How a Native American dance troupe is keeping its legacy alive in uncertain times

In Native American culture, the powwow is a beloved tradition that serves as a meeting and occasion for Native tribes to come together and celebrate their cultures. In short, it’s the antithesis of COVID-19 restrictions.

Despite this challenge, the 46th Annual Thunderbird American Indian Dancers Pow Wow and Dance Concert will be held Feb. 20 at New York City’s Theater for the New City, with audiences tuning in from home.

“Even though we work under very different conditions, we want to maintain the tradition of being in the theater,” says Louis Mofsie, artistic director and co-founder of the troupe, and member of the Hopi and Winnebago tribes. .

Native American Thunderbird Dancers

Lee Wexler, courtesy of Jonathan Slaff & Associates

Preserve the sense of movement

The powwow will feature storytelling and social dances from various tribes, including the hoop dance, deer dance, grass dance, jingle dress dance, shawl dance, fancy dance, the robin dance and the smoke dance.

Each dance in the concert has a unique story or purpose. Some, like the robin dance, use movements that mimic animals. For the Iroquois, the robins symbolize the arrival of spring, so the dancers imitate the small jumps made by the robins when they are on the ground.

To make the powwow a learning opportunity as well as a performance, Mofsie says the group also explains the cultural significance of each dance and what the moves represent.

“Stereotypes have been presented for so many years about Aboriginal people and their dance, so we feel it’s very important that people understand what they’re seeing,” he says.

Embrace heritage and history

The Thunderbird American Indian Dancers are New York’s oldest resident Native American dance company. It was founded in 1963 by a group of 10 New Yorkers descended from the Mohawk, Hopi, Winnebago and San Blas tribes.

Since retiring, after working as an educator for 35 years, Mofsie has given her full attention to Thunderbird and spreading her purpose.

“You can feel the power of the dances,” he says. “We pass on our heritage. It’s something that has been with us spiritually from the very beginning, and we still feel it.

Five women, dressed in colorful fringed shawls and boots, dance as they swing their draped shawls over their shoulders.

Thunderbird American Indian Dancers demonstrate a shawl dance.

Lee Wexler, courtesy of Jonathan Slaff & Associates

Ticket sales Go to a special cause

As is customary for the event, box office proceeds will go to the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers Scholarship Fund to help Native Americans attend college.

Mofsie says the fund was created in 1963 to address the challenges faced by young Native Americans who wanted to attend college but received limited federal funding if they lived in urban areas, like New York, rather than on reservations. . Since the fund’s inception, the group has awarded more than 350 scholarships.

A lasting community partnership

The troupe’s relationship with Theater for the New City dates back to 1975, after Mofsie met its manager, Crystal Field, while living briefly on a Hopi reservation in search of a play. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for both organizations, their 46-year partnership has remained strong.

“There’s no question that people are dying to perform,” Field says. “What is an artist when he is not working? It’s their life.

The live stream of the powwow will be available beginning February 20 at 7 p.m. EST on the theater’s website. Tickets can be purchased for $5 and the performance will remain available to stream on demand until March 7.

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