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TRUTH, RECONCILIATION & RESISTANCE: Ceremonial Performativity and Native Aesthetics in Native Theater

Stages of Resistance

Headshot of Carolyn Dunn
This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called Stages of Resistance. The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned!

In 2015, indigenous theater artists gathered together at Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as part of The National Institute for Directing & Ensemble Creation series on theater in communities of color. Many topics were discussed, indigenous playwrights, producers, actors, dancers, dramaturgs all came together (though there were some notable absences due to schedule changes, for the most part the room was a who’s who in native lit, theater, film, and dance) to discuss the one thing that united us all: the love of and the aesthetics of Native American and Indigenous performance. At the end of the three-day summit, I agreed to write a piece on the aesthetics of native and indigenous theater, and how we must be able to define for ourselves how our tribal, communal, and world-views inform the political, cultural, and spiritual context of Native American and Indigenous performance. Drawing upon my work as a scholar, playwright, and poet, I took this first attempt at actualizing what a Native American/Indigenous theater aesthetic looks like, centered in the Mvskoke Creek spirit world that inhabits my friend Joy Harjo’s play Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light. So, here goes…

The term American Indian identity is problematic, at best. A socially constructed ethnic identity in the United States and abroad, the term―American Indian (and later Native American)―signified a unified racial category to describe thousands of peoples of varying languages, cultures, religions, and world views. In addition to the so-called “ethnic” categorization, American Indian identity also carries with it the weight of a political term, that is, a citizen of a sovereign nation that resides within the borders of the United States. The political identity of citizenship within one’s nation also is problematic, but that is another discussion for another time. The United Nations defines indigenous people as “the descendants - according to a common definition - of those who inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived.” The new arrivals later became dominant through conquest, occupation, settlement or other means.

Of all racial categories in the United States, only one racial category is defined legally and enforced by the federal government; that is the racial category, American Indian. The essentializing strategies employed by the federal government to divide and conquer the tribal power of the indigenous peoples inhabiting the United States created further legislation which allowed the federal government to forcibly remove tribal peoples from their ancestral homelands into urban areas with promises of jobs and security. Urban relocation in the 1950s and 1960s was the culmination of a series of government policies designed to assimilate Indians into mainstream culture, isolating Indian families and communities. However, tribal peoples continued to make connections with one another in urban areas, and created a network that would later give birth to the pan-Indian movement. For the native diaspora, the pan-Indian movement allowed for a creation of communal space in urban areas in which an urban “Indian identity” flourished. Community centers, pow-wows, and urban health clinics became the places in which native peoples congregated and shared stories of home: the ancestral home left behind as well as the adopted urban home. Cultural production that came out of urban areas, such as Spiderwoman Theatre and American Indian Theatre Project in New York, addressed the concerns affecting the native diaspora. Novelists and poets explored questions of identity and authenticity, writing on subjects of alienation, loss, and survival in urban areas, with an abject longing for home.

As “home” becomes a memory to an intergenerational diaspora, how is home a created space? How is nation building achieved by tribes whose members are scattered diasporically? How do artists incorporate the idea of “home” into their work? Are there multiple sites of home, of community, and of nation? Where do these spaces, both imagined (as a contested site of removal, of resistance, of domestication) and physical (as a place of emergence and connectedness to its physical boundaries), occur in the imagination of the artist? How must the native artist navigate within nations, with an eye to the home nation, and with respect and responsibility to the local nation? And finally, in seeking out other natives and living among native communities who still live in their ancestral homelands, how does home become both spaces, the diasporic as well as the ancestral?

The communal experience of the tribal reality is at the core of what comprises an essential connection to the tribal world view. Storytellers reference the tribal aesthetic and modern literary writers, tapping into the traditional story, are referencing ages of experience and indigenous epistemologies. Indigenous knowledge, or ways of learning and knowing, are replicated in the story over and over, in performance, in practice, and now, in theory. In native epistemologies, in native realities, the practice comes first before the theory.

The cultural aesthetic follows logical assumptions, and in studying national literatures one must look to the culture from which these literatures arises. Cultural touchstones, for example, are imperative in understanding the great canonical works of western literature. Do theater critics and scholars assume knowledge of western thought and practice when it comes to understanding the great canonical works? The assumption is that western epistemology is a given in this context, but to study native literatures using a non-native aesthetic makes no sense in examining the works of native peoples. Yet the practice of employing western assumptions and a western aesthetic to native knowledges is a colonial practice that Linda Tuhiwai Smith argues must be acknowledged and addressed if scholars are to decolonize the study of native peoples and bring cultural context into the study of native cultures.

American Indian history and culture remain a footnote in history to many resident aliens of this country, who are of European, non–American Indian descent. Resident aliens, a term favored by the majority regarding persons who have immigrated here from elsewhere, is a phrase that should be used self-reflexively by the powers that be in this country. But, sadly, it is not, since the descendants of the original resident aliens have seized power here from its original inhabitants, and continue to misappropriate history, culture, and political power from the continent’s aboriginal inhabitants. Given the current political climate and divisiveness in this part of the world, this notion is especially profound, especially given the current president’s tendency to dismiss native identity (“I think I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up the reservations,” he said to Don Imus in 1993) as well as his views on immigration. In literary and scholarly circles, this misappropriation continues. Literary critics, with few notable exceptions, have virtually ignored the importance and value of American Indian literature in contemporary canonical American works.

