Reflection on Dancer, Storyteller, and Cultural Interpreter, Lanny Pinola

By Patricia Bulitt

December 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Editor’s Note: Dancers’ Group strives to honor the diverse and rich legacy of all forms of dance. To continue this mission we are working with Berkeley-based dancer and dance ethnologist, Patricia Bulitt. Patricia has helped to bring unheard and unknown voices to the greater dance community through the Legacy Oral History Program as well as through her project “Our Neighbors Dance their Dances: A Celebration of World Dance.” This interview presents highlights from “Lanny Pinola: Renewing Native American Dance Traditions In The Bay Area,”which began on Aug 2, 1995 at Point Reyes National Seashore and was completed on Nov 10, 1995.

For reader clarification there are two interview voices in this piece, Patricia Bulitt as narrator and Patricia Bulitt as interviewer. When excerpting from the interview, Patricia honors the exact language of Lanny Pinola as it appears in transcription.

April 25, 1938 – April 21, 2003

We are sitting in Lanny Pinola’s kitchen. I remember the light of that afternoon dusting the hills with a brilliance belonging to the Pt. Reyes National Seashore, where Lanny’s old house, painted white, is situated. A bowl of salt-water taffy is fragrant and colorful on the kitchen table. A large window lets in sounds of passing birds, lets us gaze at land. Rising momentarily, he leaves empty handed to the back room, but returns with his clapper sticks.

LANNY: What I am holding in my hand is a piece of bamboo about fourteen inches long, and its split right down the center. And, right by the other end, where I have the handles or where I grip my hand, is a notch cut out in the bamboo. It makes the bamboo flexible. It also acts as a sound against the flatness of my left hand, the palm of my hand. It makes a clapping sound. Before the European contact, the same instrument was made out of elderberry wood, which is found all over this area.

Pinola was born April 25, 1938 at Stewart’s Point, California, he describes his homeland.

LANNY: Stewart’s Point is right on the coast, on Highway 1. It’s just four miles east of a place called Stewart’s Point—it’s a general store. People don’t really know where it is, but it’s south of Sea Ranch. The reservation is forty acres, a plot of land that is isolated on the top of a hill. And on top of the hill is an opening, or a plateau. I understand in 1930, the United States government purchased the land for the Kashia group of people, so it’s been in existence under the trust of the government for the Native Americans that once lived at Fort Ross, and they were displaced.

PATRICIA: Kashia is the name of the settlement. What does that mean?

LANNY: I’ve heard several definitions. One, it means “The gamblers.” The other one, it means also, “On top of the ridge.”

He explains an example of place-based identification for Native residents. The name of a particular people is drawn back to the land.

LANNY: You’d identify [the people] by a particular place, like Manchester, Lake Miwoks—or Lake Pomos, Big Valley…

PATRICIA: What might your first memory of dancing be?

LANNY: Well, it was part of my upbringing, it was part of my heritage. My desire was to be a dancer. I had no desire to sing.

PATRICIA: And how do you understand that desire in yourself, that calling, so to speak?

LANNY: It’s a feeling. It’s a feeling. To move my body to the rhythm of the songs and the clapper stick and the music. Okay, the first memory of probably learning the basic steps was when I was about four years old and I was at my grandma’s house. Nellie was her first name. Nellie was Native Californian. She used to love to sing. She knew all of the songs, the dance songs, so when I would come over as a four-year old, she would, after she’d cleaned up after dinner, we would sit in the front room and she would start singing and naturally, you know, she would say, “This is for you, and your dance.” So my Grandpa would kind of basically show me the steps, or the movements. And that’s what I remember in the beginning, my Grandpa and Grandma doing that for me.

Both grandparents participated in Lanny’s instruction to learn Native California dance. He describes fluidity in roles each would take. They took turns, he tells me.

LANNY: Grandma Nellie, she didn’t belong to our tribe. She came from up north, that’s all I know, and I don’t know where “north” means. She would sing first, or sometimes Grandpa would sing first. It all depended on the mood of that particular person. Sometimes Grandma was in an instructing mood, so Grandpa would sing.

However in the Round House, (the reservation’s ceremonial house) the direction of the activities were designed by the spiritual leader. Lanny expresses this dimension to native Californian life.

LANNY: She (tribal spiritual leader) would choose our singers, which are normally men, but she also sang. She had a beautiful, beautiful voice…. She was the spiritual leader. And her husband accompanied her a lot of times. He did most of the singing. The Native Americans call the land Grandma Earth, and its showing respect to the earth, how you dance on it, and dance with it, and with the rhythm of the music… Most of the California Indians do their dance barefooted so there is a connection.

