S6E4 Eric Hernandez stares behind his hoops

Eric Hernandez

Anika Chabra

"It was once I learned the hoop dance that I found my own unique way.” 

What does it mean to truly represent your culture in a way that is innate, intimate and unique?  Eric Hernandez is a Native American hoop dancer whose love for expressing his culture comes through movement and by telling his story, shedding a light on the diversity within the Native American and Indigenous communities. In this episode Eric reveals his choice to follow life’s whispers and nudges and how the teachings of his ancestors and elders played a part in shaping his present gift to the world. We hear about the process of creating his TEDx Talk and how a role with Cirque du Soleil invited him to dance the way that he was meant to dance. Perhaps most of all we are left with the revelation to be who we truly are - even and especially when faced with decisions at the crossroads of life.

About our guest: Eric Hernandez, a proud member of the Lumbee tribe, is an esteemed Native American hoop dancer with over 20 years of experience. Mentored by Terry Goedel, Eric's skills took center stage as the lead in Cirque du Soleil's "Totem," touring over 17 countries. A recent TEDx speaker, his mission is to challenge stereotypes and spread ancestral wisdom about Native Americans through the art of hoop dance.

Find Eric on LinkedIn and Instagram

Watch Eric's TEDx Talk on YouTube


Reminder to rate and review our podcast on Apple - it helps other like-minded people find our pod and grows this beautiful community! If you’d like to tell us your story or chat about your thoughts on culture, family, and heritage, we always love to chat. Find us on social @rootandseedco and subscribe to our newsletter to never miss a Root & Seed moment.


Listen Now



Episode Transcript


We all don't live in tipis. And for me growing up, wanting to be proud of who I was, and share with my friends who I was, didn't really resonate with them. They would say that I'm not a real native. I'm not a real Indian. That was a challenge for me... and it made me question myself. It took me many years to understand that I am who I am, and I am who my people are. We may not fit the image that America has chosen to paint us as, but I come from my own unique culture.

It was once I learned the hoop dance that I found my own unique way to paint a new picture. To paint a picture of... a Native American from a tribe that most people haven't heard of.. to paint the picture of a modern day Native American that's living today. You know, not this ancient "Cowboys and Indians" image that we see in movies. 

I know who I am and I know what I have to share with the world.



Welcome back to Root & Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers who are sparked to explore, define and celebrate their family and cultural identity. I'm your host, Anika Chabra.

We often say that everyone has a story worth sharing and that it’s the textures of that story that makes us understand ourselves better.  And how our relationships with events in our lives and with others feed into taking that level of understanding up several notches.  So having this whole season focus on relationships made a lot of sense to us.  

Last episode we heard an intimate story about Francesca’s relationship with grief. After losing her parents in her 20’s she shares how that transformed her family dynamic and appreciation for simple traditions. 

This episode we continue to shine a light on the uniqueness of our individual stories and we appreciate how Eric Hernandez has proudly found his place in the narrative of what might otherwise be known as just another Native American story. Eric is a proud Hoop Dancer, a storyteller affiliated with the Lumbee Tribe. He inspires people to share who they are by showing who he is and to embrace the nuances within and between cultures.  

To get to know Eric better we highly recommend you check out his TEDx talk - link in our show notes.  Eric’s shared mission with Root & Seed is undeniable and we think that you will feel inspired to not hold back who you are to create a ripple effect in your community and circles.

So without further ado, this interview is a delight to share with you as we gain much more insight and background into Eric’s beautiful story.



Eric, thank you so much for being on Root Seed. We're so excited to have you and have you share your story with our community. If you could please introduce yourself we'd love to hear how you would describe yourself and your background in your words and what makes up those influences. 



Yeah, so my name is Eric Hernandez. I'm a member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, and I am a Native American hoop dancer. It's a tradition that was passed down to me from my uncle, Terry Goedel, and it is something that has allowed me to share with the world a little bit about my culture and who I am and who my people are.

