-indian people, relishing the next big adventure. For all these reasons and many more, Emma Pohipe Dann’s picture now graces the ancestor altar at every Dance. We send bountiful prayers of gratitude to Emma, for she dances in her best beaded finery at the center of our Ceremony, and gratefully at the center of our hearts.

AUDIO INTERVIEW: Clyde Hall
AUDIO INTERVIEW: Dan Blanchard