Feather Dancing was Lanny’s first dance, which he names as “an entertaining dance.” This word connotes many kinds of images to my mind. I think now of the word “entertainment” and how that has influenced the language both in Native and non-Native worlds of dance. I’m curious what distinguishes this as an “entertaining dance”?

LANNY: I say entertaining because every dance has a spiritual significance, but this was also a dance that was uplifting to people who were in the building. So it was more of a jovial type of thing, you know, it wasn’t such a serious thing. She (my grandmother) would holler instructions at me from her position, where she sat. She would holler how to move my shoulders and my body and my head.

As an interviewer for dance, I often feel best asking the dancer to demonstrate with their body. In this case, Lanny went directly to that kind of illustration. He demonstrates how to move his shoulders and his head in such a way that his grandmother would be proud, I think.

PATRICIA: Can you say something about the transmission process of teaching of how it was actually done? Would you stand up with her? Would she stand up and show with her body?

LANNY: Okay, the way Grandma would teach is she would make you sit on the chair in front of her, and she’d stand in front of me and go through the motions, the movements. Then we would reverse places. Then, once you did that, then, she would want you to move your body and with the rhythm of the music, starting with your shoulders. As if to announce the beginning of the men’s Feather Dance: the foot is usually doing a beat stomp to the ground.

PATRICIA: Is the foot flat on the ground or is it a half-toe, or is it a combination?

LANNY: It’s a combination. It all depends on the style of the dancer.

PATRICIA: How would you describe the neck movement?

LANNY: When I teach it to somebody who’s never seen it before, or when I talk to people who are non-Native, and I’m describing the song, the movement really came from probably copying a small bird, like a little blackbird, robin, or that type. It depends on the dancer because you don’t—there are no set rules. When I teach dancing, I teach the basic concept of dance, and then let the dancer choose what he or she wants to do.

PATRICIA: Is there a different movement for the Feather Dance for the girl and for the boy?

LANNY: Okay, usually when you teach the male dancers, it’s like the movements of the animals, you copy the animals. The deer is probably the most graceful animal in the woods, and when he walks, it looks like he tiptoes, so you use that gracefulness as your foot movement, as you touch the ground. The movement of the head imitates the little bird as he looks around. That is for the male dancer. There is no head movements with the women, like the males.

Pinola describes the placement of the arms as being in front of the body with hands moving up and down. Lanny shows me with his body. What is the relationship between the woman’s arm movements going up and down and the clapper sticks? Lanny considers his answer and replies in a simple and graceful manner.

LANNY: Probably the beat is the same.

PATRICIA: Does one always start with the right or always start with the left arm, or doesn’t it matter?

LANNY: It doesn’t matter.

And lastly, we discuss the use of ribbons on the women’s dresses.

LANNY: Ribbon plays a very important part of the design for their (women) dress. The ribbon is only decorative. It has no spiritual meaning to it. In the old days the ribbons would have a spiritual connotation with it, but because we take this out in to the public, we don’t do the spiritual content of it. Also, as part of the women’s dance, there’s a hoop that she holds in her hands. And it has a black star in the center of it.

As a member of the Native American Dance Council, Lanny carries a thoughtful position when considering his role as a teacher of dance. I’m reminded of a long and wise wind, sweeping across the San Francisco bay. I think now of the earliest Native Californian dancers on this land.

LANNY: As a dance teacher, because you learned it, … you had to learn not to be a quitter, and just keep practicing that part of you … When you try to teach somebody else, you learn it, you watch it, you experience it, and its very personal to you as a dancer yourself. And it takes a dancer a long, long time, probably most of his life, to perfect a movement, the mind-with-the-body connection. As a teacher, you have that innate, inside of you, working thing, that if you have a student who has potential, just because you get frustrated once, you lay in bed and think about it…

Not too soon afterwards, a friend of Lanny’s told him that this boy, a student of his, was a better dancer than he.

Lanny responded.

LANNY: Thank you. That means I’m a good teacher.

This article appeared in the December 2008 issue of In Dance.

Patricia Bulitt is a solo dance artist and dance ethnologist. Her most recent site specific commission was from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. For many years, she danced in creeks, mountain tops, regional parks, and on Lake Merritt on a floating platform, honoring birds. As an interviewer for LEGACY Oral History Project and Our Neighbors Dance Their Dances: A Celebration of World dance, she collects field interviews with Eskimos in Alaska and Bay Area dancers. She serves on the Izzies Committee and resides in Berkeley, CA.