The hoop dance originally came to us from the Taos Pueblo tribe from New Mexico, and they used it as a healing ceremony. If a member of the tribe was feeling mentally, physically, or spiritually ill, the medicine man would use these hoops to tell this story to celebrate life. To represent all living things throughout life and, and to go through the different stages of life with movements of grace and beauty, and to help the people watching and observing and receiving this dance to understand that they have that ability. They have that ability to move through the ups and downs and challenges of life with grace. And over my last 20 years of being a Native American hoop dancer, that's been my mission to first of all, hone my craft to the point where I am able to present it in a graceful way.And I've had the opportunity to travel all around the world and share this dance with millions of people.   



You've been on a real journey of reclamation, and as we've dug into your background and listened to you and watched you online, there was a time when perhaps your connection to your culture was different. Can you talk about the “early days” relationship with your cultural background and practices?



Like a lot of Native Americans I didn't grow up on the reservation. I grew up in a suburb in Southern California away from my people. My tribe is in North Carolina. I had the opportunity to make my way over there a few times a year, but I didn't grow up there. And that's the reality of it is that a lot of Native Americans are raised in normal communities. Growing up as a young boy, because of a lot of the stereotypes of Native Americans projected on us, on society by Hollywood or even our history books. Showing this image of what a Native American should be, what they should look like, the outfits, the regalia, the long hair. A lot of those traditions and features definitely are present and definitely do exist, but with over 570 tribes across the United States, we all look different.

We all don't live in tipis. And for me growing up. Wanting to be proud of who I was and share with my friends who I was didn't really resonate with them. They would say that I'm not a real native. I'm not a real Indian.  That was a challenge for me. And it made me question myself. It took me many years to understand that I am who I am, and I am who my people are. We may not fit the image that America has chosen to paint us as, but I come from my own unique culture. And it was once I learned the hoop dance that I found my own unique way to paint a new picture.

To paint a picture of... a Native American from a tribe that most people haven't heard of. To paint the picture of a modern day Native American that's living today. Not this ancient cowboys and Indians image that we see in movies.I know who I am and I know what I have to share with the world. And I almost have an opportunity and an obligation to be someone who can reshape that image, reshape history and let people know that we don't all look the same, we don't all dance the same. We don't all wear the same thing. We didn't all live in the same homes. We all had different traditions and I've been telling my story from my Lumbee heritage through the hoop dance. 



Let's talk about the hoop dance. Do you have a recollection of growing up around it? I'd love to hear about how that process unfolded for you.



My uncle, Terry Goedel, he's from the Yakima and Tulalip tribes and he is my mom's twin sister’s husband. So he is my uncle through marriage, and he learned the hoop dance at a very young age. And when he learned the dance, it was nearly a dying art.There weren't many hoop dancers at all. We're talking about 50 years ago. My uncle's been dancing for 50 years now, and he really played a huge part in keeping it alive, carrying it, and teaching people around him. Even today, my uncle has 15 grandkids. And every time a new kid is born there's a little hoop that is made.The size of our hoops are made based on our height. If you're to pull the hoop apart and straighten it out, it's exactly your height. So as I grew and I got older, so did my hoops. They grew, they got bigger. And the hoop dance tells about our journey through life. It tells about all the different stages of life. You see, as I pick up one hoop with the first hoop, which is actually the most challenging part of the dance. People love seeing the big images. Some dancers use up to 50 hoops.  But using one hoop is actually the most challenging. It requires the most agility and dexterity. And we believe that every time that one hoop passes through our body, that we add an hour to our life. And as I pick up the second hoop, we begin to see that first stage that represents adolescence, childhood. We see that small bird. And as I continue picking up more hoops, we see that bird grow, which represents us and our journey through life. And we see the different plants and animals that this bird comes across throughout its life. And this dance is a celebration of life. It's a story of life.



And what do you think it is about dance? When I reached out to you and I shared a little bit about my journey, I think I was letting you know that I too have reclaimed traditional Indian dancing through Kathak.  I grew up learning it  until like 12 and sort of lost my interest in it. But then as I grew older and at midlife as an adult I have now really reclaimed that as a way of expressing myself. What is it about dance that you think in some ways is so special and unique yet at the same time, so universal? 



