Economy Threatens American Indian Tribes' Future in City

By Meredith Hoffman on July 9, 2011 1:29pm | Updated on July 11, 2011 8:46am

Donna Couteau-Cross and Joe Cross, members of minority tribes Sac & Fox and Caddo, grow corn, squash, and beans in their plot of the Clinton Community Garden on West 48th Street.
Donna Couteau-Cross and Joe Cross, members of minority tribes Sac & Fox and Caddo, grow corn, squash, and beans in their plot of the Clinton Community Garden on West 48th Street.
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By Meredith Hoffman/DNAinfo

HELL'S KITCHEN — An American Indian couple whose traditional performance work has dried up in the rough economy may have to leave the city.

Joe Cross, one of only three registered members of the Caddo Nation living in the five boroughs, and his wife Donna Couteau-Cross, who is joined in the city by only four other members of the Sac & Fox Nation, say a shrinking budget at city museums, schools and event spaces is forcing them to go back to their tribes' historic base.

"My wife and I are hugely rooted to our community," said Cross, 62. "But we've blasted through our savings. We're dragging our heels to see if things turn around."

The pair have performed at Manhattan venues including Symphony Space, the National Museum of the American Indian, public high schools, and social services agencies since they came to NYC in the 1980s.

But the demand for their educational performances has dropped off considerably in recent years as cultural institutions' budgets have dwindled, and the couple say they can no longer afford to remain in New York.

"It would be a huge loss," said Madeline Cohen, education director of art group Symphony Space which has worked with the couple for eight years to highlight native American heritage.

"When Donna comes out in her buckskin with long fringe covered in beading, the kids, … they're mesmerized.

"Kids often say, 'I didn't know there were any Native Americans left."

Symphony Space itself has cut its educational programs by about 40 percent, sad Cohen. The couple says work at Downtown's National Museum of the American Indian also dried up, along with other regular gigs.

"If we could afford them, they'd be here all the time, to give you an idea of their quality," said Karen Savage, the museum's executive management specialist, adding that the couple have worked there about 20 years, most recently at last year's Summer Dance in July youth program.

"They are ambassadors about America's past."

The pair in Hell's Kitchen, where they tend a traditional "three sisters" garden of corn, beans and squash, have been in the city for 35 years.

"I feel spiritually connected here,"
Couteau-Cross, 62, said.  "After all these years doing wonderful things on behalf of our people, we don't want to have to ask (our tribes), 'do you have a place (for us) to stay, or something to eat?"

The couple's performances include speaking in native tongues, and dancing the Caddo "bell dance" and "alligator dance."

"Everyone knew we danced, but it's important to share the wisdom of our people," said Cross-Couteau.

Buddy Gwin, executive director of the American Indian Community House, a cultural center for Native Americans in the city, said the Crosses' move would weaken a culture which has already been decimated.

"The Crosses represent two tribes leaving New York," he said. "They're leaving a void, but who else would have noticed? We're the invisible minority."

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