SOUTHAMPTON, LONG ISLAND, N.Y. – With a new CD and a national television appearance coming up in mid-March, and a Nammy award on the wall, the Thunder Bird Sisters are making their voice heard.
But they say they haven’t exactly been silent in the more than 25 years this group of cousins from the Shinnecock reservation near the eastern end of Long Island has been together. They’ve made frequent appearances at benefits and rallies and even led their own local protests. They look at their growing fame from the perspective of a generation of activism.
Becky Genia remembers the exciting news from Wounded Knee as the reason the Thunder Bird Sisters began singing. She was growing up with her close-knit cousins, Tina and Holly, in 1973 when the teen-agers heard about the events more than 1,500 miles away on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.
The three, Valdez-Genia, Tina Tarrant and Holly Haile Davis, are granddaughters of Henry F. Bess, Chief Thunder Bird, ceremonial leader of the Shinnecock tribe’s postwar cultural revival.
Becky and her cousins, Tina and, Ben Haile, the group’s manager, driver and multi-instrumental accompanist, sat down to talk in the home of Tina and Ben’s mother, Elizabeth “Bess”Haile. Mrs. Haile’s third daughter, Holly, couldn’t be present.
Mrs. Haile recorded her own traditional album as Chee Chee Thunder Bird on the family label.
“We were all at our aunt’s house when the occupation of Wounded Knee started,” Becky said. “We were glued to the radio.”
As high school students on Long Island, they didn’t know how to help until they realized they could get out the word by singing.
“We grew up singing together,” Becky said. “So, we said, ‘We’ve got to sing. It’s what we do best.”
It was the beginning of a career performing some of the biggest names in popular music – Bonny Raitt and Jackson Browne, Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Revival music festival – and got to hang out with Peter, Paul and Mary in their RV. They sang at fund-raisers for Wounded Knee defendants.
“They used to call us the Benefit Sisters,” Becky said wryly.Becky plunged into tribal activism, working to improve the abysmal housing on the reservation that stands in sharp contrast to nearby mansions of celebrities who make Southampton their summer home. She was arrested for a protest against development of a site sacred to the Shinnecock. The New York Times ran a picture showing her grappling with a New York state policeman which she says caused her to be nicknamed “Dances with Troopers.”
But it took the first CD, issued in 1999, to get the attention of the music world. Last year Thunder Bird Sisters won a Native American Music Award as Best Folk Group of 2000. (They note, with irony, that they also were entered in the category of Best Debut Group.)
The self-produced CD was the work of cousin Ben who studied the ins and outs of the music industry as a undergraduate at the State University of New York-Oneonta. After running into a lack of interest from established labels, Ben issued the album for the group’s Thunder Bird Sisters Records. They called it “Still Singin.'”
“Becky came up with the title,” he said. “People who didn’t see us on a regular basis would ask us, ‘Are you guys still singing?'”
No one is likely to ask that question this month: On March 19, the group will be featured on the national cable program, “Emeril Live,” broadcast on the Food Channel at 8 and 11 p.m.
At almost the same time, it will issue a second CD, “Upon the Smoke,” again on its own label. (Although distribution is always a problem for independent labels, Aunt Chee Chee notes it will be available on Amazon.com.) It features haunting musical settings and the close harmonies that distinguish groups of relatives.
There is a special power in one song Ben played in unmastered form at Aunt Chee Chee’s home. Called “Circassian – 1876,” it recounts a famous sea disaster which took the lives of a large proportion of the tribe’s adult males. The Shinnecocks were noted rescue crews on Long Island’s southeast coast. Ten were trapped on board the freighter Circassian as it foundered off shore.
“It was a salvage operation,” Chee Chee said. “That’s why the captain sent them out. He had his money in the cargo.”
The words come from a poem by an unknown author found in the papers of a tribal member. It lists the family names of the victims, whose descendants are still prominent in the tribe. In Victorian style it concludes, “The brave mariners of Shinnecock will sail the seas no more.”
But, thanks to the soaring voice of the Thunder Bird Singers, their memory and the name of the tribe will soon be known across Indian country.