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Passing Down Native Knowledge Through Dance

Performers at UCR ARTSblock’s 2015 Indigenous  Choreographers of Riverside event
Performers at UCR ARTSblock’s Culver Center of the Arts for the 2015 Indigenous Choreographers at Riverside project. | Photo: Nikolay Maslov, courtesy of UCR ARTSblock

In Partnership with UCR ARTSblock: UCR ARTSblock's mission is to provide a cultural presence, educational resource, community center and intellectual meeting ground for the university and the community.

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The Indigenous Choreographers at Riverside (ICR) project is an annual event that brings indigenous dance artists and scholars to UC Riverside to connect, discuss, and share work, with many events presented at UCR ARTSblock. In November of 2016, ICR addressed the theme of “Webs of Support for Indigenous Dance/Inside and Outside of Institutions.” Topics discussed at this all-day conference included how the academy and institutions support — or obstruct — possibilities for the thriving of indigenous dance; and what parallel, alternative, and/or counter-hegemonic practices and responses are taking place outside of these institutions to support indigenous dance. The conference included new choreography by Daystar/Rosalie Jones (Little Shell Chippewa), Rosy Simas Danse, and a performative tribute to the late Michael Tsosie, led by choreographer Rulan Tangen. Several events included Cahuilla bird singing. 

The following three-way conversation is between Jacqueline Shea Murphy, UCR dance department professor and organizer of the annual ICR; independent choreographer Daystar /Rosalie Jones; and Tyler Stallings, UCR ARTSblock interim executive director.

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Generating Awareness

Tyler: Jacqueline, when did you first conceive of Indigenous Choreographers in Riverside?

Jacqueline: In 2004, UCR English professor Michelle Raheja and I co-organized a big conference, “Red Rhythms: Contemporary Methodologies in American Indian Dance.” About five years ago, I started bringing bigger dance works to campus, such as Dancing Earth in 2011. It has kept growing ever since then.

Tyler: How do you each define “contemporary,” “indigenous,” and “dance”?

Rosalie: I am speaking not as an academic but as a dancer and teacher who is a choreographer. In 1980, I founded Daystar: Contemporary Dance-Drama of Indian America, in Wisconsin. Since then, I have danced/taught/choreographed around the country, primarily in the plains states, as well as Canada and a few countries abroad. 

It was Jacqueline who established at UC Riverside the Daystar archive in 2004 in the library’s special collections. It was at that point that I was being called a “pioneer” of the work in the field that I had coined, “native modern dance.” Now the more accepted term is “indigenous contemporary dance.” When I began working in this form, in the 1960s, we had no terminology with which to describe what we did. No, it wasn’t modern dance, although I was a modern dancer; no, it wasn’t limited to traditional tribal dance, although I danced most of the traditional plains women’s dances. So I coined a phrase that could at least begin to identify the work. But no matter what you call it, the work emanates from the same source: it is the unique expression of identity in movement of the original peoples of this place we call “Turtle Island.”

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Jacqueline: I ask myself, “what is indigenous?” and then wonder how to discuss it in attentive awareness to complex and ongoing histories of location and dislocation, of seizing and selling, of invisibilization and incorporation, of trashing and taking, of treaties and translations and no treaties and no translations, of desire and disdain. How is what’s happening “today” viewed in relation to “indigenous” histories (in which colonizing violence first constituted “indigenous” in the first place) and futurities? Who is asking, and who is answering? Who is listening to the questions and answers, and who is not?

Tyler: Rosalie, when did you become involved with ICR? How do you see it within the field of contemporary indigenous choreography, especially from the perspective of being in Canada, and since you have the opportunity to travel and perform in many different contexts? And perhaps discuss, in the context of choreography created from indigenous principles of collaboration rather than hierarchy, exploration of the decolonization of theater, and the revitalization of indigenous cultural practices.

