Yellow Bird Indian Dancers: It's a Duncan Family Affair
They still call themselves Yellow Bird Indian Dancers but the Duncan family from Mesa, Arizona, can do just about any entertaining before presidents and royalty, for Native and non-natives, here and abroad.
Their list of family accomplishments is outstanding, and as the family grows—one grandchild is expected soon—their fans can expect new songs, dances and stories and their role as ambassadors of Native goodwill to evolve moving forward.
“It is a family affair. We have been doing this for a long time,” said Ken Duncan Sr., Apache, who with his wife, Doreen, Northern Plains Indian from North Dakota, used to dance abroad with a Native group back in college.
The name Yellow Bird came from Doreen’s maternal Arikara family name. Doreen is also Hidatsa and Mandan.
“We started in 1984. We were the only second Native dance group in Arizona at that time,” said Duncan. At that time their kids, between the ages of 4 and 8 started to join them. “We taught them how to dance. We sang family songs, and now we have grandchildren.”
Today, twenty-eight years later, Ken and Doreen have six sons and one daughter, Christy Duncan Lopez, who has four children, and Tony, 29, a five-time World Champion Hoop Dancer, has two kids and a little one coming soon.
“We have everything. Our son Tony also has his own musical group [Estun-Bah]” said Duncan, adding that his son plays flute and produces his own “contemporized Native music” aside from being a hoop dancer. His wife, Violet, also a hoop dancer, was Miss Indian World in 2007.
“It is a dream job. I can spend time with my children and see them grow up. It is a perfect fit for our family,” said Doreen, who handles the administrative and marketing side of the business, while Ken focuses on the creative side.
“I don’t dance anymore. I play the flute, sing and tell stories,” said Duncan. “Doreen still dances. She is also the emcee and narrator.”
The clan’s dance repertoire highlight their individual talents: Kenny Jr., the eldest at 32, is a grass, eagle and hoop dancer; Christy, jingle dress, Apache rainbow and bow and arrow; Karl, flutist and northern traditional; Kevin, eagle and multi-champion hoop dancer; Sky, hoop and eagle dancer; and Talon, the youngest at 14, is a champion fancy war dancer.
The six grandchildren, from ages 1 to 10, have bragging rights too, with a list extending to fancy shawl, jingle dress, hoop, fancy war, prairie chicken and butterfly dances.
Lately, Duncan said they are doing more Apache dance and songs and hoop dancing. “Too many people are doing the same thing. Most dance groups are doing pow wows. Pow wows are everywhere.”
And because they differentiated themselves with their Apache dances, the family was noticed and awarded the “Culture Keepers of Arizona” by former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. The recognition has opened the door for the Duncan’s to be ambassadors of Native culture here and abroad.
“We toured 20 some countries,” said Duncan, adding that they do four to five foreign trips a year, visiting American embassies and consulates and entertaining American Peace Keeping Force and Allies at a NATO Military Base in Kosovo.
The Duncan family, most often booked six times a week, has entertained First Lady Laura Bush, U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, the Queen of Denmark and the Queen of Tonga.
Recently, they had a more immediate mission. Organizers of the 2012 London Olympics sought them out to perform a traditional dance and ask the creator to keep the grounds dry for the historic sporting event.
“My grandfather was a lightning medicine man. He had close ties with the rain, thunder and lightning,” said Duncan, noting that he learned from his grandfather and grandmother how to acknowledge, fear and respect the natural elements.
While it is dancing that broke the ground for the Duncans, there are other things that they have been called on to do that make life interesting and fulfilling for the family.
Recently, a physician at Walter Reed Army Medical Center asked Duncan—who is also a cultural lecturer—if he could lecture on Apache warriors, specifically on the healing process and how it may be applied to military soldiers back from war.
Interestingly, he and Doreen, married for 34 years, were asked to speak about how they maintain a healthy marriage and share their views on how to prevent diabetes and suicides among veterans. Their children are often asked about their views on pop culture.
Their journey as a family of entertainers is not without highs and lows. Duncan recalled being humiliated in Beirut two years ago when they lost their comfortable room accommodations to cowboy performers and asked to stay in tipis on ground with unbearable desert sweltering heat.
"My biggest accomplishment is when we are in front of our Native people and they acknowledge us doing right by our culture and they approve our songs, dances and stories,” said Duncan.
The Duncan family got that chance again when the clan performed recently in their San Carlos reservation for the Senior Apache Day.
“It inspires my wife and I as parents and grandparents,” said Duncan as to how he feels when they are all together and performing. “We are very much involved. We keep up with our grandchildren. Our grandson, 6 years old, is very enthusiastic. He is a very good dancer.”
“I feel so blessed. We went home in July. Our sons danced in the pow wow. Our community gave me an award —the Mother Corn—honoring women. Women are important for my tribe,” said Doreen.
“We are very proud of who we are and so proud to be Native Americans. We cannot be and will not be anything else. With that pride we can actually educate through entertainment,” said Duncan.