The return engagement of the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers at the Theater for the New City (TNC) in New York City, January 25 to February 3, promises to be a spectacular Native cultural presentation and marks a milestone in the troupe’s career.
It is the 50th year since the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers was founded and it has been performing its annual Dance Concert and Pow Wow at TNC, the award-winning community cultural center on 155 First Avenue, since 1976.
“To be going for 50 years is just amazing to me, and to be able to do the work we do,” said Louis Mofsie, (Hopi/Winnebago) founder and Thunderbirds’ artistic director.
Crystal Field, executive director of TNC, said that on January 26, Saturday, from 5 to 7, the Thunderbirds will perform in the special “Burn the Mortgage” celebration.
“They will bless our now-completely-paid-for home, as they blessed us when we moved in, in 1986,” she said. “Louis Mofsie will play the flute, and we will dedicate our Theater again, to uncensored new work, and to the greening of our planet.”
She added, “The Thunderbirds are unique in that they are a true representation of Indian people. Here in New York, that is quite a coup. They do not step on the sacred rituals that are not open to the public. But they do the social dances and these dances are truly authentic. Their storytelling is equally authentic and really beautiful.”
Field said the troupe touch on those things that are central to all of us—the joy of movement, the love of the Earth, the deep appreciation and respect for the child. She expects between 800 and 1000 people to attend the pow wow and dance concert.
As customary, the troupe will donate proceeds from its performance to benefit college funds for needy Native American students. The Thunderbird American Indian Scholarship Fund has bestowed about 350 scholarships to-date.
TNC said the troupe is the oldest resident Native American dance company in New York. It was founded in Brooklyn in 1963 by a group of 10 Native Americans, all New Yorkers but descended from Mohawk, Hopi, Winnebago and San Blas tribes.
All these years, they held on to their tradition of member volunteer, so members come from varied professions, including teachers to hospital patient advocates, tree surgeons and computer engineers.
The diversity of the founders’ backgrounds—their parents were born on reservations—has enriched their repertoire. Jack Preston, (Seneca, now deceased) taught the company its Iroquois dances, including robin dance and fish dance.
“There will be dances, stories and traditional music from the Iroquois and Native Peoples of the Northwest Coast, the Southwest, the Plains and the Arctic regions. Between 15 to 20 dancers will assemble for the event,” said TNC.
A total of eight shows are lined up. Friday and Saturday evening shows are at 8 p.m, while matinee shows on Saturday and Sunday start at 3 p.m. The concert runs for an hour and 30 minutes, with ticket prices at $10 for general admission and children, under 12, at $1.
Highlights of the two-week event include storytelling by Matoka Eagle (Santo Domingo, Tewa), hoop dance by Michael Taylor (Choctaw), caribou dance (from the Inuit people of Alaska), buffalo dance (from the Hopi people), grass dance and jingle dress dance (from the Northern Plains people), stomp dance (from the Southeastern tribes), and shawl dance (from the Oklahoma tribes).
The final section of the program will draw the audience as performers invite spectators to join the round dance, a friendship dance.
The educational component is as much a part of the powwow. Mofsie, who is also the emcee, will explain the elements of the performance with detailed introductions.
After the matinee shows, TNC said the cast will remain in the theater to personally meet with the children and be photographed with them.
Mofsie explained the importance of this: “Educators try to supplement the kids’ knowledge of Native Americans and to teach them about different cultures. But the emphasis is on how we used to live, in the past tense. The kids are never taught how to relate to us in the present. Now they can meet us, and be photographed with us, and it's present tense. It's more than just seeing us on stage.”
He added, “Learning about different cultures is important to enlarging the kids’ perspective, particularly in light of what’s going on in the world. We're in trouble today because we don't understand different cultures.”
While the powwow is a spectator event, it is a joyous reunion for Native American and an opportunity for non-Indians to learn about the beauty of Native culture.
“Pageantry is an important component of the event, and all participants are elaborately dressed. Most dances are performed in the traditional Circle, which represents a unity of peoples. There is a wealth of cultural information encoded in the movements of each dance. More than ten distinct tribes will be represented in the performance,” said TNC.