Rulan Tangen performing at UCR ARTSblock’s 2015 Indigenous Choreographers of Riverside event
Rulan Tangen performing at UCR ARTSblock’s Culver Center of the Arts for the 2015 Indigenous Choreographers at Riverside project. | Photo: Nikolay Maslov, courtesy of UCR ARTSblock

Rosalie: I had the good fortune to be invited to “Red Rhythms,” too. All of us were stunned that we were all in the same room, talking about the self-same concerns and inspirations. We were all seeing each other, from across North, Central and South America as well as New Zealanders, for the first time! This was the first meeting of its kind. It was historic! 

I was trained as a modern dancer primarily at the University of Utah dance department but also at Juilliard School in NYC. Such training emphasized the techniques that originated with the “great” choreographers such as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Jose Limon. Dancers competed with one another to gain a foothold in a well-known company, which operated at the pleasure of the “master” choreographer. The methods now coming through indigenous choreographers could not be more different. 

In the Daystar work, I take considerable satisfaction in the creative work of the choreographer, in an expression of material linked to ancestral beings and stories and how we fit as individuals and communities into the present world. I think one of the most exciting possibilities now emerging is that the tribal dance leaders and knowledge keepers are entering into an appreciation of how the communal nature of contemporary indigenous dance can play a role in passing down indigenous knowledge to the younger generations. More could be said about the use of alternative performance spaces, such as outdoor, communal and natural spaces that transcend the Western concept of a performance “venue.”

Global Indigenous Choreography

Tyler: Jacqueline, did you always intend to include indigenous choreographers from around the world, as opposed to limiting it to the Native Nations in the U.S., for example?  

Jacqueline: I’ve come to realize that a central core of what this dance work is about is being in relation. So, the dance leaders being in relation with each other, as well as my being in relation with them, is part of what this dance work, and this ICR project, is about. The intention is more about the ongoing relationships of support for one another — inside and outside of the university, and across national and geo-political borders. It is not really about an intentional focus outside of what is today called the U.S. which — after all — is a fairly recent creation, but about the relationships it has fostered. 

Tyler: Rosalie, could you please describe some of your experiences when performing in other countries and also within various indigenous communities? Could you discuss the idea of building cross-cultural relationships? And perhaps also touch upon the idea of the relationship between developing and passing on knowledge through performance?

Rosy Simas performing at UCR ARTSblock’s 2015 Indigenous Choreographers of Riverside event
Rosy Simas Danse performing at UCR ARTSblock’s Culver Center of the Arts for the 2016 Indigenous Choreographers at Riverside project. | Photo: Nikolay Maslov, courtesy of UCR ARTSblock

Rosalie: Any native person who is an artist, whether dancer, musician or visual artist, who travels abroad, receives an amazingly warm welcome. There are many reasons for this — some to be lauded and some not. It also strikes me as a little embarrassing, that Native Americans or First Nations Canadians or, I imagine, those from Central and South America, are held in such esteem by strangers. Perhaps such reactions are so unexpected because in our own home countries, the reception can be quite the opposite. Colonialism has taken its toll; in our own countries we are still seen as the “other.” Some of this is unjustified historic guilt; sometimes it is simple distrust. Sadly, we are unknown in our own homeland. 

As to working in indigenous communities, I spent most of my early career years going out to reservations and urban centers. I was always welcomed and the teaching or performing that was shared was positive. I felt blessed that I was able to bring experiences that would bring positive self-image, identity, and self-empowerment to the students and adults in those schools and communities.

One does not “develop” indigenous knowledge. The knowledge is there, within the communities and Nations. The challenge is finding ways to access the indigenous knowledge that is there for us. And I have found that one of the best ways to access that knowledge is to create a relationship between yourself and the Elders of any given community. I have been fortunate as a faculty member in the indigenous studies department at Trent University to have found myself in the midst of a faculty made up of some of the Anishinaabe Elders. Their teachings have been incorporated into the curriculum of that department, since it was founded 30 years ago. And in turn, one is then introduced to the various local communities in the area and one slowly establishes a relationship with community members; one is invited to both social and spiritual events. And this builds over a period of years. 

