One of the globe's most accomplished and well known Native hoop dancers, Nakotah LaRance, has died, according to an announcement from family friends with the Lightning Boy Foundation, a nonprofit with which LaRance worked to teach dance classes for tribal youth in Northern New Mexico.
He died Sunday, according to Felicia Rivera, founder and director of the foundation. A story published by Indian County Today says LaRance had been "climbing on an old bridge in Rio Arriba County" when it happened.
LaRance, whose mother is Ohkay Owingeh, won his ninth world title in 2018 at the Heard Museum's World Championship Hoop Dance Contest in Phoenix. He has also been on several TV shows, acted in movies and mini-series, including Steven Spielberg's Into the West and performed for several years as a principal dancer for Cirque Du Soleil, according to the Library of Congress.
LaRance, who would have turned 31 in August, was the master dancer for the Lightning Boy Hoop Dance group, an extension of the foundation, started by Rivera and her husband, George Rivera, in the name of their son Valentino. Valentino also danced before dying in 2016 from complications after a car accident at 8 years old.
"Without Nakotah and his relationship with my son Valentino, there would be no Lightning Boy Foundation," Felicia tells SFR. "We just all really love Nakotah as much as a person can love another person. He didn't have any enemies. He just was a kind-hearted, big-hearted person and we have all lost a best friend."
Felicia's son, Valentino, first became inspired to hoop dance at only 4 years old after seeing LaRance and his father perform at the Pojoaque Wellness Center as part of a suicide-prevention effort.
"His greatest love was being a mentor of Hoop Dance to the Native Youth. He guided each child to find the beat of their own life path and the pride of their native culture," Steve LaRance, Nakotah's father, wrote in the news release. "Our family plans to send him home in our traditional Pueblo/Hopi way."
Donations made in Nakotah's honor can be made to the Lightning Boy Foundation to commemorate "Nakotah's legacy and the continuation of his life's work of inspiring, teaching and empowering people of all ages around the world, in particular Native youth," according to the news release.
Nakotah performed two years ago in an Indian Market fashion show, departing from regalia to dance with hoops while wearing a suit.
Nakotah, who had also been dancing since age 4, told SFR in 2017 that establishing the foundation in Tino's honor is a way to ensure that the hoop dance family endures.
"It really exploded for the community and the kids when we started teaching hoop dance in the community in Pojoaque and now Nambé, and probably next is my mother's pueblo, Okhay Owingeh," he said. "It's what is supposed to be done to keep the culture alive and it's absolutely necessary…I just want everybody to teach. These knees are not going to last forever, so you have to pass it along to the next generation, look forward to all the creativity and the spirit. Youth is awesome."