Dance is, it's the expression of our hearts. It's healing, it's movement, the present-ness that it requires.  Everything about it…it's the physicality, the mentality, the spirituality…there's so many things wrapped in it. For Native people, it has been ceremonial, And it has been something that allows us to attach to a spiritual side. It's been a vehicle for us to feel more, to show more, to tell our stories, to connect to the great spirit as well as to understand and to connect with mother nature. To be inspired by the movements of Mother Nature and to give back and to give energy back and to display the energy that we carry.

Our ancestors moved every day for many different reasons. And that is something that I want to continue to push forward in my message that I share on my platforms is the importance of movement.  In today's society, it's so much different than our ancestors who had to, for example, hunt and gather and, and do things throughout the day that just required movement. Required organic motion and almost dance  because they move in a graceful way and it's my mission today.  And my message is to help people find those things in their life that inspire them to move and to build their life around movement. 



Love that. I want to talk about your TED talk. 



Yeah, of course.



It left me with shivers down my spine. Can you talk about the impact that has on your community of followers or even the broader community? 



It was November 2022, and I made a goal that in 2023 I wanted to do a TEDx talk. And I began to research and figure out how I can do that. There was an event that popped up and the theme of their TEDx event was called “debunked”, which is basically breaking down stereotypes and misconceptions. And I thought, “Oh my gosh. Okay.” I don't have a talk to submit. I'm going to put my camera in selfie mode and I'm going to film a video and I'm just going to tell them who I am, what I represent, what I need to share and how it would fit perfectly with their event. This was my first application and it was just so perfectly aligned. They reached out to me and they told me that they were happy to have me. And now I had to create my talk. And that process was so valuable to me. And I went so many different directions with what I wanted to talk about. At first I was thinking I had to have a bunch of numbers and analytics, and I had to be very educational with it. And I did that, and then I just erased everything. And I was like, you know what, this isn't who I am. I'm trying to be somebody I'm not. There's a lot of issues and there's a lot of things that I could talk about, but then there's the things that really resonate with me - my story and my journey. And that was when I dug deep into where it all started, which was my first year of high school. The moment when I found the courage to share my hoop dance my freshman year of high school with all of my classmates, and then I showed up the next day to see the school newspaper with me on the cover with the title “Lord of the Rings”.And I thought that that was a great starting point. And then I wanted to move forward from there and go into my journey with Cirque du Soleil.  I wanted to tell my story, but I also wanted to give the audience something to walk away with that they can apply to their lives. And ever since my TEDx talk, that really has become the main theme of what I'm trying to do. I want the culture, the richness, our traditions….I want there to be a bridge for people to feel like they can apply our ancestral teachings to their lives. I wanted to tell my story and I wanted to be relatable. And I wanted to say, “hey, here I am. My name is Eric.” I grew up in California. I'm just like you and I'm a Native American and this is how I navigate my life. These are the teachings and I want to inspire you to either dig deeper into who you are and find the teachings that help you navigate your life or hey this is what I use and this is what has worked for me and look what I've been able to accomplish. I read this quote the other day. It said “The meaning of life is to find your gift and the purpose of life is to give it away.” And that really is what I'm trying to do. I've been so blessed. And the opportunities that I've had over the last 20 years and finding my gift early and the journey that it's taken me on.  I just want to help others find theirs and that was the foundation of the TED talk to help others have the courage to find their gift and share it with others. So then others have the courage to find their gift and share. And that's the circle. That's the circle of life. So the hoop dance and my culture is simply the vehicle. It's the vehicle to touch others.



Oh, so well said. You don't have to be on a journey using dance or even your traditional cultural background to resonate with your message. I really want to hear a little bit more about your family, Eric. You talked about your uncle, obviously, given the influence he's had from a dance perspective but talk to me a little bit about your family and your upbringing.  Maybe some special stories that you really wish that are captured and live on forever.  