My ancestry comes through two avenues: in relationship to the Blackfeet people and land where I was born and from my lineage with the Pembina/Little Shell people as passed through my mother. It seemed natural that I would access the stories and dances of both of these Nations of people, in the “danced storytelling” within my own Daystar company. Whenever one tells a story, one is passing along that knowledge to the members of an audience. Each individual in the audience may not understand all the ramifications of that story, but they will connect with some part of it and take that with them out of the theater. And if they can experience another performance, either my own or by another indigenous performer or company, that person is gradually accumulating knowledge, and thereby, an understanding of the culture and its people. There is no doubt that performance is a way to pass down indigenous knowledge to the next generation.

Jack Grey performing at UCR ARTSblock’s 2015 Indigenous Choreographers of Riverside event
Jack Gray performing at UCR ARTSblock’s Culver Center of the Arts for the 2015 Indigenous Choreographers at Riverside project. | Photo: Nikolay Maslov, courtesy of UCR ARTSblock

Creating and Sustaining Indigenous Studies in the Arts

Tyler: Rosalie, it’s my understanding that you were an important part of Nozhem First People’s Performance Space in Canada, which is the first indigenous theater there to be envisioned by an Elder, Edna Manitowabi (Anishinaabe). The physical facility was realized by Marrie Mumford (Metis) in 2003-2004 to be housed within the indigenous studies department at Trent University. Then, beginning in 2005, you were engaged to assist Mumford in the development of a curriculum for the program “Indigenous Performance Study,” now acknowledged as the first such program in higher education in Canada. Could you reflect on the moments where you saw signs of improvement in regard to institutional support and also where you saw areas in which challenges remain?

Rosalie: Nozhem First People’s Performance Space represents an achievement for indigenous performance that I feel, is unequalled anywhere else in North America. Not because it is the biggest or most beautiful or most frequented by the public. But because it was born out of the pure cultural and artistic intent of indigenous women.

It is significant that the woman who birthed the idea was an Elder who is both a high-ranking Midewiwin Society medicine person as well as a professional actress and singer. It is significant that the second woman in the process was a practicing theatrical professional turned teacher/professor who was able to drive through the funding for the realization of the physical structure. I find myself as the third woman in the process who was brought in to help write the curriculum. The positive support from the administration was secured directly from the then president of Trent University (another woman, incidentally), who approved the curriculum and actually showed up at performances, and solicited funding agencies for various incidental needs.

Jacqueline Shea-Murphy leads a discussion at the 2012 Indigenous Choreographers at Riverside event
Jacqueline Shea Murphy leads a discussion at UCR ARTSblock’s Culver Center of the Arts during the 2016 Indigenous Choreographers at Riverside project. | Photo: Nikolay Maslov, courtesy of UCR ARTSblock

Indigenous Choreography Within Universities

Tyler: I recall at the 2015 ICR conference here at UCR that many of the invitees talked about the difficulty they have or did have in the past when pursuing Ph.Ds with indigenous dance studies because much of the reaction was that they focus on traditional dance. They praised UCR for the welcoming environment around indigenous dance studies. Jacqueline, as a professor at UCR, what are your thoughts on their reactions? Rosalie, what are your thoughts on working with academic communities?

Jacqueline: Often “Native American” or “indigenous” dance (and Native arts in general) are only seen in relation to practices that get labeled “traditional” (however complex and sometimes problematic that term can be). These perspectives around “traditional” Native dance often get directly or indirectly attached to ideas of the past — to maintaining or preserving Native arts or dance practices before they are “lost” or “disappeared” — which taps into a whole history of troublesome rhetoric (and writer Paula Gunn Allen would say, “genocidal fantasy”) about disappearing Indians. 

