Photos by Robert Mastrianni
Louis Mofsie, second from right, with dancers from the group Thunderbird American Indian Dancers

Saving the Dance: Hopi/Winnebago Dancer Louis Mofsie Is Striving to Preserve Pow Wow Tradition

Tish Leizens
3/2/13

At the age of 76, Louis Mofsie, Hopi/Winnebago, an accomplished dancer, choreographer, educator and artistic director of the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, which he founded 50 years ago, is as busy as ever.

Forget about retirement.  From January 25 to February 3 he led his Native dance group to perform its Annual Dance Concert and Pow Wow at the Theater for the New City in New York City.

The concert was a theater presentation where the troupe performs dances from the Inuit of Alaska, the Iroquois of New York, the Hopi and Yaqui of the Southwest and the Plains Indians of the Great Plains. Plans are also underway for their annual Queens County Farm Museum Pow Wow at the end of July and their 50th anniversary pow wow at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York on April 20. There are also a number of school workshops and appearances lined up around the metropolitan area throughout the year.

Brooklyn-born Mofise is well loved in his home state. In 1984, he was awarded the New York City Indian of the Year. His leadership was recognized with a New York City Leadership Award by the Law Department and Mayors Office in 1991.

His choreography credits in New York include One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Mercer Arts Center; Operation Sidewinders, Lincoln Center Repertory Company; Three Masked Dances, La Mama ETC.; and The Only Good Indian, Theater for the New City.

At a time when pow wows are evolving to be mega events with huge prize money, Mofsie looks back to the time when it was all about bringing people together and enjoying each other’s company through song and dance. He still believes in the pow wow tradition and has made it part of his mission to preserve Native dances that are no longer performed.

ICTMN caught up with Mofsie before his big concert at the Theater for the New City as he reflected on his 50th year of entertaining and educating the audience about Native culture.

What are your thoughts on the 50th year of the founding of your dance troupe, Thunderbird American Indian Dancers?

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of our dance company is overwhelming. I guess 50 years ago when we first organized our group no one would have thought we would last that many years, least of all me.  It’s a credit to all those who have worked so hard over the years to help make it a reality.

Why did you start it? What is your recollection of when you started to form the group?

Before we became the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers we were called the Little Eagles. The Little Eagles were made up of a group of teenagers who grew up in Brooklyn. We had learned a great deal from our parents about their tribal backgrounds including dance and music. I think most of us grew up dancing and singing. So it only seemed natural that we would form a small group to continue our interests. We also branched out to learn the music and dance from other tribes.

Photo by Robert Mastianni

You are an MC, choreographer, dancer . . .  what is it you enjoy doing most?

The most enjoyment I get out of what I do is to make contact with the people in the audience and the people I’m working with. I try to make the experience an enjoyable one, as well as an educational one.  I find that most people want to learn more about something they thought they knew something about and I think people learn far better when the experience is enjoyable rather than a chore.

Why is educating non-Natives about Native culture important to you?

Educating non-Natives about our culture has been a primary part of the mission statement of our group. Addressing stereotypes and explaining the disrespect they reflect on native people, as well as, other misunderstood cultures is vitally important. We do many school residencies here in the metropolitan area and reaching children at a young age is the best time to influence their perceptions.

What else is in your mission statement?

Part of our mission statement is also to preserve and perpetuate the songs and dances of various tribes. In some instances some of the dances we do are no longer performed. If we can preserve these dances and songs we feel we are helping to keep the culture alive.  All of our material is social music and dance. We do not do any dances or songs that have any ceremonial or religious significance.

What do you think is your major accomplishment in life?

I think my major accomplishment in life has been to feel proud of my Native heritage and to able to share what I have learned with both Native and non-Native people. Since I have been a classroom teacher for 35 years my emphasis has been on education. Helping people get a greater understanding of the richness and beauty of the Native people through music and dance.

What was the biggest obstacle in your life?

Like most people the general run of obstacles have affected me—lack of sufficient time and money to do what you would like to do at the time you feel it is most important. Living here in New York also presents it’s own set of problems. I think keeping calm and being patient have been a blessing for me since it seems, given enough time, most problems will solve themselves.

What else do you want to accomplish at this stage in your life?

I would like to stay as healthy as I can and continue to do the work we are doing.  Between fulfilling the obligations we have here and traveling—we are on the go most of the year. I’m hopeful there will be someone who will carry on the work we have begun. There are so many people yet to meet and teach about our culture and it is our responsibility to get the work done.

Photo by Robert Mastianni

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