Did Lily Gladstone Learn Cayuga for Fancy Dance?

‘Fancy Dance’ charts a story that channels the spirit of survival as seen in Indigenous communities, told through a narrative revolving around a two-person family who find themselves embroiled in an impossible crisis. In the wake of her mother’s disappearance, Roki Goodiron, a resident at an Oklahoma reservation, finds herself facing an unclear future as the authorities deem her aunt, Jax, unfit for her custody. Still, as the girl moves in with her grandparents, she holds onto the latter’s promise of her mother, Tawi’s, return before the upcoming powwow celebration.

Thus, Jax and Roki end up undertaking a secret trip to investigate Tawi’s continued disappearance, leading the authorities to brandish the former as a kidnapper. The film centers around the aunt-niece duo and highlights the intricacies of familial ties in relation to Native American culture and heritage. As a result, the central characters often speak to one another in their native language, Cayuga, inviting curiosity about the details of actress Lily Gladstone’s preparation for her role as Jax.

Keysa Parker: Fancy Dance’s Language Advisor

Lily Gladstone, who helms ‘Fancy Dance’ as Jax Goodiron, effortlessly alternates between Cayuga and English throughout the film. Although her character belongs to the Cayuga tribe, the actress herself is Blackfeet and Nez Perce. Naturally, she isn’t fluent in the Cayuga language and worked with a specialist on set to learn it to best serve her character and the overall film’s sense of authenticity. The linguist advisor, Keysa Parker, had previously worked with filmmaker Erica Tremblay before and moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a few months after learning about the latter’s cinematic endeavor.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Parker told The Eastern Door when discussing her involvement in the film. “But I fully trusted her [Tremblay]. I know she has great ideas, and she’s an amazing director, so I just fully trusted her.” Consequently, the linguist, who started learning the Cayuga language somewhere around the mid-2010s, came to work with the actors, including Gladstone and her co-stars, Isabel Deroy-Olson and others.

Parker further elaborated on the learning process at the set, explaining, “We did sound charts, we did basic language and just talked about the importance of the language, and how important it is to us as learners— because there’s fewer than 20 first-language Cayuga speakers left here. So we just really wanted to do this in the best, most respectful way.” Ultimately, these lessons served as a great bonding moment for the actors and brought their characters’ bilingual moments to life.

The Significance of the Cayuga Language to Gladstone’s Character

In ‘Fancy Dance,’ the Indigenous culture of the Cayuga tribe remains intrinsically woven into the narrative, influencing its plot, themes, and characters. One of the most poignant moments within the story emerges when a conversation between Roki and Jax verbalizes that aunt, in their native language, is known as “other mother.” The scene encapsulates the profound bond between the two characters, who are held together by familial ties to the point where, despite being Jax’s niece, Roki is really her daughter in every sense but the English word.

Gladstone spoke about the same in an interview with Blavity TV. “A huge part of the erasure eradication— attempted eradication— of Indigenous people hinged around stripping us of our language and our connection to language.” She further added, “If you strip away a language, you strip away a worldview, you strip away those inherent family ties that keep a community so tightly bound that your niece is your daughter.” As such, the same reinforces the power of identity and community that the Cayuga language carries with it, especially for Jax and Roki’s characters.

In the same conversation, Gladstone concluded, “It’s a radical act— a revolutionary act to put [the Cayuga] language on screen and to have it live in this way between these characters.” Thus, by dedicating herself to learning the Cayuga language, the actress ensured that the film’s instrumental connection to its community remained authentic and apparent.

Read More: Is Lily Gladstone Osage In Real Life? What is Her Ethnicity?