"Google," Lumhe Sampson encouraged the crowd at a music festival in St. Paul's Mears Park. From the stage, Sampson raised a white plastic ring, approximately 2 feet wide, and explained how, in indigenous culture, the ring represents the circle of life, which encompasses all people on Earth. It contains the birds, the bees, the trees, the creepies and the bugs, the stars and the moon, all in the galaxy, he continued. It represents the way the world is infinite and interconnected.
Then Lumhe (pronounced Lum-he) and his brother Samsoche (pronounced Sam-so-jee), who wore colorful attire with fringed cloths and thick-skinned leggings, began throwing hoops around the stage.
Electronic dance music combined with native singing was heard through large speakers as they circled the rings around their wrists in sync. Then, each of them joined five hoops, building stairs to heaven, and jumped in a circle to the throbbing beat. As they turned, the brothers threw two hoops in each of their arms, like wings, and transformed into human butterflies.
They were performing an ancient tribal tradition in an environment far from a powwow. Behind the scenes, the Heiruspecs MCs prepared for their set. A city bus roared by.
Lumhe, who often uses his middle name, Micco (pronounced Me-ko), and Samsoche, whom most people call Sam, have performed hoop dances at Native American ceremonies, school auditoriums, the waterfront in Venice Beach, California, and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, as well as, on this particular July night, for a multitude of local hip-hop bosses.
The Sampson Brothers, as they are known, have taken what is traditionally an individual dance and performed it together, to a wide range of music, including that of contemporary native rappers and singers. His skill with complex dancing and his innovative and modern style have led to performances throughout Minnesota and in places as far away as Paris. Next month they will go to the local stages for the RAW Artists ’Showcase and TEDxMinneapolis art show.
As the brothers use their hoops to transform themselves into symbols of indigenous stories, they are also transforming an ancient tradition.
"We bring traditional dance to contemporary places to demonstrate the connection between the past and the present," Sam explained. "We are creating something that we can share with people outside our community and at the same time pay tribute to those traditional roots."
BORN TO ACT
For centuries, Native American hoop dancing has been used by various tribes as part of healing ceremonies and to tell stories. It is a more specialized dance than the most common powwow styles, including grass dances and fancy dances, which the Sampson brothers also do.
His mother, Darice Sampson, a member of the Seneca tribe in western New York, danced and toured with various productions and native companies. He taught the children to dance as soon as they could walk. Growing up, they learned powwow dances, as well as global styles that include cha-cha, lambada and swing.
The brothers' parents met during the Alcatraz occupation of the Indians of all the tribes in 1969. "We were born as a kind of rebellion," Micco joked. And it seems that they were also born to act.
His father, the late Will Sampson, was a member of the Muscogee tribe and one of the first indigenous actors to play important roles in Hollywood, better known as the mute mental patient Bromden in "Someone Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".
Both parents taught the brothers to feel proud of their culture and without fear of sharing it.
"My father had the opportunity to rectify and break those stereotypes and tell his story about who he really was and what the Native Americans really were," Micco said. "It was huge for people to see a Native American actor on stage and in the movies and be seen as an equal, rather than just an extra or subhuman character."
Micco and Sam spent their first years of growth outside of Los Angeles, where they were bothered by having dark skin, long hair, pierced ears and unusual names.
"Every Thanksgiving day we chose and they sent me to the office because they defended me," Micco recalled.
Despite the prejudices they faced, the brothers performed traditional native dances not only at powwows, but at school assemblies and even outside McDonald's local restaurants.
They learned to dance the hoop when they were in elementary school, from a man who had admired Micco's outfits in a powwow and asked his mother to make him an outfit in exchange for teaching his children.
Micco Sampson describes the origins of hoop dancing at Mears Park in Saint Paul on Saturday, July 6, 2019. (Nicole Neri / Minneapolis Star Tribune / TNS)
When brothers carry their hoops through public places, people tend to ask questions: Are those hula hoops? Do you act in a circus? (At airports, if the brothers do not check their hoops, they are invariably subject to intense scrutiny of the TSA and hyssop.)
The hoops, the brothers patiently explain, have nothing to do with fifties fashion. Or fans of modern fitness and fans of jam bands known as "hoopers," which incorporate the child's toy into workouts and concerts.
Originally, native dancers made their hoops with willowwood; Today, most are plastic and decorated with paint or tape. Dancers often use rings of the same size. (The brothers prefer ones with a circumference of half their height.)
Beginners often start with five hoops, but experienced dancers can use 20 or more. Micco recently published a selfie dance on social media with 42: His head and waist were encased in hoop balloons, while hoop chains ran down each leg and from hand to hand along his back. It seemed that he was more hoop than person.
The traditional hoop dance is accompanied by a constant rhythm and a song similar to a song. While dancers create their own choreography, there is a common aspect of a visual language.