Rosalie: I concur with Jacqueline. It will be an on-going effort across the university and in general across the mind-set of the dominant society, to collapse colonial and even “settler” mentalities. It has been my experience that working with academic communities is fraught with difficulties! The university system is built largely on a colonial model, after all. Hierarchy abounds. I believe departments, in themselves, attempt to operate as a democratic entity, to meet the needs of its students as of primary importance with a mostly dedicated faculty. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic structure throws up endless barriers between inspired ideas and the final reality. I have now seen three different, isolated and unrelated, incidents within the academy in both the U.S. and Canada, that has unceremoniously brought down the ax on programs or departments specific to indigenous dance and theater. It is never a pretty sight and dedicated individuals have had their careers cut short or eliminated in the process.

Rosy Simas Danse performing at UCR ARTSblock’s 2015 Indigenous Choreographers at Riverside event
Rosy Simas Danse performing at UCR ARTSblock’s Culver Center of the Arts for the 2016 Indigenous Choreographers at Riverside project. | Photo: Nikolay Maslov, courtesy of UCR ARTSblock

Tyler: Jacqueline, what are some of the issues with presenting such a program at a large research university? For example, there is the tension between feelings that the university and its representatives are guests on indigenous land, as opposed to the other way around. What are your thoughts on the navigation of this historical dilemma and the idea of “permission”? What are your thoughts on presenting such work to a general audience? 

Jacqueline: In a Dance Research Journal special issue on “Indigenous Dance Today” I guest-edited recently, I wrote about how, for example, over the past several years, the ICR project has included events and performances by many different indigenous dance artists, both in UCR dance department studio spaces, the UCR library Special Collections, and at UCR ARTSblock’s Culver Center of the Arts in downtown Riverside. 

I also wrote about how, perhaps inevitably, there have also been disconnects around meaning, value and purpose between institutional expectations and requirements, and what the dancing and dance events have sometimes required. Some of these disconnects have come from differing world views and understandings about what a dance performance is and enacts. As ICR participant Shannon Wray explains, where a non-indigenous audience may see “entertainment” that starts when the lights go up, in many indigenous performers and choreographers’ perspectives, “the dances are living response, creation and activation, rather than a consumable production that is essentially discarded when the lights go down.” 

This extends to the handling of what is seen as “materials” or “objects” included in performances — which might, from one perspective, be discarded after having been seen as fulfilling the purpose assigned to them as merely “decoration” — and from another, be understood as living representation of the sacred and to have further ceremonial purpose. It extends as well to the protocol required for things to happen — from institutional and insurance paperwork to ancestral acknowledgment, acknowledgment of place, as well as (to cite ICR participant María Regina Firmino Castillo) acknowledgement of relation within a “telluric” “pluriverse” that includes not only other humans but also “earth others,” an understanding underscored by other contributors as well. 

Tyler, you explained some of what [participants] were compelling you to see necessary in the future, which I described in Dance Research Journal. These included: shifting thinking to one where curators and organizers are guests on indigenous land, as opposed to indigenous artists being guests in our space; deepening understandings around the issues with institutions granting “permissions” for indigenous practices (particularly those connected to ceremony, and how ingrained in settler colonial practices that act of “granting permissions” for indigenous practices is); and thinking more about how to address this differently — such as cultivating a stronger practice for negotiating possibility.

Considering the Future

Tyler: Jacqueline, Rosalie, what do you foresee in the next five years? 

Jacqueline: I’d really like to see UCR build an outdoor dance space/site/arbor/amphitheater designed specifically for indigenous activities, including dance, on its campus grounds (and perhaps for this to happen on multiple UC campuses, in relation with the indigenous communities on whose lands those campuses have been built). 

Rosalie: I have no five-year plan. At 75 years of age, I hope to continue to contribute in any way I can to the nurturing of Native modern dance and indigenous contemporary dance, theater and the arts. The “dream” is now in the hands, minds and spirits of the next generation.
 

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