Robert “Tree” Cody’s presence is commanding—not just because of his height but because he is a multi-talented flutist, singer, dancer, MC, actor and educator. When Tree talks, you listen, because he speaks in a clear, measured and respectful tone.
The Canyon Records recording artist also has impressive credentials, with 13 albums on the label, including a Grammy nomination for his album Heart of the Wind and five Native American Music Awards. He is a well-known performer at pow wows and on stages in the U.S. and abroad.
In the Maricopa language, Cody, 63, is known as Oou-Kas Mah Quet or “Thunder Bear.” While he was born in California, he stays close to his Native roots by living on the Navajo Nation in Arizona. Cody, Maricopa and Dakota, is a member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, also in Arizona.
How do you like being called the world’s tallest fancy dancer?
I am a six-feet-nine-and-half-inch “tree.” That was what they called me when I was younger and even today. I was always one of the tallest on the pow wow circuits when I was fancy dancing. I feel flattered.
Do you feel awkward about your height?
No, I don’t feel awkward. I know people see me as a tall guy. In my younger days, I played basketball for Fort Lewis College. I was the only Native American on the starting five. I played a lot of collegiate ball then. I also played many Native American basketball tournaments.
Why play music and dance when you could have possibly been a professional basketball player?
After a couple of years, I wiped out my knee. I had reconstructive surgery. I started playing the Native American flute at the age of five. I learned from traditional flute players, and in the 1950s and ‘60s and ‘70s I traveled the pow wow circuit extensively as a dancer.
Why are you so passionate about dancing and flute playing?
I love it! I started playing flute when I was young with my stepfather, Iron Eyes Cody. And for many years, I danced for my elders, grandparents and the ones who cannot dance. I started with fancy dancing and then traditional at pow wows. Lately, I have gotten to be pretty well known as an MC.
What was it like growing up?
I grew up with my stepfather in California. My real mother was from the Maricopa People, Salt River Reservation, in Arizona. She and my real father have passed on. My real father was from the Dakota Nation. Iron Eyes Cody and his wife, Bertha, adopted me and raised me in the traditional ways. They showed me the world of acting and the Native American ways of life. I have never forgotten my heritage.
You have a law degree?
I have a BA in law and Masters in Native and criminal Law. I never followed up because I became an entertainer.
How did you get involved with the film Dance Hard?
I was chosen, along with my cousin Norman Roach, Lakota, as a technical advisor for this movie. I have seen the evolution of pow wows—how they were and how they are today. We want to make this movie historically correct.
Do you like how the pow wows have evolved?
Not really. Maybe yes and no. It is good that a lot of dancers today have won prize money. But a lot of it is based on prize money. Some dancers don’t dance for the people, but some dancers do dance for the elders. Some traditions have been forgotten and some have been kept.
Tell us about Native Wisdom, your dance troupe.
Six years ago, with my wife, Cynthia, son and two daughters, we started doing shows at the Grand Canyon West Skywalk. Our children are still members of the dance troupe and our members—some are champions—do a variety of styles like jingle, fancy and chicken dance. Our group shows are beautiful, entertaining and educational. I am the director and I also sing for the dancers. There are different songs for men and different songs for women. I play the flute and songs from my albums and I know songs from different tribes.
What keeps you going?
My family, my wife and my children—my wife has been there for me. She is my rock. She keeps me level headed in my approach to the world.
What’s your message to the youth?
I always encourage them to learn their cultural language and the ways of their people.