The questions seemed simple enough.
One of the dozens of students gathered in the Sky Vista Middle School auditorium on Nov. 22 had a question about the series of heartfelt songs and sacred dances that had just been performed on stage by Francis Sherwood and his four daughters, TiLane, Shaylee, Mikayla and Nellie. He asked Sherwood about the roots of the routines. Where did he learn the rhythms and calls? Where did he first come across the steps and stories? Where did the music and dance originally come from?
Sherwood didn't have a single, straightforward answer.
"I've been dancing and singing for 40 years – my girls have been dancing since they learned to walk," Sherwood told the crowd of students, teachers and parents assembled at Sky Vista. "I learned the songs from my dad, my grandpa, my uncles – they learned them from theirs. None of these dances or songs are written down. They have to be learned firsthand."
In other words, the songs and dances that the Sherwoods presented to Sky Vista community go back a long ways. Indeed, their transmission occurred over thousands of years and an untold number of generations. They stemmed directly from the sacred traditions of different Native American tribes spread across the Great Plains of the modern-day United States, including the Arikara, the Navajo, the Hidatsa and the Crow.
The Sherwoods brought those ancient traditions to life for the crowd at Sky Vista with personalized stories, elaborate costumes and audience participation. It was all part of an effort to involve the crowd in the proceedings, to make them a part of a family legacy that goes back many millennia.
"We're going to share a little bit of our lives with each and every one of you," Francis Sherwood told the crowd, poised at a microphone and holding a traditional Native American frame drum.
The program included a traditional dance performed by TiLane Sherwood, 23, intended to pay tribute to mothers and grandmothers; a "jingle dance" by Shaylee, 17, that featured an elaborate dress rendered out of used tin lids that produced a resonant chime; a "fancy shawl" dance by Nellie, 9, designed to honor loved ones; and a dance traditionally reserved for male warriors performed by Mikayla, 15, that has taken on a different set of parameters in modern times. "In today's world, our women are serving in the Armed Forces. They deserve to dance," Francis Sherwood explained.
All four of the dancers took part in a traditional Crow routine before spreading out across the auditorium to engage the crowd in a traditional friendship ceremony, a dance designed to create unity and social cohesion.
"There are no wrong moves," Francis Sherwood told the crowd. "Our dances are social and spiritual. Most of all, they're for enjoyment and to bring a good feeling to all."
That spirit underlined the purpose in bringing the Sherwoods to Sky Vista. Asia Lyons, a sixth-grade math teacher who helped coordinate the event, said she wanted to offer her students a cultural perspective and depth they wouldn't otherwise receive. The performance also aligned with Native American Heritage Month, and it provided a springboard to deeper conversations about an often overlooked facet of American history.
"There are only two or three Native American students in the school. This gives everyone a chance to understand a culture they wouldn't normally see," Lyons said. "We want to broaden their perspectives."
For Francis Sherwood, who performs with his daughters at schools and community events across the Denver metro area, it was also an occasion to celebrate his own personal history and the accomplishments of his family. His pride was impossible to miss as he introduced the separate dances and spoke about the accomplishments of each and every one of his daughters, whether it was prowess on the lacrosse field or academic accomplishments in college.
"I'm very proud of them," Francis Sherwood said after the performance. "It's outstanding to be able to dance with them and to watch them, to travel to different parts of the U.S. with them. My girls do real well."
Just as the songs and stories on display reflected a rich and storied cultural legacy, Sherwood's obvious love for his family represented another strong tradition that's persisted for generations.