Courtesy Felicia Rivera
Pueblo of Pojoaque youth hoop dancers at the World Hoop Dance Championships in Phoenix, February 2014.

Pojoaque Hoop Dancers Invited to France; Chef Cook-Off to Raise Funding

Kelly Koepke

In an effort to raise the $60,000 needed to send a group of 13 youth hoop dancers from the Pueblo of Pojoaque to France this summer, three chefs will prepare a buffalo feast on May 3, 2014. The event, titled Thunder Chef, will be held at the Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino, a venture of the Pueblo of Pojoaque, and includes the raffle of a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

The dance group, whose members range in age from 5 to 17, formed in summer of 2013. Under the instruction of six-time world champion hoop dancer Nakotah LaRance (Hopi/Assiniboine/Tewa), and accompanied by his father, singer and drummer Steve LaRance (Hopi/Assiniboine), the dancers thrived in their purpose: to give the kids a sense of community and pride in who they are as Pueblo members, and to bring the community together behind their efforts.

Many believe that hoop dancing came from Taos Pueblo and was originally a healing ceremony. It then spread throughout the Southwest and into the Great Plains. There is no organized tradition of hoop dancing at Pojoaque, and thus no traditional dress for hoop dancers. The LaRances lent outfits for the boys to wear, which were used as templates for others. The girls wear “mantas,” similar to what they would wear during traditional Pueblo dances. Overall, the effect is festive and colorful as the dancers move. Steve LaRance sings English pow wow songs for performances, songs from the Nakotah/Lakotah Sioux language, and his own original compositions.

“How fortunate we are to have Steve and Nakotah offering their time to the Pueblo to revive something that has been lost for a bit,” says Felicia Rivera, one of the dance group’s organizers. “Nakotah has a combination of dancing talent and teaching talent and a good rapport with the kids. They donate lot of extra time, too, to perform at Buffalo Thunder, and at schools.” Rivera’s son is a dancer, and the group’s participants represent the entire Pueblo.

The youngsters attended the World Hoop Dance championship in Phoenix in February, where they were the largest group to perform. The group’s YouTube video caught the attention of the Festival Rosa Vetroz, held outside Paris each year. This festival features traditional music and dance from around the world, but has never had a group from the United States participate.

“That’s when all the fundraising really started,” continues Rivera. “The students really will dance anywhere. At family events, at schools, at parties. They love to have and show their skills, and it makes people feel good to see them dance. Like a healing ceremony, almost. It gathers attention, and makes people feel really good.” Rivera says that group is trying to arrange performances at the New World Museum in La Rochelle, France, in conjunction with its summer exhibition of American Indians of California and the Southwest, as well as some sight-seeing in France.

It was during one of these “anywhere” performances that chef Freddie Bitsoie saw the youngsters dance and heard of their mission to raise money to travel to Europe. “We were at a dinner at Red Sage (a restaurant at Buffalo Thunder) with Governor George Rivera and others in March, and were welcomed with the dancers,” Bitsoie (Diné) says. “We started throwing around ideas to raise money and George had the idea of an Iron Chef-style cook-off between me and Red Sage chef Ka’ainoa Ravey (Hawaiian). Then someone suggested adding Ahmed Obo from Santa Fe’s Jambo Café, because he always wins competitions. Ahmed is from Kenya.”

The Thunder Chef cook-off event at the resort on May 3 is actually the culmination of a month’s worth of activities involving a bison hunt, two weeks of preparing and curing the animal, and the day when the three chefs selected their cuts of meat.

“The idea is to make a global native cook off,” Bitsoie continues. “Chef Ahmed will do his traditional flavors from Africa, I’ll do mine from Arizona and New Mexico, and Ka’ai will do those from the Pacific Islands. We all went out to hunt the buffalo, respectfully killed it, and went through the butchering process. We’re making a plan to feed everyone. We have to make 1500 tasting portions total. We have to figure out how to share the kitchen.”

Bitsoie is impressed with how quickly and with how much support the event has come together. “When we saw the kids dancing, they were expressing their talent, culture, and the hospitality that the Pueblos are known for. The hunt was a huge group of people who came to see the killing of the buffalo, to show their tremendous respect for the offering that the animal gives for the people to eat. At the same time, it has brought everyone together in the common goal to send these kids to the festival. It shows the coming together of the community, the casino, and everyone to support youth and their learning about their own culture and sharing that across the world. That’s what’s really special, it’s displaying all the elements of Native cultures in one event.”

Bitsoie, who was spotlighted on an episode of the PBS cooking series Lidia’s Italy in America, is also featured on the series Rezervations Not Required. This show, under development by Sleeping Lady/Waking Giants Productions, includes Native celebrity guests on location, and is part cooking show, part travel and culture show. Each episode focuses on a unique cuisine and culture of tribal reserves and reservations around the world. Sleeping Lady/Waking Giants was started by actor Irene Bedard (Inupiat, Inuit and Métis) and Canadian businessman Thom Denomme, as a majority Native American owned film, television and new media production company.

Ka’ainoa Ravey, Chef de Cuisine at Red Sage, is a native Hawaiian. His food has been described as a little Hawaiian, a little New Mexican, with an American attitude and an Asian twist. Ahmed Obo, chef and owner of Jambo Café, hails from Lamu Island, off the coast of Kenya. His dishes combine European, Arabic and Indian influences. Jambo Café is known for its goat curry, jerk chicken, Nigerian ribs, and multiple award winning soups.

The 395-room Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino opened in 2009. It includes a spa, golf course, convention space and extensive collection of Native American art on display throughout the building. The collection of pottery, historical rugs, photography, painting, sculpture and carvings, represents some 75 artists from the 22 tribal entities in New Mexico at the time.

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