NEW YORK — Downstairs on the street, it's a typical New York rush-hour scene. Traffic slows the pace on lower Broadway, pedestrians fill the sidewalks, taxis honk their horns.
But eight stories up, in the offices of the American Indian Community House (AICH), a small band of people have left the city behind and are sharing a much more ancient rhythm.
"Way-ya-ya-heh-yo," they chant, as they beat steadily on a large octagonal drum stretched between them. "Way-ya-ya-hoe-way-yo-heh-yeah- yo-yo-yo."
"Very nice, very pretty," says Louis Mofsie, their teacher, obviously pleased with what he's hearing. "You're really getting it."
Once a week, this group of eight meets to study native-American music and dance. Motives for taking the class are diverse - an interest in the culture, an interest in music, or just plain curiosity -but the motive of the teacher is very straightforward.
"We've got to teach these things to young people," says Mr. Mofsie, who is half Hopi and half Winnebago. If native-American arts and customs are not passed down through teaching, he fears, "They will soon be lost."
Mofsie, a retired art teacher, is a member of the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers. He teaches native-American music and dance classes to anyone interested whenever he can:at the AICH, in New York City public schools, and out on reservations. "Of course we love to have native people take the classes," he says. "But it's not exclusive."
Mofsie is one of many in the native-American community who hope to preserve their cultural heritage through teaching. He says he sees an increase, both in the United States and Canada, of the teaching of native-American arts, motivated principally by a concern that these should not be lost. His own dream is to create a New York City-based foundation that would train teachers of these arts to work with public schoolchildren.
Carla Messinger, executive director of the Lenni Lenape Historical Society in Allentown, Pa., says cultural preservation is the No. 1 reason her group was formed. "We want people to know about native-American culture and the contributions that native people make." As for fears that the culture is disappearing, she says, "Those are not just fears. It is disappearing."
Mofsie says 20,000 native Americans live in New York City today, but with little to unify them. Some decades ago, he remembers, many members of the Mohawk tribe moved down from Canada and upstate New York to Brooklyn to work in the construction industry. At that time, he says, many native-American people still spoke Indian languages and lived more as a community. Brooklyn even had a couple of Christian churches, he recalls, where ministers offered services in the Mohawk language.
But today, he says, the native-American population in New York City "is a mix of all tribes with no real center."
The students in Mofsie's class bear out his contention that many New Yorkers carry small amounts of Indian ancestry. Mary Anne Rawlins says her great-grandmother was a Seneca Indian. Cecilia Birdex says both her mother's parents were half Creole. James Browder's great-grandmother was a Cherokee.
But all three say their families rarely spoke of their Indian heritage, much less passed down any teaching. "A lot of times people didn't speak about that," says Mr. Browder. "It was kind of taboo."
That's why all three say they have a hunger to learn about native traditions. "It's part of my reality," says Ms. Birdex.
Some old prejudices still linger, however. "My family is still getting used to the fact that I come here," says Ms. Rawlins.
No one in the group -Mofsie included -speaks a native-American language. The singing they do relies not on words but on vocables - units of sound used by many tribes, although each tribe had a distinct style of singing those sounds, Mofsie says. The Kiowa style of singing is one of his favorites, so two of the songs the group works on this evening are Kiowa.
Mofsie peppers his musical instruction with explanations of Indian tradition, which spark considerable interest among the group. "I should have asked a lot of questions when I was young," says Browder. In recent years, he has also studied the Cherokee language. "It's in me," he says.
Not all class members were drawn by heritage. Laurel Bishow says she enrolled because she loves drum music of all kinds. "I went to an Indian powwow on Staten Island to hear the music," she recalls, "and I just became addicted to Indian drumming."
But whatever the motive, says Ms. Messinger, these classes are vital. If native culture is lost, she says, the world would lose some of "the beauty of diversity."
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