Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation
Carlos Ponce-Eagle Feather (Mayan) performs a men’s traditional war dance in Thunderbird American Indian Dancers’ Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, presented by Theater for the New City.

New York’s Thunderbird American Dancers Dance Concert and Pow Wow to Celebrate 40 Years


NEW YORK — Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, NYC will present its 40th annual Thunderbird American Dancers Dance Concert and Pow Wow from January 30 to February 8, 2015. There will be dances, stories and traditional music from the Iroquois and Native Peoples of the Northeast, Southwest and Great Plains regions. The event has become a treasured New York tradition for celebrating our diversity by honoring the culture of our first Americans.

A pow wow is more than just a spectator event: it is a joyous reunion for native peoples nationwide, and an opportunity for the non-Indian community to voyage into the philosophy and beauty of Native culture. Traditionally a gathering and sharing of events, pow wows have come to include spectacular dance competitions, exhibitions, and enjoyment of traditional foods.

Highlights will include storytelling by Matoka Eagle (Santo Domingo, Tewa), a Hoop Dance by Marie Ponce (Cherokee), an Eagle Dance from the Hopi Tribe by Raymond Two Feathers (Cherokee), a Grass Dance and Jingle Dress Dance (from the Northern Plains people), a Stomp Dance (from the Southeastern tribes), a Shawl Dance (from the Oklahoma tribes), a Deer Dance (from the Yaqui Tribes of Southern Arizona) and a Robin Dance and Smoke Dance (from the Iroquois).  As the audience enters the theater, they will be serenaded by the Heyna Second Son Singers (various tribes). In the final section of the program, the audience will be invited to join in the Round Dance, a Friendship Dance (in evening shows) and a Contest Dance (in matinees).

Pageantry is an important component of the event, and all participants are elaborately dressed. There is a wealth of cultural information encoded in the movements of each dance. More than ten distinct tribes
will be represented in the performance.Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, presented by Theater for the New City. Iroquois Robin Dance: clockwise from front right: Louis Mofsie (Hopi/Winnebago), Alan Brown (Lenape), Carlos Ponce (Mayan), Ciarán Tufford, Ray Two Feathers (Cherokee), Kitty Gabourel Mullen (Mayan), Julian Gabourel (Mayan), Dale Legones.  (Courtesy Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation)

Throughout the performance, all elements are explained in depth through detailed introductions by the troupe’s Director and Emcee Louis Mofsie (Hopi/Winnebago). An educator, Mofsie plays an important part in the show by his ability to present a comprehensive view of native culture. Native American arts & crafts and jewelry will be sold in the TNC lobby.

Matinees are kids days, when children under twelve, accompanied by an adult, are admitted for $1.00 (adults $10). At the conclusion of these matinees, young audience members are welcome to the stage to be photographed with the dancers. This component of the show was inspired by the troupe’s school residencies. Says Louis Mofsie, the Thunderbirds’ artistic director, “Educators try to supplement the kids’ knowledge of Native Americans and to teach them about different cultures. But the emphasis is on how we used to live, in the past tense. The kids are never taught how to relate to us in the present. Now they can meet us, and be photographed with us, and it’s present tense. It’s more than just seeing us on stage.” He adds, “Learning about different cultures is important to enlarging the kids’ perspective, particularly in light of what’s going on in the world. We’re in trouble today because we don’t understand different cultures.”

The Thunderbird American Indian Dancers are the oldest, resident Native American dance company in New York. The troupe was founded in 1963 by a group of ten Native American men and women, all New Yorkers, who descend from Mohawk, Hopi, Winnebago and San Blas tribes. Prominent among the founders were Louis Mofsie (Hopi/Winnebago) and his sister, Josephine Mofsie (deceased), Rosemary Richmond (Mohawk), Muriel Miguel (Cuna/Rapahannock) and Jack Preston (Seneca, deceased). 

They founded the troupe to keep traditions, songs and dances alive, that they had learned from their parents, and added to their repertoire from other Native Americans living in New York. Jack Preston taught the company its Iroquois dances, including the Robin Dance and Fish Dance. To these were added dances from the plains, including the Hopi Buffalo Dance, and newer dances including the Grass Dance and Jingle Dress Dance. The company was all-volunteer, a tradition that exists to today. “To be going for 50 years is just amazing to me,” Louis Mofsie said.

The troupe made a home in the old McBurney YMCA on 23rd Street and Seventh Ave. Within three or four years, they were traveling throughout the continental U.S., expanding and sharing their repertoire and gleaning new dances on the reservations. A number of Thunderbird members are winners of Fancy Dance contests, where the standard of competition is unmistakably high.

The Thunderbird-TNC collaboration began in 1975, when Crystal Field directed a play called “The Only Good Indian.” For research, Ms. Field lived on a Hopi reservation for three weeks. In preparation for the project, she met Mofsie, artistic director of the group, and a representative of the American Indian Community House.  They made plans to start a pow wow to celebrate the Winter Solstice. The event has continued annually to this day.

The troupe’s appearances also benefit college scholarship funds for Native American students. The Thunderbird American Indian Dancers Scholarship Fund receives its sole support from events like this concert (it receives no government or corporate contributions), and has bestowed over 350 scholarships to-date. Theater for the New City has been presenting pow wows annually as a two-week event since 1976, with the box office donated to these scholarships.

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