Tribal artist finds success outside the mainstream

March 27, 2011

Bobbi Booker
Philadelphia Tribune Staff Writer

Thirza Defoe is from the Ojibwe and Oneida tribes of Northern Wisconsin and is widely known as a hoop dancer and storyteller. And while she has received widespread acclaim throughout the world, she remains very much focused on her home community and her role as a keeper of Native American culture.

"For me it is somewhat of a duality, but at the same time you have one of being an artist and also being a cultural artist," explained DeFoe. "It's interesting when you speak about this, and it's almost mind blowing when you think about how much Native art in the United States is not mainstream at all, but when you go somewhere like Canada, the First People, or the indigenous people there, it's part of their daily activities of street fairs and the like. The United States is lacking in that regard in recognizing Native arts, and obviously a lot of that has to do with history – and also a lot of guilt."

Defoe defines herself as an interdisciplinary artist who does it all: film and video production, audio landscaping, singing, acting, dancing, choreography, painting and writing. Through words, music and movement, Defoe travels the globe to share the customs and history of her indigenous heritage, tradition and culture.

Performing with the Call for Peace Drum and Dance Company, DeFoe has danced at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics Games, in Barcelona, and at the “Millennium Celebration,” in Cairo, Egypt. She has traveled throughout Greece, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Turkey, where she performed at the Ankara International Music Festival. Most recently she was a guest artist at the National Museum of the American Indian’s “Celebrating Women” series, “Identity by Design,” in Washington D.C. Her acting credits include Charlotte in "Charlotte’s Web" and the starring role and narrator in the Emmy award winning PBS documentary " People of the Forest."

"I have a tendency to look at the past, present and the future in combining these things together using the callus of Native art," said DeFoe. "A lot of that for me also represents having an authentic voice, which sometimes gets lost in mainstream culture in the United States.Sometimes I'll hear, 'Why is this needed?' And I think, ‘So that there can be positivity around thriving’ –and so that the art is remembering the past, and having discernment, and then being in the present moment to think what is in the future for Native American art.”

Thiza DeFoe will perform as part of the 27th Annual Philadelphia International Children’s Festival, Thursday, April 7 – Friday, April 9, 2011, at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut St. For more information about programming or ticket prices, please visit the event website at