Dances with dreams

Warm Springs tribal member follows the dreams of her mother and great-grandmother in honoring her heritage.

Donetta Squiemphen points to fish in the spawning and acclimatizing ponds at the Parkdale Fish Facility and explains the salmon and steelhead recovery project she works for called the Hood River Fisheries Project.

"We bring in the smolts from the Deschutes, acclimatize them here and then release them in the west fork, the east fork and the middle fork of the Hood River," she says. A black Nike hat with a swoosh on front is pulled snugly over her head, two long black braids trailing down from each side.

The fisheries project is co-managed by the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs and the state in an effort to increase regional fish populations. Donetta is one of three Warm Springs tribal members who work on the two-year-old project. She spends most of her days in the field, visiting observation areas -- mostly on Hood River's west fork -- where she monitors the comeback rates and the locations where the fish are spawning.

"We get an idea of how many wild fish are going to be in the system," she says.

Donetta likes her work with the fish, but is much more eager to talk about her real passion: dancing.

Donetta is no ordinary dancer. For much of the 1990s she held championship and world titles as a Fancy Shawl dancer, one of a handful of women's dance categories at Native American powwows.

The Fancy Shawl Dance is said to be the most exhilarating of Native dances due to its quick, intricate movements and colorful regalia which gives the dance its name.

"The fancier you get, the better," Donetta says. "You want to catch the judge's eye." Fancy Shawl dancing evolved in the 1960s as young Native women sought a more contemporary approach to traditional dance.

"Now it's huge -- everyone wants to do it," Donetta says. "Fancy Shawl is freestyle. You can go out and dance how you feel."

Donetta grew up on the Warm Springs Reservation and got her start in dancing early. Her given Indian name is "Backward Dancing Woman," and she began dancing in the "tiny tot" category before she was 5 years old under the tutelage of her mother and great-grandmother.

It was under the guidance of the latter that Donetta was introduced to her other passion: beadwork.

"I used to sit down and sort beads for my great-grandmother because she was colorblind," Donetta says. As she sorted and watched her great-grandmother create colorful pieces from moccasins to bags to jewelry, she absorbed this timeless craft of her ancestors and became adept at making her own beaded moccasins, bags and jewelry, as well as at sewing in general.

Then when she was 12, tragedy struck. Donetta's mother died and she went to live with a foster family on the reservation. Fortunately, the Charles Tailfeathers family was very involved in the powwow circuit and Donetta began traveling with them to tribal powwows across the U.S. and Canada.

"They got me into competitive dancing," she says of her foster parents. She quickly began placing in most of her competitions in the Fancy Shawl category.

As soon as she graduated from high school in 1987, Donetta joined the American Indian Dance Theatre based in New York City, where she was one of 20 dancers who toured throughout the U.S. and Canada performing as a troupe.

For the next decade she performed with a number of dance troupes, traveling to Europe, China and all across North America. She danced for Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and Princess Diana at an event in Saskatchewan, and later in the opening ceremonies of the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia.

She settled in Saskatchewan -- "powwow country," as she calls it -- where she married and had three children. There, she melded her love for dancing and beadwork into a business, sewing and creating beadwork for Native regalia -- much of it for powwow dance competitors.

"A lot of my stuff is still up in Canada," she says.

Donetta divorced and moved back to the Warm Springs in the late '90s and married Thurman Squiemphen, a Yakama Indian who grew up on the Warm Springs Reservation. Thurman is assistant manager of the Parkdale Fish Facility.

With three school-age children -- her oldest daughter is 14, the youngest, 9, and she and Thurman also care for a 5-year-old niece -- powwows have become a summertime activity. But even now, she is gearing up for the upcoming season which begins in May.

"We travel every weekend to a different powwow," Donetta says. She continues to make all her regalia and that of her kids -- and she's teaching her children to bead.

"I'm teaching my girls and my son -- he's right in there, too," she says. And though dancing and beadwork have become more of hobbies to Donetta with the growing demands of family and work, she's still recognized as one of the best.

Last winter, Donetta was recruited by famed Native American musician and composer Robert Mirabal to perform for a PBS special taped at the Foxwoods Casino and Resort in Mashantucket, Conn.

Donetta and a dozen other dancers rehearsed and performed nightly for two weeks before the hour-long PBS special, "Music From a Painted Cave," was taped.

"It was hours and hours of rehearsals," Donetta says. "The dancing comes naturally but the timing is what we had to practice." Donetta is featured prominently throughout the special -- wearing regalia she made -- as it ranges from Mirabal's lyrical stories of growing up on a reservation in Taos, N.M., to both lively and haunting songs and dances.

The special was aired last year on public broadcasting stations around the country, and is scheduled to air again some time in the upcoming months on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

"They got so many requests by viewers that they decided to air it again," says Donetta, who is the only Native dancer from the West Coast on the show.

In the meantime, Donetta has a lot of work to do to prepare for the first powwows of the season.

"It's time to start repairing," she says, pulling a pair of worn-out moccasins from a box where they've been stored all winter. The anticipation -- for the beadwork, for the sewing and especially for the dancing -- shows in her brown eyes.

"It's a way to represent my heritage," she says. "It first began as a dream of my mother and grandmother, and I did it mainly to fulfill my mother's dreams after she died. But it ended up being a passion."

"Music From a Painted Cave" on video and DVD is available at

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