FIRST NATIONS DIALOGUES
essay by Emily Johnson
during Australian Performing Arts Market (APAM 2018), Brisbane
I am so grateful for the First Nations Dialogues held this past January in Lenapehoking, New York City. I am grateful for the protocols we built, for the discussions, for the fissures in the discussions -even though some of those moments were painful - they generated a possibility of deeper understanding. I'm grateful for the focus held, the growth encouraged, the incredible women led process we committed to, the relationships we developed, the want we identified, the movement generated.
I am so grateful for BlakDance who spearheaded this action; for ILBIJERRI Theatre for their support and guidance of the action, grateful to the core team: the staff at BlakDance, Tiwi and Larrakia presenter and producer Angela Flynn from Kukuni Arts, Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara artist, curator, writer and lecturer Paola Balla; and New York based Australian presenter Vallejo Gantner, whose commitment to increasing the visibility of First Nations work leveraged presenting networks and institutions to attend the dialogues for conversations long overdue.
And I am grateful for our core circle of support during the dialogues: Lee-Ann Buckskin, Zohar Spatz, Collette Brennan, and Kathryn Deyell.
I am grateful for our ally presenters and funders who showed up for work.
And to our Aunties, Muriel Miguel - the grandmother of Indigenous theater in the US - and Diane Fraher, who showed up to every session - who were skeptical at first, of another series of talks that might not lead to much action; I think that's actually what Auntie Muriel said that first day -- that she's in her 80's and she has talked alot about what needs to change and she didn't want to talk anymore without result. I know over the course of our dialogues that what they saw was we - and here I mean this core group of Indigenous women and our ally Vallejo -- and the aunties and artists and elders who have framed our values -- are committed to action, to listening, to transforming, to Indigenizing the performing arts field in the US and to doing this in a correct way, NOW. By our third session, many lunches and lots of yarns, our Aunties Diane and Muriel, they pulled out their medicines. They blessed the room, the dialogues, this process, and everyone gathered.
Auntie Muriel and I had a long dinner at Veselka in the East Village the other night and she got going with some pretty incredible stories from back in the day, stuff she and other Indian artists and friends had to go through -- the beautiful ways in which they found one another in the city and shared dances and so, for a little context:
The United States government banned our Indigenous cultural dances until the Religious Freedom Act changed that in 1978. Every one of our 567 Native Nations lost ceremonial dances and songs during this time. So in New York City in the 1970's - when Indians got together - damn if they didn't want to share, to teach one another their dances. It was a way of protecting those dances, by giving them to one another -- no one cared what tribe or Nation you were from.
So, Muriel knows Zuni dances and Hopi dances, and elements of the Sun Dance, and other dances she probably shouldn't know and wouldn't ever have -- except that the restriction on dance in the rest of the country caused a flourish of Indigenous dances in NYC -- because no one (in power) cared or bothered to stop them there. The artists and dancers and the dances themselves were also probably secured under a kind of racism, because who would think it could happen? That American Indians could do their dances and share their stories in the city? Those dances happened out on the plains, in the deserts...
So Muriel Miguel and her friends learned each other's dances. Then they made beautiful productions, and they also made some really fucked up shit (Aunty Muriel's words, but I concur). And I so appreciated Muriel's openness in telling me these stories, the way in which through her stories I could track the development of her body of work, of a cannon coming from New York City, from that time. I could then celebrate instead of be suspicious of dance groups in New York City right now that mix Zuni, Hopi, pow-wow dance. I understand now. It was survival. It was creative, generative, collaboration between artists of many Indigenous nations finding ground and finding freedom in New York City.
The Lenape dances that should be on Manhahtaan now went with Lenape people when they were forced to walk to Oklahoma and other places not their homeland. It is told to me by leaders at the Lenape Center that the Lenape people have suffered and survived twenty-six forced removals. So, while it is very difficult for me to reconcile with the fact that there are no cultural dance groups doing Lenape dances right now in New York City (yet), and there ARE cultural dance groups doing Zuni and Hopi dances… I now understand the context from which this particular dance history has emerged.
