Lita Luke
Sharing Her Indigenous Culture Through Dance

Lita Luke shares her Indigenous culture in the Rochester community, in schools and at events, through dancing, music, clothing and sharing about Native American history. She grew up on the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota. Luke, who has Dakota and Navajo heritage, also attends and participates in powwows and other events throughout the Midwest.

Making her way to Rochester

After graduating from high school in Fort Totten, North Dakota, on the Spirit Lake Reservation, Luke attended Haskell Indian Community College in Lawrence, Kansas, for two years. She then attended Concordia University in Moorhead, Minnesota, followed by working at Spirit Lake Casino. Luke worked at the casino for six years and then moved to Minnesota in 2001 to get a degree in special education from Minnesota State University in Mankato.

Luke has taught special education in grades K–12 at a variety of public and charter schools in Rochester since 2005, when she and her family moved to the city.

Lita Luke looking back

Photography by LLC

Sharing her Indigenous culture in schools

Luke, currently a special education teacher and coordinator for grades K–8 at the Rochester Math and Science Academy, often shares about her heritage. “I share about Native American culture and have brought things to school that I have made. Often when I am wearing Native earrings or clothing, people ask me if I made it. Sometimes the answer is yes, which is a cool thing. When I share with them things about me, I am letting them know that they can share who they are and be proud of who they are. Most of them have always been very accepting and interested.”

“I like people to see Native American culture, and I’ve shown videos of dances and events in class too,” she says. “It’s important for the students to learn about other cultures.”

She has also danced at her kids’ schools in the past. “Anything I can do to help at schools and with learning—they’re more likely to remember it if they see it. Many of them have never even seen a jingle dress. I lead a round dance and invite the kids to dance with me, and they think it is fun.” 

Jingle dress dancing and music

Luke has been a jingle dress dancer for more than 30 years. Jingle dress dancing, explains Luke, requires a special jingle dress that has metal cones attached to it. The jingle dress, also called a healing dress, is originally from Ojibwe tribes. Other tribes have adopted it. “It’s a good workout,” she says. She explains there are a couple styles of jingle dress dances, including sidestep and the old-style dance. The contemporary version of jingle dress dancing is generally done with a group of dancers, she explains. “It is a very beautiful sight to see all the jingle dress dancers together in a circle. It’s a way of life. You never really forget how to dance.”      

“Music is a great way to bring people together,” reflects Luke. Traditionally, drums accompany the dances. “There’s a variety of songs for powwows. You can dance in jingle dress to most songs, but some songs are meant just for jingle dress dancers.” Luke also notes that sometimes there are songs in honor of people and for different occasions.     

Luke performs jingle dress dances at powwows across the Midwest, including North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. “I went to a lot with my kids over the years,” she remembers. All of Luke’s five kids also learned to dance. 

Powwows often include other categories of dances for women besides the jingle dress special, such as a fancy shawl and traditional dances. There are different dance styles for men as well. She explains that some other dances that are fun to watch are the step dance with a partner, a rabbit step and a crow hop, which is Luke’s favorite. And there’s a fun social dance called a potato dance, which is a dance that two people must do while keeping a potato between their foreheads without dropping it. Luke says her kids were good at the potato dance and even won free ice cream in a competition one year when it was especially hot out.

Powwows—a place to connect

Powwows, or “wacipi” in Dakota, are an important part of the Native American community and a good place to connect, shares Luke. As describes, they are “Native American gatherings that include singing, dancing, food, crafts and reconnecting with old friends. Powwows are a way for Native people to celebrate.”

  “It’s a fun place to be.” Luke explains the Native community gathers at powwows and celebrate their music and heritage, and people from several tribes attend. Powwows are mostly in the summer, but there are some winter powwows indoors. They often include vendors selling artwork and other items too.

Anyone can attend a powwow. “It’s ok if you don’t know anything about it,” she says, noting visitors are welcome. “The arena director tells people what is happening and what to do.” She also suggests, “There are food stands that people enjoy, and you just have to get an Indian taco.”

Sharing her culture around the city

Besides powwows, Luke has also performed jingle dress dances and participated at various cultural events in Rochester. “People know I’ve been dancing for years. I am sometimes invited to participate and help. That’s always something fun to do.”

In October 2023, she participated in an event at Assisi Heights called “The Land Acknowledgment Ceremony,” which was led by the Sisters of Saint Francis. As the Sisters of Saint Francis website describes, the ceremony was “to honor the sacred ground Assisi Heights is located on, the ancestral land of the Dakota and Ho-Chunk peoples. The ceremony included a special prayer, reflection and message of gratitude.”

Luke also attended and performed at an event for Indigenous People’s Day at the Peace Plaza in downtown Rochester in October 2023. Luke and her daughter performed a jingle dress dance at the event. “It’s a healing dance to move past any bad feelings,” she explains. “The Indigenous People’s Day event was to celebrate the contributions of Native American peoples. I wanted to celebrate the event and what better way than dancing in my jingle dress.” ::

About Author

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Alison is a writer and editor living in Rochester, Minnesota, with her two dogs and her cat.

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