Classical formations often include natural elements, such as flowers or alligators, represented in indigenous stories. Dancers sometimes hold hoops in still poses; other times they rotate them so fast that they become almost invisible, like the wings of hummingbirds.
The brothers have danced with the native company Dancing Earth, founded by Rulan Tangen, who describes the hoop dance as "pyrotechnic" and very specialized. In citing the sharp reflexes that hunters require and the skillful fingers of basket weavers, he called the dance of the hoop "an amplified version of the qualities that many natives had to have for their lives."
The native dance of the hoop is a mixture of athletics and art, of defending traditions and creating new ones.
"No hoop dance will be like another," said Micco. "You may see similar movements, but no person will dance in the same way because we are all individuals, we all have our own history."
The story of the brothers includes losing their father when they were preschoolers. A few years later, they moved with their mother to Bismarck, N.D., and formed a student dance company that traveled through the area.
In high school, they spent the summers working at Wisconsin Dells at the Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial, now closed, an amphitheater where dancers from many tribes performed for tourists.
As adults, they continued to act and teach hoop dancing until it became their main focus, "although we never considered it as a job because it was something we like to do," Sam said.
Micco organizes a weekly hoop dance class in Minneapolis and Sam has taught in native communities throughout the state. Both have made several artists in residences at a school in the Red Lake Indian reservation.
The visibility of the Sampson Brothers has increased through performances with indigenous musicians such as popular rocker Keith Secola, who grew up in the Iron Range of Minnesota and has been called the native Bob Dylan; Jana Mashonee, an American Indian pop singer; and Frank Waln, a rapper from Lakota.
Last spring, the brothers went viral when they represented Minneapolis in the "If Cities Could Dance" video series from the California public media station KQED. In the video, which has been seen on Facebook more than a million times, the brothers dance on the Stone Arch bridge and outside the American Indian Center, sometimes with street clothes, sometimes with full attire.
Kelly Whalen, the producer and co-creator of the series, wanted to introduce the brothers because they are reliving and adapting the tradition of hoop dance.
"The Sampson Brothers are pushing the limits on many fronts," he said. "They keep breaking stereotypes about the natives, just like their father, and they are pushing this art form in directions that their ancestors could never have imagined."
In the course of video production, Whalen said she was particularly moved by the way the brothers are transmitting the dance tradition to their students, who told her how the hoop dance had increased her native pride.
"The Sampson Brothers have this openness to connect with audiences from all walks of life, and they have this beautiful message of strength, power and endurance," he said. "They are powerful ambassadors of Minneapolis and the native community in general."
When they are not dancing, the brothers make visual art (graphic design, painting, photography) and have acted in small films. Now they are also parents of young children, so being close to the families of their partners on the reservations of Bois Forte and Leech Lake in Minnesota were a factor in their recent moves to Minneapolis. Sam's son has not yet celebrated his first birthday, but he has his own set of baby rings (which, for now, are mostly giant teething rings). The children of Micco, 9 and 4 years old, act with their father.
HOW TO DO DANCE
For the past two years, Micco has taught a hoop dance class at the American Indian Center in Minneapolis. It is free and open to the public.
On Wednesday night, Micco arrived dressed in shorts and a sleeveless shirt, with a pile of hoops and three types of liquid fuel: a bottle of water, naked juice and canned coffee from Starbucks.
Most students, children and young adults, have native heritage. Your skill level varies from the beginning to the experienced.
"The first lesson in hoop dancing is that these hoops represent our world and everything in it and you are part of that world," Micco explained. Then he demonstrated how to get off the hoop and drag your foot back, lifting it up like a skateboard.
He put some music (electronics mixed with drums and native songs) and guided the students through a warm-up that incorporated hoops. Then, he slid his tall, thin body through his hoops while saying the instructions: "Step through," "Pop it up."
In a few movements, he was standing inside a basket of nest-shaped hoops. With a few more, he became an eagle: open arms with a chain of rings stretched between them. The students followed him, beating their hoop wings as they turned their bodies.
"They say that every time a hoop dancer goes through a hoop, his life becomes a revolution, so they get younger and younger," said Micco. "I tell people just before I ask them to guess how old I am." (He and Sam are around 30 years old, but they could go through younger ones.)
"It's pushups for your brain," said Micco. "And the funny thing is that you don't even think you're doing it. It's fun, you think you're playing."
But his dance has a serious goal: to inspire indigenous youth.
"We want them to see us and know that they can be culturally connected, but still be successful in Western society," Sam said. "Being indigenous in this time and age, you have to walk in two worlds."
The brothers hope that their hoop dance will also encourage non-native audiences to reconnect with their roots and live in greater harmony with the Earth.
"For our non-indigenous communities, it is the same type of message: we want them to also find their cultural connection," said Sam.