Muriel Miguel and her sister Gloria Miguel started SpiderWoman Theater, a radical feminist theater company and the eldest American Indian Theater company in the US - as a response to the American Indian Movement. AIM was an important activist movement and it is still in existence. There was change brought forth with AIM and it was powerful, but it wasn't our moment of true change.
To my mind, it could have been more powerful. Instead, it was run by a fair good group of male chauvinists who in their fight for justice and in their own trauma, lost sight of being just, themselves.
AIM was at war with the US government - at the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington DC - Piscataway country -
at Wounded Knee in South Dakota - Lakota Homeland, and at Alcatraz in Yelamu, Ohlone territory (San Francisco).
And the story I heard during the First Nations Dialogues NY and the story Muriel Miguel and Rachael Maza have told me and the story many of you here know better than me is that in the 1970s Bob Maza and other Aboriginal theater makers and leaders from Australia spent time in the United States with the National Black Theater in Harlem, Spiderwoman Theater on Turtle Island, and others. A very long (and I’m sure very juicy) story short, they went home and started the first Aboriginal theater companies — Nindethana in Melbourne and the National Black Theater in the Redfern neighborhood of Sydney. From the existence of these theaters, the Black Power movement in Australia began, leading to self-determination, and the self-determination of movements and organizations that serve, support, and foster Aboriginal communities in Australia: health service, social service, housing, and schools. And thank god for that movement, thank god, you mob here for your power.
The way I see it is that through dance, theater, story, and song, through reciprocal relationships, the power is surging now and flowing back. As it should. A reciprocal flow of power and inspiration. Something started here in New York City, on Turtle Island with Spiderwoman Theater, the American Indian Movement, Black Panthers, National Black Theater in Harlem. That something moved across the ocean to Australia and Black Theater, the Black Power movement and self-determination, and now comes back to Turtle Island with a momentum for change. The past few years have seen incredible organizing and creative collaborations between Indigenous artists from Australia and the United States, leading to the development of new works, of a new Indigenous global performance network, and the growing practice of land acknowledgment here. As our Indigenous stories and songs and plights and brilliance and lands are known, as we are recognized, we can better effect the needed change for this land — in policies, in relationships, in consciousness.
I think Auntie Muriel… she must have been called to us over there in New York in January - to see the power flow back and build from it, to help guide and to see what we'll do with it.
In the United States, our Indigenous communities are strong. We have power and sovereignty. We stop pipelines. We galvanize. We are 562 nations making our contributions to the world via language, art, knowledge. But there is also a deep, taught resistance from the settler society. A resistance to acknowledge and be in relation with us and with our land. So much so that most people in the United States do not know whose land they occupy; there is thus rare public land acknowledgment, there has been no government recognition of genocide, land theft, treaty breaking, the Indian Removal Act, the Dawes Act, the Indian Relocation Act, the forced removal of children from homes to Indian boarding schools, and the Oliphant decision, which, according to the Indian Law Resource Center, allowed for the rape and murder of Indigenous women on reservations at rates 10 times the national average. There are over 2000 missing and murdered Indigenous women from Turtle Island. We don't know where they are because there is no system to find not only the perpetrators, but their bodies. We don't have a BlakDance in the United States, or a NAISDA, or any schools for Indigenous performing artists to find their paths to the performing arts world -- THIS one. For the most part, we don't have Indigenous performing works on our stages. During APAP this year -- a land of festivals, venues, 65000 presenter folk coming to town -- there were 2 Indigenous works presented that I know of. That's one more than last year. It is barren. Look how many US presenters are here -- and how many US Indigenous artists...
So, we want to change this.
