An Audacious Dancer’s Apache-Navajo Mashup—and the Outcry that Followed

Blending the lessons of his dual—some say dueling—Native American lineage, a Grammy-winning artist finds spiritual purpose, international fame, and a few sharp critics.

An Audacious Dancer’s Apache-Navajo Mashup—and the Outcry that Followed

First you hear the war whoops. Then you see the headdresses, rising two, three feet or higher above the black, masked faces of the Native American men that have commandeered an intersection in the center of Globe, Arizona.

Some passersby seem understandably unnerved when they happen upon the display in this sleepy city, home to about 7,000 people.

On any other day, travelers through the southwest desert might overlook Globe as just a stop on a greater itinerary. But the stomping, swaying, painted performers of the Apache Crown Dancers have turned these cross streets into something akin to a holy ground, more in keeping with the traditions of the approximately 12,000 residents of the nearby San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation than the city’s population. In the 19th century, such dancers were commonplace in this region, and the routines have lived on for some among the large Native Americans population in this region.

The initial mood of the onlookers — whose attire consists mainly of denim shorts or jeans, t-shirts, sneakers and fanny packs, putting them at visual odds with the dancers — is fidgety. Several of the older observers stand with crossed arms, shifting from foot-to-foot as the dancers stomp and whirl, filling the air with the vociferous jangle of the golf-ball-sized silver bells attached to their waistbands along with chants many outside a reservation may have thought were relegated to movies of the Western genre.

Slowly, these spectators move toward the dancers, whose high-rising, spiked headdresses, reminiscent of hawks’ wingspans, gleam in the sun. As the crowd grows more comfortable with the ceremony, their arms relax and unfurl like the petals of a flower. Their legs follow suit as some begin to sway themselves.

When the spirited fifteen-minute dance draws to a close, near silence blankets the area for a moment. Then, a few fans drift toward Joe Tohonnie Jr., the leader of the dance troupe. Some want to talk. Others ask for a blessing. Tohonnie, thirty-five, wearing a white cowboy hat, western shirt, jeans and boots, moves freely among the crowd, smiling and laughing. Only when the talk becomes spiritual does his smile fade as his features soften and his voice takes on a solemn cadence.

Troupe dancer Brandon Classay, who is also Tohonnie’s nephew, savors those moments. A full-blooded Apache who started dancing when he was five years old, Classay joined this troupe when he was about eight, committing to it full-time when he graduated from high school seven years ago.

“The best part is when you see them get into the music and get up and dance,” he says of the audience members. “And we pray for them and we see them pray.”

Tohonnie never calls these events “performances” or “shows.” He adheres strictly to his grandfather’s spiritual teachings, which include centuries-old blessings. Some credit Tohonnie’s blessings with dramatic health improvements and other good fortunes, even miracles.

Tohonnie tells the story of one of his dancers whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. This spring, Tohonnie agreed to offer a blessing for her health. “Within a week, she had no cancer. The doctors were amazed,” Tohonnie says. “I told the dancer just to always keep your faith. It is never problematic for us to do a blessing, right then and there, when someone needs it.”

<span class="_Credit">Photo courtesy Eddie Weber</span>
Photo courtesy Eddie Weber

Tohonnie tells the story in a hesitant, halting tone and underscores that he does not seek acclaim, only to serve spiritual forces — and he expects the same from his troupe.“I always say that when we’re in a ceremony, pray,” he says. “Don’t worry about practice. Worry about prayer.”

Perhaps that constant focus on spirituality is why Tohonnie already carries himself like an old soul. He was only six years old when his grandfather, an Apache medicine man, told him he would be the one to carry on the music and dance of his faithful culture. The young Tohonnie — who was actually born to a Navajo father — declined until his grandfather, rebuffed by other family members, again approached him. This time Tohonnie was not given an option.

“He told me that he had selected me to carry on our traditions, even though I didn’t want to do it,” he says. Tohonnie felt overwhelmed with the responsibility it entailed. But after years of training from his grandfather and being honored in a four-day ceremony celebrating his readiness to carry on his grandfather’s tradition, he embraced his selection. “I resisted but in the end it was a great gift.”

Tohonnie studied the Apache traditions while his father also taught him spiritual Navajo music and dance. Today, his style combines elements of both sides of his heritage, plus those of his family members. That combination is why many Apaches contend his music and dance brings shame to the tribe, Navajo and Apache spiritual ceremonies call upon separate spirits in separate ways, which is one reason for the outcry over Tohonnie’s spiritual dances.

<span class="_Credit">Photo courtesy Eddie Weber</span>
Photo courtesy Eddie Weber

Yet, the combination has given Tohonnie and his dancers a style that is completely their own, unmatched by any other troupe. The group’s styling and the music puzzle even some Native American dancers, although Tohonnie and his troupe insist that the performances are completely extemporaneous.

“We never practice and we never will,” says Tohonnie. “These dances are spiritual ceremonies that continue our culture and traditions. We are very proud of that.”

Tohonnie and his dance troupe constantly tour and continually give away recordings of his music, including two Grammy-nominated recordings — the 2014 release Apache Blessings & Crown Dance Songs and the 2015 album Ceremony.