Given the current administration’s love affair with Andrew Jackson, and the production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the narrative of Indian erasure and genocide remains completely unknown by many. How can we be identified as sovereign nations or distinct peoples with our own history, our own art, our own music, our own theater aesthetic, and our own spiritual practices if the larger society still believes we ceased to exist after Wounded Knee over one hundred years ago? Commentator and columnist Andy Rooney so eloquently stated in his newspaper column twenty years ago that (I‘m paraphrasing here) there is no great Indian literature, no great art, unless you consider a few totem poles worthy of artistic note. Our fight to gain acceptance, Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards notwithstanding, within the field of canonical literature seems trivial compared with the struggles Indian people face daily: the fight for clean water, the right to practice traditional religions, the right to wear hair long due to religious practices, access to traditional homelands integral in our spiritual and social practices, access to quality health care and prevention programs, poverty, alcoholism, suicide, and day-to-day matters that some members of society take for granted.

In very general terms, stories traditionally were handed down in Native life to be used as teaching tools among tribal societies. Creation myths and rituals were taught through vast oral traditions that kept culture alive and vibrant, generation to generation. Perhaps in looking to some of these stories we, as Native peoples, can form our own aesthetic, our own canon that informs and signifies that which is truly unique about our cultures. Perhaps, in forming our own theater companies (Spider Woman Theater, Safe Harbors Collective at La Mama, Native Voices at the Autry) our own anthropological studies, our own religious institutes, we can heal the vast schisms that seek to threaten our families, our communities, our tribes, our nations. Perhaps works such as this anthology are the first steps to define ourselves on our own terms, and those of us struggling in academia can create a methodology for contextualizing our aesthetic.

In her play Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light, Joy Harjo, Mvskoke Creek poet, playwright, and musician, introduces the audience to the world of spirits in Creek cosmology. The story of Redbird Monawhee’s journey to healing and wholeness through the hold of her spirit guide, Spirit Helper, Harjo incorporates traditional ceremonies, stories, and her own contemporary music as part of Redbird’s journey. The Deer Woman narratives of the southeastern tribes (among them Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw) are puberty narratives that were meant to instruct young adults on the rites of courtship and marriage. The Deer Woman herself, is one of the pantheon of spirits known as the Little People in the cosmology of the southeastern tribes, akin (if we will compare in order to contextualize for non-native audiences) to the faerie folk of Great Britain.  If one sees the Deer Woman, who represents a darker side of sexuality, they will take on a “descent into madness and prostitution” (Paula Gunn Allen) if one does not recognize the beautiful stranger as the Deer Woman. In the southeastern aesthetic, many of us descended from those tribes know these stories very well. Harjo herself invokes Deer Woman as part of Redbird‘s narrative, reversing the gender roles. Redbird‘s grandmother tells Redbird  of how, one night at a Stomp Dance, a beautiful daughter of the chief disappears after meeting a handsome young man who was welcomed into the dance grounds by the community. ”We were wary,” Redbird‘s grandmother says of the handsome stranger, “but it is our way to take good care of visitors. Still the people are not fools. We were warned to stay within the circle.”  Still, the beloved daughter of the chief disappears, wearing only a red dress and loafers, and Redbird‘s grandmother tells her (and us, the audience) a new red star appears in the horizon on the next morning‘s rise. Redbird asks her grandmother if the story is true; Grandmother doesn‘t answer but she and Redbird ponder the matter. “All of her stories carried deep pockets of mystery,” Redbird says. This is a common theme in Harjo‘s work: that the stories indeed carry deep pockets of memory and of mystery; in every story told in the Creek world, there is a message that contained in these traditional worlds that can resonate in the in the modern one. The story serves as the touchstone for Redbird, out in the diaspora, to remind her that even as we Creeks travel, our spirits seem to find us, wherever we are.

As Redbird embarks on her future with Sonny, a young native man she meets at boarding school, she remembers her grandmother’s Deer Woman story and wonders if she, Redbird, is involved in a Deer Woman story of her own. Is Sonny the mysterious young man who appeared at the dance grounds to spirit one of the tribe’s beloved daughters away, or perhaps maybe he is a relative to the spirit man? Whoever Sonny is, Redbird is determined that she will not make the same mistakes her mother and father did, but in her perfect world of “fresh passion,” Redbird is allowed into the spirit world and to what her great great grandfather Monawhee called “bending time,” the ability to enter into the spirit world where the notion of eastern time does not exist: the birth of her son allows Redbird to once again bend time and see her grandmother in the afterworld, and her grandmother sends her back to be her children‘s mother. Harjo is using a traditional Creek narrative, which anchors Redbird home, as a way to bring Redbird back to the place where she must heal in order to be whole again. Redbird needs to hear the stories again and again, needs to bend time to make sure that the narratives are recorded and retold, like the birth cord that ties her to the red earth of Oklahoma.

The play shifts again and ends with the story revealed at the beginning of the play, the Creek creation story in which Rabbit, our trickster, creates human beings and breathes life into us. In true Rabbit fashion, he makes a grievous error, and then is unable to control his creation when the aspect of human free will comes into the story. Harjo is telling us once again, that the story will give us the answers, as the story has given us answers since time immemorial. As Duran and Duran argues in Native American Postcolonial Psychology, the core of Native American awareness was the place where the soul wound occurred. The core essence is the fabric of the soul, and it is from this essence that mythology, dreams, and culture emerge. The story, what Harjo has given us in the story of Rabbit and the Clay Man, is what Duran and Duran call the vehicle, the process by which healing occurs at the soul level. The artistic element, Harjo‘s creation of this play as community healing, is both an artistic and political practice in that she is using traditional practice to heal a soul wounded by colonization.