Leya Hale found herself dancing on a fine line between honor and offensiveness recently on the ultimate stage.
Queen Elizabeth, celebrating her diamond jubilee after 60 years on the throne, invited two dozen cultural groups to a big vendor-filled horse show near her castle in Windsor, England, as part of her celebration. Guests, picked from places the queen has visited in her six-decade reign, included Aborigines from Australia, Inuits from Canada, Maoris from New Zealand and 11 American Indian dancers - including Hale and her sister.
The monarchy flew them over for two weeks in May, but the dream trip turned a bit nightmarish when they checked out the program that billed their act as "Cowboys and Injuns." They would perform after a specialty rodeo act, with cowgirls doing roping stunts, and dance to canned, cliché Indian music plucked from old Western movies.
"We didn't want to be disrespectful, but at the same time we had to do some educating," said Hale, who has Dakota and Navajo roots.
They met with show producers, whose manager issued a formal apology and agreed to let them dance to their own music, provided by North Dakota singer Jason Kingbird.
"Nowadays, people have information technology in the palms of our hands to look on YouTube and learn about other communities," Hale said. "We found it ironic that old stereotypes live on in today's time."
She juggled her sense of anger with her sense of humor.
"We understood it was offensive, but found it kind of comedic and realized it was an opportunity to go to another country and show who we are in our native clothing we designed and created," she said.
She knew one alternative would have had the queen's folks hiring actors to portray Indians, "so in a way we compromised and danced to our music in our own way."
As for the queen, she invited a few performers to tea each afternoon. One day, that meant her sister's royal moment brightened a rainy stay.
Her royal highness asked about the weather and Tawny Adson admitted she was worried about how her moccasins would hold up in the rain.
"The queen told my sister, 'Oh, you don't want to spoil those.'"
In the end, some initial insensitivity didn't spoil the trip.
"I felt really proud and honored to dance in front of someone who people look up to so much and represent myself and my people," Hale said.
Hale grew up in California, but returned to her ancestral home a few years ago to study Dakota language at the University of Minnesota. She plans to dance at more than a dozen cultural powwows this summer throughout the region when she's not working as a production assistant on TPT's documentary on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
"All this -- from coming back to Minnesota to visiting Windsor -- has allowed me to gain a deeper understanding."