“He’s just a natural talent,” says Eddie Weber who owns Cool Runnings Music & Indian Store, in Saint Michaels, Arizona, and both records and releases Tohonnie’s music. “He is non-stop nailing one song after another and his voice doesn’t give out…and he never makes a mistake. I don’t know how he does it. I don’t know any other artists that do.”

While Tohonnie is flattered by accolades and praise, he cautions youngsters not to mimic his music.

“I tell them it’s important to make their own music, find their own spiritual sounds,” he says.

These youth’s aspirations fuel Tohonnie’s belief that his tribes’ traditions will continue through them. Tohonnie seems an ideal role model for the youngsters, as he himself moved from a hesitant performer to an avid student armed with a belief that the ceremonies are his spiritual calling that he simply shares with the world.

Little did he know that he would soon have the whole world listening.

Shawna Sunrise, whose father worked as a Native American entertainment director in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was herself director of entertainment for the Navajo nation exhibition in 2002 at The Olympic Games in Salt Lake. It was there that she first met Tohonnie and his troupe, and was enthralled with their collective performance capabilities.

“The spirituality is just part of him,” Sunrise says of Tohonnie, “the prodigy,” adding that his dances are “beautiful” and that he is one of the most naturally gifted Native American singers in the country.

“I ended up booking them that same day,” she says.

Even though Tohonnie and his troupe identify as Apache, Sunrise saw no conflict with his performance at the Navajo pavilion at the Olympic games.

“Even though we are the Navajo nation, they are our cousins,” she says. “We speak a similar tongue.”

Not everyone is as welcoming. Even a cursory look at social media today shows message after message calling Tohonnie a fake, a fraud, and someone who makes a mockery of the spirituality of the Apache tribe. “No respect for the sacredness of the real Apache Crown Dancers,” writes one Facebook user. “Joe is a tourist performer that’s all,” chimes in another.”

Herb Stevens, director of Tourism for the San Carlos Apache Cultural Center in Peridot, enjoys Tohonnie’s work, but refuses to invite him to perform during the family-based cultural activities of his center because the medicine men and tribal elders who are revered and powerful members of their communities are uneasy with some of Tohonnie’s ceremonial choices.

“I think his music is really, really great but we can’t have him here again,” says Stevens. “The medicine men gave us a verbal slashing.”

Tohonnie speaks freely about his “enemies” noting he would never strike back at them. His grandfather taught him that to do so makes the enemies stronger. Instead Tohonnie turns the other cheek and talks through his frustrations with his supporters.

“It has bothered me, but a lot of people who encouraged me told me you weren’t taught by the same medicine men who taught them; you were taught by your grandfather,” Tohonnie says, adding that their hatred is but a reflection on them. “If I argue about it, that is like pouring more and more gas in fire. I tell my [dancers] and tell my family there are some days I want to quit, but I just feel I have to keep going.”

Weber, the music store owner who released Tohonnie’s records, has heard the naysayers gripe about Tohonnie, but didn’t hesitate in signing him to his small, independent label. When Tohonnnie’s album Ceremonies was nominated for a 2015 Grammy for Best Roots Music, Weber hosted a party that drew hundreds of fans.

“It seems to be a common kind of thing. When somebody is successful, somebody else doesn’t like it,” says Weber, who emigrated from Germany and founded the St. Michaels, Arizona business almost twenty-five years ago. “You can’t let that stop you, especially when it comes to music.”

Tom Bee, the CEO and founder of Sound of America Records, the first Native American-owned record label in the history of the U.S., is effusive in his praise for both Tohonnie and Weber. A longtime music industry insider whose numerous career highlights include songwriting credits for Michael Jackson and spearheading efforts that helped get Native American music recognized by the Grammy Awards, is unsurprised by the criticism of Tohonnie’s music.

“That is the one thing that keeps Native Americans down. They never seem to be happy for the success of one of their own kind,” Bee says, noting the segregation of Natives in reservations as one reason for such naysayers. “Joe is half Navajo and half Apache. Who the hell cares? He made a great record and sung it in the Apache language. It’s not in Navajo language. And he’s not full-blooded Apache. Why does that matter?”

Bee snorts when told some medicine men complained about Tohonnie’s lineage and claimed that his ceremonies violate sacred traditions.

“I am so tired of them using the word ‘sacred,’ I could vomit,” Bee says. “He is not claiming to be a medicine man. He is doing good music to make the people happy. When I heard he won that Grammy nomination and [Weber] had a big party at Cool Runnings, I couldn’t have been prouder of them. Both Joe and Eddie deserve all the support and credit possible.”

Bee goes on to say that he feels Tohonnie’s detractors are simply jealous of his notoriety and the idea that Tohonnie has benefitted monetarily from his ceremonial performances. However, Tohonnie says he and his dancers earn almost nothing, which is just how Tohonnie likes it. His ceremonies are a means to continue his tradition, and offer prayers to the world.

“I feel like quitting sometimes, but who else is going to help those people?” he says. “All we ask is that [fans] remember us in our prayers. If I see tears in someone’s eye when I sing my blessing, my gift, I cherish that forever. One little tear is worth a million blessings.”