So -- via relationships here in Australia, via my conversations with Vallejo Gantner over the past many years about how to address this, via the deep want from Indigenous performing artists in America, via the desire for collaboration between us as Indigenous artists and Nations, via the stated desire from Indigenous artists here for touring opportunities there, via the power of BlakDance and ILBIJERRI Theatre and Australian Blackfulla Performing Arts Alliance (BPAA) and you mob and artists here... We hosted an incredibly exciting series of discussions in New York in January (2018). The very first one - we gathered in a bright yellow room during a snowstorm at Henry Street Settlement in the Lower East Side - when I was looking for space to host us, this space was offered and I learned it was where the NAACP began. And Muriel walked in for that first snowy session and the first thing she said was, "I love this room... it's where the Intertribal American Indian Council began."
And here's what we began:
Over four days, the dialogue series focused on increasing the amount of and capacity for and the caliber of Indigenous performance works presented in the United States. 36 ally presenters and funders joined us and other artists to focus on our individual and collective power to change -- through our actions and the actions of our organizations -- the consciousness and actions of the theater spaces, the performing arts field, and the broader consciousness of the US.
By the end of the first day we were focusing on 3 areas:
-- Unhinging the dominant narrative of the western cannon in the presenting and publishing fields and bridging vocabulary gaps -- those words, "contemporary," "experimental," "traditional," "quality."
-- What is an Indigenous project? Indigenous people must have creative control in all aspects of the project.
-- International Indigenous artist exchange and continual presenting, programming and collaboration between presenting bodies and Indigenous artists.
The dialogues built on decades of First Nations sector gatherings and organising. The dialogues built rich relationships and opportunities for collaboration between First Nations artists and market leaders. They rapidly transformed cultural thinking and the prioritization of First Nations artists and our practices. The dialogues were informed by nuanced international contexts but held fast a common thread; of being about First Nations performing arts.
By the third session we were holding one another publicly accountable. There was a generous, gorgeous, burgeoning spirit in that room. People were putting commitments on the table.
So, Auntie Muriel wants action.
We decided to change the very framework, create an entire new Global Indigenous Network that not only centers Indigeneity but simply, gorgeously IS Indigeneity -- it is a self determined structure -- from how we're building the funding, to the way the funding is equitably resourced to artists for new work, for touring; to the way the artists will move into and through the fields of this network, and to the way the ally presenters move into the fields of this network, committing to a serious amount of work in their decolonization process. It is a platform within an already existing festival and it is a collaborative network that weaves through the US for touring, community, and residency work. It is Global from the beginning: for Indigenous artists from US, Australia, Canada -- and we see it concentrically expanding to include Aotearoa, Taiwan, Mexico, South America, Greenland, Finland... It honors our HOW we work (we honor Kevin Loring for that phrase), not only the product of our work. We see it growing to be inclusive of guiding programs for young artists and for Indigenous professionals in all areas of the field.
This is our moment of true change. And we joke about how bad it is in the US, how terrible US policies are. And it's good. Humor helps us all survive. But it's no joke for the Native Americans living in deep poverty, no joke for our communities who - because they haven't been able to recreate and tell their stories or see their stories honoured - cannot move through their trauma. It's no joke for our young ones who kill themselves, or for the murdered and missing women. I'm really grateful for the First Nations Dialogues and for this coming Global Indigenous Network because yes, we want it, we need it, the US needs it, but also, my people need it.
We need the joy, the hot shit work that's going to be made, the confusing work that's going to be made, the conversations that will ensue, the relationships made when we gather as audience community. The healing that I know will come for us, for us all in this world - is extraordinary.
And to restate one of our protocols during the First Nations dialogues sessions --
There is no end to the work we begin here.
Emily Johnson / Catalyst is based on Manhahtaan (Mannahatta) in Lenapehoking. We acknowledge and pay respect to Lenape people and ancestors past, present, and future. Quyanaqvaa-lli elpeni to the Traditional Owners and Sovereign Nations upon whose lands we work and tour to.