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Native American Dance Troupe Charms Europeans

By Steve Devitt

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  Five hundred years after Columbus began the European "invasion" of America, a Native American decided to invade Europe.

Like the Spaniards, he went for the gold, and Europeans were more than happy to give it to him. Especially if he brought along dozens or more of his Native American brethren.

Richard Donaghey, a Caddo Indian from Oklahoma, is not a well-known man in the United States. His students at Navajo Pines, where he teaches junior and senior English and communications, know him, and people who follow McKinley County sports may recognize him as the head football coach for the Navajo Pines Warriors.

But in the Netherlands, at least, he has become something of a celebrity. He is a "talking head" for a Dutch television program, "The American Experience," and he is a consultant for the same program.

Since 1993, Donaghey has been taking Native American dance troupes to Europe. He has been there during every month of the year, accompanied by as many as 50 Native Americans at a time.

As president and chief marketer of First Nation Dance Company, Donaghey is tuned into the current European craze for Americana. He and his ensemble -- he has a calling list of more than 100 Native American dancers -- have performed in Holland, Belgium and Germany.

"[The Europeans] are nuts about the American West," he said.

They are particular crazy about "Indianen and Cowboys" -- their terminology for the mythical (and sometimes not so) "Cowboys and Indians" of 19th-century Western lore.


From Pow-wow Bum to Household Name

Like Columbus, Donaghey didn't know where he was going when he started out. But he definitely knew where he was when he got there.

"I was a pow-wow bum for years," he said. Like many young Native Americans, Donaghey started dancing at pow-wows when he was a child. As he grew older, the cash attracted him as much as the socializing and cultural imperatives. By the time he was 37, he had invested both time and money into the pow-wow trail, and not without rewards.

"The prize money was good," he said, "but not as good as it is now, what with the infusion of gambling money into the prize coffers."

A top dancer, according to Donaghey, can earn as much as $3,000 at a pow-wow sponsored by a tribe with gambling money coming in. But that wasn't happening when Donaghey was performing in 1992.

Bob de Jong, a Dutch television producer, attended one of these performances. He interviewed Donaghey one evening and called him at his Fort Defiance, N.M., home the next day. The conversation developed into a professional relationship: Would Donaghey be willing to bring a dance troupe to Europe?

He would and did. Seven years later, he is a household name and face in Europe.

Donaghey says that people recognize him at The Hague, saying, "Look, there's the 'Indian man.'"

Small wonder. He has been seen dancing with about 20 members of the First Nation Dance Company on the set of a program that resembles "The Tonight Show," and his photo can be found in "market" magazines that extol the wonders of the American West.

In several programs, he explains the importance of Indian dancing to a white European audience that has proved much more curious about the Native art form than American audiences.

Last month, Donaghey took a 10-person troupe to perform for a one-day show in Istanbul, Turkey, and the First Nation Dance Company has a standing offer to perform in Singapore. Donaghey is also considering offers to take a show to France.

The work is steadier than pow-wows, and the pay is assured.

Ironically, the work the troupe gets in the United States is modeling. Individuals get up to $1,200 a day to appear in costume -- and are paid a "costume rental fee" -- for photographers' photo files and advertising. These photos generally appear in European advertisements. Also, for three years, Donaghey and some of his troupe have appeared in European television ads for Marlboro cigarettes.

Much of the advertising promoting American products or destinations appears with English words.

"What people here don't realize," he said, "is that the people over there -- particularly in Holland -- speak, read and write English better than we do. We're way behind."


Education at Home and Abroad

Before becoming a "European celeb," Donaghey was, and remains, involved in Indian education. He holds a bachelor's degree in science and a master's in education, and worked for several years with an Oklahoma-based group involved in the education of gifted and talented Indian youth.

He believes the people of New Mexico -- particularly those involved in promoting tourism -- need a bit of Indian education.

One advertising pamphlet in which Donaghey appears sells travel tours -- of Arizona. In fact, in his collection of European magazines aimed at quenching the lust of Europeans for everything American -- from Zippo lighters ("They all smoke over there," explains Donaghey) to Elvis -- only Arizona and the Canadian province of British Columbia have prominent ads taking advantage of this untapped market.

And those two governmental entities are reaping the benefits of a strong European economy that allows European tourists to indulge their fascination with the American West. Their destination is more often the Grand Canyon and the Canadian Rockies than the New Mexican portion of the wide-spread Navajo Nation and the state's stretches of historic Route 66.

The Mother Road -- particularly the Western portion -- is a favorite subject of European writers and photographers who provide copy for European magazines in order to cater to their readers' insatiable fascination.

But neither New Mexico nor the tourism attractions in the state have made any effort to capitalize on the current craze.

"We're talking about millions of dollars here," Donaghey said.

Donaghey has tried to correct the situation, but says his letters to local newspapers have drawn little response.

"I look at those billboards for Gallup," he said, "and I have to wonder: Do they just like to see their name on the sign?"

Donaghey has little time to worry about it.

"I'm not rich," he smiled, "but I'm working on it."

So when he's not pushing Navajo high school students toward the dreaded term paper or pushing the Navajo Pines Warriors into their next gridiron victory, he's at home monitoring the First Nation Dance Company's Web site -- the medium that got the group the one-day job in Turkey.

But there are some aspects of Indian culture he has had to forsake. The pamphlets for the group emphasize that this particular ensemble of Indians does not run on "Indian time." Since many of their jobs are tied to television production, the troupe is known for being on time and ready to perform.

The names on Donaghey's list represent a plethora of Indian tribes, people he met on the pow-wow trail over a period of years. Members are Navajo, Zuni, Sioux, and even Inuit from Alaska. Most of the dances the troupe performs, like the "fancy dance" and "jingle dress dance," have become staples at pow-wows.

"We can do dances that are specifically from the north or south regions of the West," he said.

Still, Donaghey remains close enough to his roots to retain viable authenticity.

On a European program, he can be seen explaining the importance of Indian dancing.

"We dance to celebrate important events," he said. "We celebrate the birth of a child or somebody graduating from school. We dance to celebrate life."


The First Nations Dance Company has a Web site at www.cia-g.com/~fndc and can be contacted via e-mail at fndc@cia-g.com.


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