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The Thunderbirds Mark 40 Years at Theater for the New City

by Bonnie Rosenstock
January 7, 2015
Theater for the New City
155 First Avenue
New York, NY 10003
(212) 254-1109
One of New York's anticipated annual winter traditions is the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, which has taken place at the Theater for the New City (TNC) for the last forty years. It not only affords non-Indians the opportunity to learn about Native American culture first-hand, but it is also an important event for Native Americans.

In modern times "pow-wow" has come to mean a place for Native People to gather, dance, sing and strengthen their cultural traditions and ties. "We are so happy we can still do it and that Native People still come and appreciate what we're doing," said Thunderbird co-founder and artistic director Louis Mofsie in a phone interview. Mofsie, who also acts as emcee and occasional dancer, added, "People in New York City are happy we've included some of their dances."

Mofsie explained that the Big Apple is home to the largest number of Native People from different tribes across the country. "New York City is unique in that regard," he said. "It's not true anywhere else—for example, New Mexico is 99 percent Navajo." According to the 2010 census, over 112,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives are living in the New York City Tri-State area, stated the American Indian Community House (AICH) website. The Brooklyn-born Mofsi, who is half Hopi (father from Arizona) and half Winnebago (mother from Nebraska)—they met in New York—is also one of the founding members of AICH, located at 254 West 29th Street where the troupe rehearses. "It's not just the dances with Thunderbird; it's the whole idea of a community center in New York which is an important place for different activities and helps people who come to the city from different reservations," he said.

Thunderbird is the oldest resident Native American dance company in New York. The group consists of around 25 members, including a dozen dancers from distinct tribes. Some have been with the group since its founding 52 years ago, in 1963 (the same year AICH was founded), by ten Native American men and women New Yorkers who descended from Mohawk, Hopi, Winnebago and San Blas tribes—they were first generation not born on a reservation. Current members range in age from 15 to 78, with Mofsie the eldest. Since its founding, the company has been all-volunteer.

The program consists of dances and dance competitions, stories and traditional music and food of the Iroquois and Native Peoples from the Northeast, Southwest and Great Plains regions. Native crafts and jewelry will be sold in the TNC lobby. Highlights include storytelling by Matoaka Eagle (Santo Domingo, Tewa), a Hoop Dance by Marie Poncé (Cherokee), an Eagle Dance from the Hopi tribe by Raymond Two Feathers (Cherokee), a Grass Dance and Jingle Dress Dance (Northern Plains people), a Stomp Dance (Southeastern tribes), a Shawl Dance (Oklahoma tribes), a Deer Dance (Yaqui tribes of Southern Arizona) and a Robin Dance and Smoke Dance (Iroquois). In the final segment, the audience will be invited to join in the Round Dance, a Friendship Dance (evening shows) and a Contest Dance (kids' matinees).

Mofsie told me that some of the older dances they have learned through their individual or small group travels around the country aren't being performed very much or at all. "When we come back to New York, we get together and talk about all that we've seen and try to put them together for a New York presentation," he said. "We find it's really important to let people know that the dances are still being done." He cited the Thunder Dance from Santo Domingo, Tewa Pueblo in New Mexico and the Iroquois Robin Dance, a celebration of spring, as in danger of disappearing.

Matinees are devoted to kids. At the conclusion, the youngsters are invited to the stage to be photographed with the dancers, inspired by the troupe's school residencies. "Educators try to supplement the kids' knowledge of Native Americans and to teach them about different cultures," said Mofsie, a retired teacher. "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 added, "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-TNC collaboration began in 1975, when Crystal Field, TNC's artistic director, was directing a play called "The Only Good Indian." For research, Field lived on a Hopi reservation for three weeks. As a result she met Mofsie, and they arranged for a Pow-Wow to celebrate the Winter Solstice. "I give Crystal a great deal of credit for bringing us back each year," said Mofsie.

All box office proceeds go to the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers Scholarship Fund, which to date has benefited 350 Native Americans. One of the reasons the fund was established, explained Mofsie, was that Native Americans who did not live on a reservation were not eligible for federal financial assistance. "There were a number of Native People in the city who needed help," he said. "It's important for students to understand that it is Native People who are helping their own people to go to college."

Another significant element of the program is the troupe's elaborate regalia. "We don't call it 'costumes' because that's something you wear on Halloween," said Mofsie. The performers have been taught leatherwork, beadwork, featherwork and make what they are going to wear. "It's very important in terms of craft to understand how these things are handed down from generation to generation," he added. "Regalia are part of our traditional way of dressing. It's not pretending to be someone else. This is who we are."

The 40th Annual Thunderbird American Dancers Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, January 30 to February 8, 2015. Fridays at 8:00 pm; Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm; Sundays at 3:00 pm.
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue (between 9th and 10th Streets)
$10 general admission to all evening shows. Kids' Matinees: Children under twelve, accompanied by a $10 ticket-bearing adult, are admitted for $1.00. All performances: 90 minutes.
Box office/audience info (212) 254-1109. Online ticketing: www.theaterforthenewcity.net
POW-WOW—Finale of Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, presented by Theater for the New City January 31 to February 9, 2014.

POW-WOW—Finale of Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, presented by Theater for the New City January 31 to February 9, 2014.

Photo © & courtesy of Jonathan Slaff


POW-WOW—Hoop dance in Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, presented by Theater for the New City January 31 to February 9, 2014.

POW-WOW—Hoop dance in Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, presented by Theater for the New City January 31 to February 9, 2014.

Photo © & courtesy of Jonathan Slaff


Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, presented by Theater for the New City January 31 to February 9, 2014.

Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, presented by Theater for the New City January 31 to February 9, 2014.

Photo © & courtesy of Lee Wexler


Carlos Ponce-Eagle Feather (Mayan) in Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, presented by Theater for the New City January 31 to February 9, 2014.

Carlos Ponce-Eagle Feather (Mayan) in Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' Dance Concert and Pow-Wow, presented by Theater for the New City January 31 to February 9, 2014.

Photo © & courtesy of Lee Wexler


Photo © & courtesy of Jonathan Slaff


Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' 36th Annual Dance Concert and Pow-Wow at Theater for the New City, NYC, January 28 to February 6, 2011. (L) Carlos Ponce/Eagle Feather (Mayan) and (R) Alan Browne - Shooting Star (Delaware/Dutch)

Thunderbird American Indian Dancers' 36th Annual Dance Concert and Pow-Wow at Theater for the New City, NYC, January 28 to February 6, 2011. (L) Carlos Ponce/Eagle Feather (Mayan) and (R) Alan Browne - Shooting Star (Delaware/Dutch)

Photo © & courtesy of Lee Wexler

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