ANADARKO, Okla. – Kricket Connywerdy flew over to Germany in July 2007 with her young children in the hopes of joining her husband Kevin and dancing for German audiences. The Connywerdy family, who dance professionally on both the pow wow circuit and with traveling performing groups, thought that this would be like previous overseas dance tours, earning enough money to pay the bills back in Norman, Okla.
Instead, Connywerdy said that the reality of working with German promoters Willy Bievers and Werner Muellender was unlike anything she had previously encountered.
“We were more like indentured servants, where [Bievers] could take somebody, almost like a slave, by not providing their way back home and put you in an area like we were in where you can’t reach anybody,” she said. “We had no phone, our cell coverage wouldn’t cover, and they had no Internet there. It took 25 Euro – 35 to 36 bucks – to go one way into town.”
Connywerdy and her husband were part of the group First American Performing Artists, a collective group of Native artists and dancers who are suing Bievers and his agency, Serena GmbH, for not fulfilling contracts made with each dancer or artist.
The contracts state that each dancer was to be paid $150 per day for two cultural festivals, totaling $3,000 for each dancer. These festivals took place in Mannheim, Germany, from July 13 – 22, 2007, and in Bielefeld, Germany, from July 27 to Aug. 5, 2007. In addition, the contracts included additional needs such as airline tickets, food, lodging, local German transportation and paid medical insurance.
Connywerdy, along with two other members of this group, are the first of three test lawsuits filed in Koln, Germany, against Bievers. Connywerdy, who spoke with Indian Country Today about her experiences, said that she arrived at a halfway point to be a part of the festival in Bielefeld. In addition to not being paid by Bievers, both her and her family’s experiences included dancing in hot, cold and wet environments, causing damage to dance regalia; poor accommodations; having to eat the same, primarily-fried fare every day; and having sick children, with Bievers not having anyone available to take people to the doctor if needed.
The original dancers’ contracts had specified dates, but no specified performance times. These contracts said that dancers would be picked up at their hotels at 11 a.m. and then would be returned at 9 p.m. After the Mannheim performances, many of the approximately 70 dancers came to the conclusion they most likely would not be paid and then boycotted. Bievers then revised the contracts where they read that performances had to be from noon to 10 p.m., with no pay for sick or missing days, offering three breaks of 30 minutes each. The entire group then made sure that either dancing or storytelling was happening throughout the day and rotating out performers for the rest of their time together.
In addition to dancing continually, Connywerdy said that Bievers wanted a tipi village constructed with no cultural regard to which direction the tipis should face, and said that he only doled out money to those that would drink alcohol with him.
Another member of this group who has filed one of the test cases is Kim Tiger, also of Norman, Okla., who took leave from her job to participate in the German festivals with her children. She said that one of the lowest points of the trip was when her bus pulled up to the Bielefeld location, and she saw men in their regalia shoveling sand into a gravel area for their performance site.
“One of the men was my nephew,” she said. “His regalia is classic. In that regalia, he is who God made him to be. I felt stabbed with emotion as a mother realizing that this was only the beginning of our trouble. This showed the blatant disregard and inconsideration to our people.”
Tiger also said that on the last night she was in Germany, she had dinner with Bievers along with several other people. At that dinner, she said that Drake Cully, who served as head singer for those four weeks, asked Bievers if they were being paid. Bievers then said to them, “You will get your money in the morning. I am going on the train to Koln to get it.”
After fulfilling their end of the bargain by dancing and performing, Connywerdy said that Bievers originally refused to provide transportation to their return flight, resulting in dancers contacting the U.S. Embassy in Frankfurt, Germany, to intervene with Bievers on their behalf.
After the performance group returned to the United States, at least two of the artists who were with the dance group as vendors had not had their merchandise returned to them by Bievers. These artists filed criminal charges that were pending against Bievers at press time.
ICT called Bievers to get a statement from him concerning the allegations. The only question answered by Bievers was his reason for bringing Native dancers to Germany, which was, “It was a good idea to bring Indians over and to create a commercial base with them.”
Bievers then said he had recently been in the hospital and that he was waiting on someone to pick him up. He then politely refused to answer any following questions and asked if the questions could be e-mailed to him. At press time, Bievers had not responded by either phone or e-mail.
Muellender, the acting partner of Bievers in the contracts, talked at length with ICT regarding the allegations made by First American Performing Artists. He denied threatening to revoke food or lodging. Muellender also denied that he or Bievers stole any property.
“We want [Indian] people to realize that it is a big chance for them to sell their product, to show culture,” he said. “We want to ask normal Indian people who realize they have a big chance to make a business here.”
Muellender claimed that one of the dancers damaged a car and that there were parties held by some members of this group. When asked questions about the contractual lawsuits being filed, he said, in essence, that he and Bievers wanted an entire village of Indian life and received primarily dancers, and that the dancers were not performing the 10 hours per day as assigned in the contract.
“We had a contract that said we started at 12 o’clock and stopped at 10 o’clock,” Muellender said. “They didn’t realize it. They started at three or half-past three and stopped at eight. We must give a lot of money back to the visitors because they came at 12 and then nothing – there’s no show there.”
He denied that anyone had to dance in the rain, but when ICT asked if he was there the entire time, he said that he was not.
“I was only in Mannheim,” Muellender said. “During Mannheim, I was there the whole time; but in Bielefeld, only on the weekends.”
Since returning to the United States last August, the First American Performing Artists have been trying to raise funds for their lawsuit, needing attorneys both in the United States and in Germany. The group has also created MySpace and Yahoo groups as a way to raise awareness for their case.
“We try to stay really positive, and that is reflective in a lot of the blogs and updates,” Connywerdy said about their awareness efforts. “We talked about good stuff – meeting people over there and the people who helped us out. Regardless of the division that was trying to be pushed on us, we did stick together as a group and made decisions as a group. I don’t know if they were the right decisions or the wrong decisions; but regardless of that, it did give us a leg to stand on with following through our end of the contract. We did everything we were supposed to do.”