Going for the Gold

A pop-music confection known as The Village People belted out disco hits in the 1970s that morphed into American standards

A visitor to the curvilinear stone mesa that is the new National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) would expect to find classic examples of the art and artifacts of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere—intricately woven baskets, elegant pottery, kachina dolls, ceremonial masks, elaborately embroidered buckskins and carvings. And he would not be disappointed; the museum contains a trove of the emblematic, artful crafts that have in part defined the complex Native cultures of the Americas.

What you might not expect to find, however, is a gold 45 rpm record from the peak years of that curious musical tributary known as disco. The gold record commemorates the 1978 hit song "Y.M.C.A.," an antic anthem to life on the wild side by the Village People. Felipe Rose, son of a member of the Lakota-Sioux tribe, donated it to the museum. Known for his feathered headdress and war paint, Rose represents one of the group's six archetypal characters (archetypes, that is, according to France's Jacques Morali, a music producer who, along with his colleague Henri Belolo, created the novelty act). According to Emil Her Many Horses, an associate curator at the museum, Rose offered the record to mark his 51st birthday. Rose remembers just calling up the museum to ask about making a donation. "I didn't know how they would react," he adds. The curatorial council reacted by accepting immediately.

"We want people to see all aspects of Native American life," Her Many Horses says, "and Felipe's gold record helps tell the story of current Native involvement in popular music, not just traditional music."

In the interest of being at least somewhat unpredictable, I am not going to indulge the standard belittling of disco. I will not, for instance, claim that disco was the worst thing to happen to music since Mrs. Welk gave little Lawrence an accordion. Nor will I unforgivably pun that disco diva Donna marked the Summer of our discontent. Nor will I suggest that a Brooklyn-born brave in a singing group might seem to have little in common with Sacagawea, Geronimo and Sitting Bull.

Instead, I'll give you this brief history of the Village People: when Morali saw Rose at a dance club in New York City's Greenwich Village dressed in the ceremonial regalia of the Plains Indians (more or less, if rather less than more), he hatched the idea of finding five other buff, young male performers, dressing them up in macho mufti and calling them the Village People. At least, Rose came by his plains warrior costume semi-legitimately as the son of a Lakota father who had come to New York City in the early 1950s. (His mother was a dancer at the Copacabana nightclub.) The other five—Alex Briley (soldier/sailor), David Hodo (construction worker), Randy Jones (cowboy), Glenn Hughes (biker/leather boy) and Victor Willis (policeman)—were basically spoofing. But what might have been an inside joke with little appeal beyond Lower Manhattan crossed over into the mainstream, propelled by an enthusiasm even hard-core rock 'n' roll fans found hard to resist.

The Village People surfed the wave of disco's campy sensibility to the top of the charts in 1979, peaking at number 2 in February. By 1987, they had sold an astounding 65 million records. (Since then, they've added another 3 million.) The group's two biggest hits, "Macho Man" and "Y.M.C.A.," remain among disco's most memorable anthems. And the mildly bawdy—now seeming rather innocent in an age of gangsta rap—beat goes on. In 1980, the Village People made a movie, Can't Stop the Music (a title that unwittingly echoed the worst fears of the disco disenchanted). The picture was no Hard Day's Night and flopped everywhere except—for unfathomable reasons—Australia. The group has even appeared as the halftime entertainment for the Australian Rugby Grand Final, the Aussie equivalent of the Super Bowl.

At the presentation of the gold record to the NMAI in January, officials ramped up the sound system and right on cue, "Y.M.C.A." blared around the great hall. Visiting schoolchildren, most of whom wouldn't know disco from Nabisco, began to squeal and jump around. "Rose was wonderful," the curator says. "Everyone was dancing, and he was right out there with them."

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.