So my mother is my Native American side. She was born and raised in Pembroke, North Carolina. That is where the Lumbee people come from. That's where my people come from. We are the biggest tribe east of the Mississippi river with over 70, 000 members. And my grandfather was one of the founders of the University that sits in the very center of our community. Called UNCP.  My family and my tribe is unique. In the sense that there has always been a huge emphasis on education. My mom has always carried that and instilled that in me.  She ended up at Brigham Young University. My father, who is actually where I get my last name, Hernandez, is my Latin side.  It's really strange that they both ended up at this school, but my dad also went to BYU on a football scholarship. And to this day, he still holds the record for the most interceptions in a single game. And so my mom and dad met there and my mom's twin sister met my uncle Terry. Who is also there for a Native American scholarship to be in the same performing arts group. And because my dad was from California, he convinced my mom to move out here. And this is where I grew up. And my dad's competitiveness and athleticism was something that was very present.  For me and my brothers sports were everything growing up. And I was  the runt. I was a late bloomer.  My freshman year of high school was so important to me. Both of my brothers had gone to the same school and they were stars of those of the basketball team. Their names were on the gymnasium. They were the captains. They didn't call me Eric, they called me “little Hernandez”, and my freshman year of high school. I got cut. I didn't make any of the sports teams. And that's why it was so important to me what happened when I presented the hoop dance and the reaction. I realized that that was my path and that was my strength and my job. My parents divorced when I was 10 years old. And when the hoop dance came into my life it gave me an opportunity to connect more with my uncle and my uncle kind of stepped in, in the moments that my dad wasn't always around. And he used the hoop dance to teach me.  It was something that I needed at that exact time. My hero, my dad, the person I wanted to make the most proud, my older brothers…. I felt like I let them down. I felt like I wasn't one of them. And in the hoop dance, it really is something that allowed me to shine my light.

And, and allowed me to find the thing that I'm best at. And that was hard. So here we go further into the story. So I ended up at BYU. They brought me in there and they paid for all my school and they said, we want you to hoop dance. And so now I've arrived at this school. And now I'm at my mom's and my dad's Alma Mater. This is the place where my dad's name is on the wall for his record. And my mom's name is on the wall for what she's done and I'm there to hoop dance. I actually still had an urge to play football. Literally our dance hall where we rehearsed was across the street from the practice field where I watched the football players every single day and just picturing that my dad was there 30 years ago.  I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to make my father proud and play sports and try to make these sports teams. Or, go and be more of my uncle and hoop dance and I found myself at that same crossroads again. And I ultimately made the decision to let football go. I had a conversation with my uncle and my uncle told me, “you know, there's hundreds of thousands of football players. So you could be an average football player, or you could be one of the greatest hoop dancers that have ever lived.” And it was that conversation that really hit me and I reflected on it and I decided to put sports down and just join the group and do what I was there for and to continue to hoop dance.

Less than eight months after that, I got a call from Cirque du Soleil.  So here I am again at another big decision reflected on it, talked with all my friends and family, and ultimately made the decision to run away with the circus. That is how I ended up traveling with the circus. I'm not a circus artist at all. Cirque du Soleil created a show called Totem. They wanted a traditional Native American hoop dancer. The original hoop dancer that they found was a man named Nakoda LaRance, and he was a good friend of mine that I met when I was about 12 years old at the hoop dance competition. He was the Michael Jordan of dancing. Nakoda passed away in 2021 from a freak accident. But Nakoda was somebody that really changed hoop dancing forever. One year, he showed up to the competition and he moonwalked and everybody's looking at each other and said “what are we allowed, can we do that?And he just continued to add a contemporary flavor to our tradition and to continue to push the limits. He began to throw the hoops in the air. He began to just take it to a new level, which then made all the other dancers have to step their game up and take it to another level.  One year, he just didn't show up at the competition. And we're like, where's Nakoda? And everybody's like, Oh, he's with some circus. And we're like, what? And one year later Nakoda decided he didn't want to do it anymore. It's, you know, he was such a free spirit.  He called me. And he said, Eric, you want to come replace me? It's just not for me. I made the decision to go and try to fill his shoes, which was very difficult in the beginning. Just because he's such an incredible dancer.  His whole body type is built for what he does. He's a lot shorter than me, a lot skinnier, a lot lighter, and a lot of the moves that he was doing, they expected me to come right in and do his routine. And it was very difficult at first.  He was just doing all these jumps. Moving really fast. And the first couple of years of Cirque were really difficult for me because I was trying to be somebody I wasn't, I was trying to dance like Nakoda and it wasn't using my strengths, I wasn't using my size on stage. I wasn't opening up. I was trying to be smaller.   His energy that he carried on stage was more like a youthful  playful energy kid  and I was really trying to embody that. But then I came to the realization that my best form of presentation and the way that I show myself in the best way is by owning my size and opening up and lifting up my chest and, and being more of a warrior aggressive and intense kind of, that allowed me to grow.

