Patricia Hicks believes in the power of snow dancing, and so far she and her dance group, the Eagle Wings, haven’t been wrong yet. Hicks participated in the 1960 Olympics when Walt Disney, worried about hosting the Olympics in a dry climate, called on native dancers to open the ceremonies with a dance. Shortly after the dance was preformed, 12 feet of snow fell at Squaw Valley, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal. The dancers continue to produce results each time they perform, with unprecedented and unplanned snow falling at Sugar Pine State Point Park in 2014 during an Olympic Heritage Festival.
For Hicks, dancing has always been a way to pass along the traditions of the Great Basin tribes — the Washoe, Paiute, and Shoshone. Hicks created the Eagle Wings Pageant Dance Group in 2006 with Lois Kane. The dancers, including Hicks’ own grandchildren, dawn regalia such as moccasins and buckskin dresses for the dances, and they carry antelope horns, eagle wings, and swan feathers as a way to connect with their historical past.
The Great Basin tribe danced to praise the weather, and prayed for snow, as it would bring water to the region and help them in the coming months. Nate Whistler of the Walker Pauite Tribe in Shurz, Nev., says dances were used to “honor what water was received.” The Washoe Tribe would survive the cold months in the harsh Sierra climate, not just by dancing but by building conical winter houses called galis dungals; they would spend most of the time sitting around fires and weaving baskets and telling stories. They praised the snowfall, as they knew it would help them grow food in the coming months, and stayed inside to survive. Darrel Cruz, a tribal member of the southern band of the Washoe, explains that many times the Washoe moved to lower elevations, such as the Eastern Sierra “snow shadow” in the winter months because game from the mountains moved too and, therefore, they wouldn’t be able to hunt through the winter. Cruz says one exception was the Washoe living in Martis Valley, because the deer in that area would not migrate during the winter, so the tribe could stay and hunt. They wrapped themselves in rabbit furs and tried to acclimate to the unbearably cold temperatures.
The idea of dancing for snow is based of the Great Basin tribes’ belief in the well-being of the landscape and people living in harmony, according to Cruz. Tribes would dance to pray for many things such as rain, a good harvest, or just the land they lived on. The snow aspect of the dance is just one small piece of the culture of dancing. There is no special formula or precise way to snow dance, or if there is, it is a very well-kept secret. But it is important to be present in one’s mind for a dance, as there is a strong element of praying involved. “You need to believe in what you are hoping for,” Whistler says.
Snow dancing has made its way into popular culture today with many different renditions of dances, mainly created by skiers and riders hoping for a pow day (We know you’ve all done it…). The tradition of snow dancing has been skewed as a way to produce weather, but honoring the weather and all that is encompasses — the well-being of the people and landscape — was really the basis for the dance. The next time you are jumping around and shaking your hips hoping for snow, take a page out of the Great Basin tribes’ books and remember to say thanks to your environment as well. To learn more about how people are trying to make snow fall today, read Planting Seeds, Growing Snow.