MISSION — Acosia Red Elk of Mission has had a busy year, and it looks to stay that way.
Not that last year was slow. Red Elk participated in the “We Are the Land” public art project in Portland. Her mural-sized portrait graces a wall at Oregon Museum of Science and industry.
“It was a larger than life art exhibit that wheat-pasted photos of Native peoples all over the city of Portland, with the majority being at OMSI,” she said. “It was about visibility and reclaiming spaces. Art sends powerful messages. Visual art is like a tattoo in our minds.”
She recently returned home from performing at the Super Bowl, followed by snowboarding in Colorado. She departed for Alaska to teach snowboarding Thursday, March 16.
Umatilla tribal member Red Elk has won the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow jingle dance competition in Albuquerque, New Mexico, nine times — seven of the championships were consecutive.
“I won in 2022,” she said. “I’m the reigning world champion at 43. Many entrants were 18. I’m also the reigning champion of the National Finals Pow Wow, held in Las Vegas in conjunction with the National Finals Rodeo in 2016, because it hasn’t been held again since then.”
Red Elk joined Phoenix-based Indigenous Enterprise, an intertribal, six-member collective of champion pow wow dancers, who also design clothing and make films based in Phoenix. She is its oldest member, only woman and non-Arizonan or New Mexican.
The Indigenous Enterprise troupe travels consistently, performing at respected venues around the country and world, including in November and December 2019 at the Sydney Opera House and a residency in December 2021 at The Joyce Theater in Manhatten.
Phoenix honors Native peoples at all sports events, Red Elk said to explain her troupe’s invitation to dance at the Super Bowl.
“They always have Indigenous Enterprise perform at Phoenix Suns basketball games, too, and are familiar with us,” she said. “It’s also because we put ourselves out there, and are getting a lot of attention from all over the world.”
The NFL hired a Los Angeles company to organize the entertainment, Red Elk said.
“They collaborated with Phoenix to make it unique and to honor the tribes,” she said. “The NFL is also in talks with Kansas tribes to change the name of the Kansas City Chiefs.”
Indigenous Enterprise danced at the opening night of Super Bowl week, Feb. 6, at the Footprint Center, Phoenix.
“We got to perform at the opening, and we met both teams backstage,” Red Elk said. “It was the only night both teams were in the same building all week ’til that Sunday. Swoop, the Eagles’ mascot, came and hung out with us for about 10 minutes, and danced with us, took photos with us, looked at our regalia and our feathers.”
The troupe performed three times on Sunday, Feb. 12, before Super Bowl LVII. Members had opportunities to speak during the week.
“I spoke about the harms of the Chiefs’ logo and name and the tomahawk chop,” Red Elk said. “And that we were there to showcase authentic Native American culture to expand awareness and consciousness about Indigenous peoples of this continent. We represented all Native peoples from across Turtle Island, (that is) North America.”
Early traumas, tough times
Red Elk’s parents owned an auto body business. At 6 years of age, she caught on fire. The back of her body was so badly burnt, she spent three months in Portland’s Legacy Oregon Burn Center.
Red Elk’s father died on her ninth birthday of complications from alcoholism.
Growing up on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, she said, you had to be tough
“Especially as a half breed. I was a rebellious kid,” she said.
Red Elk discovered dance as a young teenager. It was therapeutic for her physical and emotional wounds. She watched videos to teach herself jingle dancing. Her first jingle dress was a Christmas gift from her sister.
Red Elk began dancing professionally in 1998 with her then-husband, Paris Leighton, of Lapwai, Idaho, attending up to 50 pow wows annually. She won her first national championship in 2003.
“I often don’t sew my jingle dress until the last minute,” she said. “I’m a master procrastinator.”
Red Elk attributes her success to her relationship with dance.
“I enter into a trance when I dance,” she said. “It is meditation in motion. That’s where the sweet spot is for me.”
Red Elk has been competing since 1998 and teaching pow wow dance since 2006.
“You build a relationship with your dance, your style through the years, and it becomes your signature,” she said. “But it’s always changing and evolving. I hear mathematics within the songs, the drumbeat. It brings out the creativity in me. The footwork, the transitions, the flow state. It’s all a collaboration with the drumbeat and the tones of the voices.”
While competing at pow wows around North America, Red Elk discovered another activity, yoga.
“It’s a tool for healing inner scars,” she said.
Throughout years of practice, aspects of yoga influenced Red Elk’s philosophy, as had dancing and the worldview of her indigenous people. She combined dancing with yoga to create a new discipline, pow wow yoga.
“I have traveled to Germany and Switzerland five times now to teach yoga and share my story,” Red Elk said. “I am also a UNICEF representative in Germany, as well as many other countries.”
Red Elk embraces Seven Generation philosophy, originating with the Iroquois Nation, as do tribes across the country.
“I have adapted it into the way I teach wellness classes,” she said.
Red Elk said hopes to open a pow wow yoga, fitness and wellness studio in Pendleton this year.
“We are raising money right now,” she said. Once we get enough, we will secure a place and begin remodeling. We envision being open by September.”
Red Elk also has collaborated with musicians.
“I was featured in a ‘Portugal. The Man’ music video in 2018 with Weird Al Yankovic,” she said. “The song is called, ‘Who’s Gonna Stop Me?’ It was a big deal.”
Portugal. The Man is a rock band from Wasilla, Alaska, now based in Portland.
“I have performed in Norway with Martine Kraft, who is famous for playing traditional Norwegian violin,” Red Elk said.
The Hardanger fiddle is the Norwegian national instrument. Kraft has released five albums of her compositions for it.
Red Elk is teaching snowboard clinics in Alaska from March 17-27 with young Han Gwich’in-Lakota activist and model Quannah Chasinghorse and Han Gwich’in police sergeant, sled dog musher and triathlete Jody Potts. Both women grew up in Eagle Village, Alaska.
“A Reflection of Life,” a documentary movie she narrated and co-produced with Unlocked Films and World Muse, is set to premiere April 20 at the Tower Theater in Bend.
The Indigenous Enterprise troupe plans to perform in Seattle and Fairfax, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. in April. Red Elk has to skip Seattle for the movie premier.
Red Elk decided not to defend her Gathering of Nations title this year because her troupe was invited to perform in D.C. the same week.
Indigenous Enterprise plans to travel to Dubai this fall. The troupe signed to perform on Feb. 11, 2024, at Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas.
“We are getting into film and music now and have major upcoming projects,” Red Elk said. “We also have a secret project coming up with Universal Pictures.”
Red Elk has a small part in an upcoming streaming video series for Marvel Studios and Disney+.
“I was also in the new Marvel streaming series,” Red Elk said. “It is called Echo. I played an Ancestor. It’s about a Choctaw Marvel character. It has all Native cast, directors and producers.”
The series was scheduled to commence in mid-2023, but Disney+ and Marvel Studios delayed its release.
Jingle dancing originated in the early 20th century in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario among the Ojibwe people. Its regalia is a jingle dress embellished with metallic adornments which make music during movement. Like the men’s grass dance, women’s jingle dance is to promote healing. It grew during the 1918 influenza epidemic, then spread west.
“I am not retiring,” Red Elk said. “Never. I love my work and I am committed to it. I am not fixated on winning titles anymore, but I still go to pow wows and compete a couple times a year when I have free time. There are a lot of incredible up and coming dancers who are vying for that title, and it’s not mine to keep.”