To be me and use the tools that I had to use my power. I didn't have as much speed as him, but I had a lot more size than him and I had a huge wingspan and it wasn't until my second or third year that I started to understand my strengths and really find who I was as an artist and just build from there.



Oh my gosh, taking me back to the crossroads around dance and just that being a metaphor for so many things. Even for Root & Seed…we're very consciously called Root & Seed because Root is about the past, but Seed is about what you're planting for the future. And that doesn't mean taking what your legacy and your roots and the people before you did blindly and just kind of following it. Us as a generation, as the ampersand in Root & Seed have a really unique opportunity to assess those decisions as we come through the crossroads in life, and yours happened to be a really big one. And I also learned in your story about the power of listening to those whispers, right? Like the, “I should '' or “I shouldn't do this” and getting through decision making. When you talked about Nakoda, and the sort of real respect for those who've come before you. Whether they're your family members or not, I think it's just so special and so unique and so important for us at Root & Seed. It doesn't mean that we have to love everything our ancestors did or elders or people who came before us. And we don't necessarily need to own those stories as our own. But certainly acknowledging his greatness I think is just admirable and it really speaks to your strength as now a leader within your own community and as you take dance and your traditions into the future.

Eric,if you don't mind, I'd love to ask you a question from our family conversation cards. Are you up for that? 



Yeah, definitely. 



Okay. Just because we were talking so much about the universe and things working out that I'm just going to go into the deck of cards and pick one for you. And this one's meant for you.

Who do you know who celebrates your culture loudly and proudly? 



Somebody that has inspired me and really took everything to a new level his name is James Jones, but he goes by Notorious Cree on social media. And Matthew McConaughey has this speech where, you know, having a hero, having somebody to chase is just so important, and James Jones has been that somebody for me. That has shown me that there are people interested in learning and he has something like 10 million followers across platforms and he's a very good friend of mine.  We talk at least a couple of times a month and actually worked with him a bit and taught him a bit when he was first getting into hoop dancing back in 2014. He does it in a different way than me. He is very present in the powwow circuit. He does many different dances and he films all of his experiences. He highlights other dancers. He talks about his traditions. He talks about why we wear what we wear when we dance, why our hair is long,  and how to take care of the earth.He dances and uses modern music and collaborates with modern and contemporary Native American artists. Which is just incredible. And yeah, so James Jones, Notorious Creek.



I love that. You know, I have to say your respect for others within your community, your respect for those who've come before you, your respect for your mother, for your father, for your uncle, for just your craft just oozes out of every word that you say and the way that you describe things and the way you tell your story. So I wish you the most luck. Which I don't think you need but please keep doing what you're doing because you're just inspiring so many people through just living your life and living your authentic self. 



Thank you.



Not sure there’s more to say - this conversation with Eric Hernandez felt like a window into his soul - his relationship with all of the aspects of his life - past and present - and leaves us feeling that he has truly found his place within it.  

A reminder to check our Eric’s TEDx talk and also his Instagram behind the scenes video - links in our show notes.

Did you know that the questions that we ask each of our guests at the end of our episodes are available as a conversation card game at rootandseed.com? They make great gifts or activities for you to have on hand this holiday season to learn more about your heritage and culture from your loved ones. It's never too early or too  late to learn about and embrace your story.

Join us next time when we meet and chat with Brittany Muddamalle, who married someone from another culture and who has consciously and intently blended her worlds and cultures together.  All in pursuit to raise their mixed children with respect, healthy boundaries and from what you’ll discover a ton of fun along the way.  

Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, executive produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel and edited by Emily Groleau and Camille Blais. Bye for now.


Episode Credits

Hosted by: Anika Chabra

Brought to you by: Root & Seed

Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel

Editing by: Emily Groleau

Sound Editing by: Camille Blais

Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN https://soundcloud.com/ryyzn

Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0

Free Download / Stream: http://bit.ly/-_something-bout-july

Music promoted by Audio Library https://youtu.be/OFga9pkl6RU

Leave a comment