How a Native American dance troupe preserves its legacy in uncertain times


In Native American culture, the powwow is a beloved tradition that serves as a reunion and opportunity 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 powwow and dance concert will be held on February 20 at the Theater for the New City in New York City, with audiences tuned in from their homes.

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

Thunderbird American Indian 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, the stag dance, the grass dance, the bell dress dance, the shawl dance, the fancy dance, the robin dance and 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, robins symbolize the arrival of spring, so the dancers imitate the small jumps made by 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 movements represent.

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

Embrace heritage and history

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

Since his retirement, after working as an educator for 35 years, Mofsie has given his full attention to Thunderbird and the spread of his lens.

“You can feel the power of the dances,” he says. “We are passing on our heritage. It is something that has accompanied us spiritually from the very beginning, and we still feel it.

Five women, dressed in shawls and colorful fringed boots, dance by articulating their shawls, which are draped 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 tradition for the event, box office proceeds will be donated to the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers Scholarship Fund to help Native Americans attend college.

Mofsie says the fund was established in 1963 to address the challenges faced by young Native Americans who wanted to go to college but received limited federal funding if they lived in urban areas, like New York City, rather than urban areas. reservations. Since the creation of the fund, the group has awarded more than 350 scholarships.

A long-lasting community partnership

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

“People are definitely dying to play,” says Field. “What is an artist when he is not working? It’s their life.

The powwow livestream will be available starting February 20 at 7 p.m. ET on the theater website. Tickets can be purchased for $ 5 and the performance will remain available to stream on demand until March 7.


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