North American Indigenous Games

Perfecting the art of hoop dancing for the Indigenous Games

Whether it’s hoop dancing or shooting hoops, 15-year-old Ascension Harjo excels at both and during the 2017 North American Indigenous Games, he’ll get the opportunity to showcase both of his talents.

15-year-old Ascension Harjo learned to hoop dance at the age of 2

Ascension Harjo will be hoop dancing at the opening ceremony before lacing up his sneakers to compete in the basketball competition. (Photo courtesy Jennifer Martin)

Whether it's hoop dancing or shooting hoops, 15-year-old Ascension Harjo excels at both and during the 2017 North American Indigenous Games, he'll get the opportunity to showcase both of his talents.

Harjo will be hoop dancing at the opening ceremony before lacing up his sneakers to compete in the basketball competition.

"It means a lot to be part of an event that's been going on for so many years and has so much tradition," Harjo said.

A member of the Six Nations First Nation, Harjo learned both hoop dancing and basketball at a very young age. He was just two years old the first time he saw hoop dancing. That's when he was travelling with his mom and dad throughout France because his father, Adrian Harjo, was hoop dancing on a tour.

"Watching and being around this native culture and dancing, I just took after it and started dancing. I was hoop dancing. My dad showed me how to do everything."

A member of the Kickapoo and Seminole Nations, Adrian was born in Oklahoma and grew up in Kansas City. He remembers some of the first times Ascension was hoop dancing.

"To watch a two-year-old kid pick up hoops, just three of them, and he'd put one in his mouth and make designs all mimicking dad. The crowd went nuts. Let the Indian baby dance," Adrian said.

And Ascension has been dancing ever since that time. But while he was in the gymnasium watching his father dance and while he was practising, he was also honing other hoop skills.

"Whenever we'd take breaks we'd be playing basketball too," Ascension Harjo said.

Natural athlete

Harjo had the difficult decision of choosing between whether he wanted to compete with the basketball team at the Games or compete in track and field.

"I had to go with basketball," he said.

While he's been playing hoops for most of his life, Harjo has taken it to a different level since entering high school. He's a point guard and credits his hoop dancing for being able to stay in peak form on the court.

"In hoop dancing you're staying low for at least seven minutes depending on how long the routine is," explained Harjo. "That's a lot of cardio so it helps me stay on top of breathing and running."

(Photo courtesy Jennifer Martin)

And his father isn't ever too far away from being a coach both for hoops and hoop dancing.

"Sometimes he gets on me for certain things or moves I do wrong but after it really helps," he said. "He's always telling me to drive or shoot a three during basketball."

Adrian Harjo points out the original importance of the hoop dance.

"It was originally a healing dance perfected by tribes in the southwest," he said. "It's a very entertaining dance to watch. There are hoop dancers out there who will wow you with some of the things they can do."

Looking good is a part of the performance as well, and that's where Ascension Harjo's mother, Jennifer Martin, comes in.

"My mom she's a really big help too," Harjo said. "She makes a lot of my regalias and helps with me with my track and field. She basically makes it all work."

The family has a lot to be grateful for when it comes to hoops.

"I always tell Ascension if I never picked up those hoops I would never have never learned this dance and traveled the world," Adrian Harjo said. "And most importantly I would have never met your mother and that would mean you would not have been here."

Opening ceremony spotlight

Santee Smith is an award-winning choreographer from Six Nations of the Grand River tasked with designing the opening ceremony act for the North American Indigenous Games.

She said the performance weaves local creation stories with spiritual symbolism, incorporating traditional Pow-Wow styles and referencing some of NAIG's dearest sports: Smith employs kayak paddles, lacrosse sticks and archery bows as props.

Smith said she wanted the act to showcase Ontario's best young Indigenous talent.

"I keep a tab on what they're all doing," she said smiling. 

And that means is she's been keeping a close eye on Ascension Harjo over the years.

"What can I say? He's multi-talented. I've worked with him before on different productions so I know his passion for movement of all sorts," Smith said.

(Photo courtesy Jennifer Martin)

"He is very adaptable which is something else on its own. The way he knows how his body works is inspiring."

Both Smith and Harjo are from Six Nations, so working together on this project has been memorable and meaningful. Smith is also working alongside her daughter for this performance, Semiah Smith.

"It's personal because my family is involved. My daughter is dancing and singing. And I'm also connecting to other youth from Six Nations so it's a Nation bond," she said.

"To bring all of this together is pretty special."

The approval of Smith is something not lost on Harjo. 

"I'm very honoured to know that someone who has done what she's done thinks so highly of me," Harjo said.

Harjo will be performing Sunday in front of his mother and grandmother. His father won't be there however, because as show business goes, he's on tour hoop dancing in France.

"The message in the hoop dance is the circle of life," Harjo said.

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