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Celebrity Artifact

Felipe Rose, Village Person and Lakota, Donates 'Y.M.C.A.' Record to the Indian Museum

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page C01

Felipe Rose, the Indian dude from the singing group the Village People, presented the National Museum of the American Indian with a framed, gold 45-rpm single of the disco group's 1978 megahit "Y.M.C.A." on Wednesday afternoon.

And the museum happily and ceremoniously accepted it (a Lakota prayer was sung first, then everyone danced to "Y.M.C.A."), on the precept that sooner or later they might need such an artifact of a bygone era, perhaps to flesh out a future exhibit on the folkloric value of disco, and native cultural responses to it. (No, you shut up. It could happen. Why not? There are only so many ceramic pots, war bonnets and kachina dolls that people can stand to look at, and so when the day comes that someone asks, Hey, what about the Indian dude from the Village People? the Smithsonian, as ever, will be ready.)

Felipe Rose of the Village People gave a gold record of "Y.M.C.A." to the National Museum of the American Indian. The ceremony included a Lakota prayer -- and the dance to the single. (Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

Rose, who is part Lakota Sioux, missed the big opening of the museum last September. He said he really wanted to go, but the Village People were on tour with Cher.

So he began to think if there was some other way he could contribute. "It was a stab in the dark, really," Rose said. He "just called up" the museum and asked if they wanted his gold record. "I didn't know how they would react. And they were so great. I guess when it went before the board they just instantly voted and agreed it would be a good thing to have."

Rose, who turned 50 yesterday, was offered a birthday sheet cake and the adoration of dozens of delighted and antsy schoolchildren who happened to be touring the museum's grand Potomac entry hall on a field trip. He was good-humored, bubbly and bejeweled. He wore a snug turquoise colored buckskin vest with fringe, with fawny buckskin pants, and a plumage of Lakota-style hair weave. He signed a stack of black-and-white glossies of himself as the world knows him: Enormous headdress, teeth bared, war paint.

"Hey, this looks like an old photo," said an admirer.

"It's vintage," Rose said, with a trace of Brooklyn accent, and then he signed it with "A Ho," a traditional Lakota greeting, followed by "A million thanks!"

Before you crack another joke (wondering if the Pentagon is going to be presented with a gold record of "In the Navy," or if the construction worker dude is going to visit the National Building Museum bearing a platinum copy of "Macho Man"), it is clearly time to go over, briefly, the funkulum vitae of Felipe Rose, especially as it pertains to his Indian cred, which is considerable:

His father, who was Lakota Sioux, moved to New York in the 1940s, part of a wave of Indians who came to the city to work in construction. His mother was Puerto Rican. Rose, who studied dance, was a fixture of the mid-'70s Manhattan disco club scene. Record producer Jacques Morali spotted him at the Anvil, a gay bar in Greenwich Village -- Rose was the only patron wearing Indian garb, surrounded by men in leather and flannel shirts. Morali promised to make him famous; Rose snapped back that he already was famous. (His aunt, he has said, inspired him to work the Indian angle into his showbiz ambitions: "Why not honor your father's heritage," Rose has recalled her saying, "and dress in your tribal regalia in your dance journey through culture?")

The record producer persisted in wooing Rose, and assembled a singing group of American male stereotypes: Cowboy, biker, cop, serviceman, construction worker, Indian. The idea was to make fast money with a flash-in-the-pan idea. The Village People first sang self-parodying songs about Fire Island and San Francisco (and not exactly about leaving your heart in it). The lyrics to their songs came wrapped in the thinnest veil of saucy gay entendre, though nobody really talked about it in 1978 when "Macho Man" started getting a surprising amount of airplay.

"Y.M.C.A.," if you listen with a slightly perverse ear, is about young men who come to the city in search of anonymous sex. Everyone knew it, but nobody said it, least of all the Village People. Three of the original members said they were straight; Rose and another member, Randy Jones, the original cowboy, talked about being gay -- years after the band's initial success.

"I don't think I've made a point of being 'openly gay' -- I'm just secure," Rose told the Hour, a Montreal newspaper, last month. "I don't sit on TV and talk about it. . . . When I speak about myself, I speak in the solo sense. I don't talk about the group's private life. People always tell me, 'You helped me come out.' I always reply, 'You did that on your own.' "

The Village People never had it easy, even among their own people. Politically minded gays were turned off by the stereotyping and disavowals, to say nothing of what some Indian activists perceived of Rose's get-up. After three big albums, and one movie so horribly camp that it must be watched with protective eyewear, the group suffered the worst of the disco backlash in the 1980s.

Then came the strangest kind of love. Somewhere in the early '90s, people started dancing to "Y.M.C.A." at bar mitzvahs and weddings and pro sports events. It was and is its own sort of folklore -- a national anthem, a nursery song, an aerobic workout for senior citizens, an enigma. The Village People never stopped working; there wasn't a bar or a cruise ship or a state fair they wouldn't perform at. Their albums were re-released. They've been everywhere, and Indian Museum curators said they want to recognize a sort of poignant accomplishment in Rose's perpetuity as an Indian icon of pop culture.

"If it hadn't been for these songs and this group, I wouldn't get to do what I really want to do," Rose said Wednesday, trying to pull himself away from a few remaining fans.

What he really wanted to do -- and has done -- is rediscover his heritage. In the last decade, he has formed the Tomahawk Group record label, concentrating on modern forms of native music. When not performing with the Village People, Rose runs the label from his Richmond home, where he lives with Charles Sadler, his longtime partner, and a cat and two dogs. A solo album, "Trail of Tears," won the Nammy, an annual award for Native American music. His latest work, "Red Hawk Woman," is an homage to Thomasina Jordan, an Indian rights activist who was a member of the Assateague tribe.

Emil Her Many Horses, one of the Indian Museum's curators, was eager to give Rose a complete tour of the museum.

"I don't know if we have time now," said the celebrity Indian. "I want to see all of it, and I want to see it when I'm not like this," he said, sweeping his arm in a dramatic gesture over his garb. "We have to get back to the hotel and check out by 2. But I'll come back, definitely." He signed autographs all the way to the door, headed out on urgent disco business: He and the other People have to open for Cher in Sacramento tomorrow night.

The gold record, meanwhile, is going on a slightly less glamorous journey to Suitland, where it will be stored in the museum's cultural resources center, until . . . well, until.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company