Native Voices: Revisiting Podcasts with Native Artists
In honor of Indigenous Peoples' Day, we're revisiting our conversations with Native artists and cultural leaders whose work challenges assumptions, preserves traditions, and speaks to the past, present, and future.
As the agency’s Folk and Traditional Arts Director Cliff Murphy reflected in his “State of the Folk Arts” blog post from earlier this year, the pandemic “created a period of imposed contemplation for all of us,” including how we might be better advocates for cultural heritage. While the Arts Endowment’s strategic outreach to Native communities and artists began in 2016, this year, the agency has drafted a Plan of Action for Tribal Consultation, which followed two tribal consultation calls with tribal leaders.
This is just one example of the agency’s engagement with Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities, which also includes providing grants for a wide range of arts activities, from traditional to contemporary arts. As we reflect on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we recognize the importance of this ongoing work and lift up the voices of Native artists who lead the way.
Karen Ann Hoffman (Oneida Nation of Wisconsin) – 2020 National Heritage Fellow and Haudenosaunee Raised Beadworker
“So much of the work that I do is in response to contemporary issues because we as Native people live in the middle of contemporary issues and they have social impact on us, and like artists all over the world we respond to that social impact with our art.”
Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Karen Ann Hoffman: 10.0pt; font-family:"Arial",sans-serif">To me, every really good piece of Iroquois raised beadwork that I’ve ever seen is encircled in some way or another and the way it comes to me is to understand that each one of those beads stands for all the Iroquois people that ever were, all of us that currently are, and all of those whose faces we have yet to see.
Jo Reed: That is Iroquois raised beadworker and 2020 National Heritage fellow Karen Anne Hoffman and this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
For past twenty-five years or so, Karen Anne Hoffman has found her artistic voice in creating works of art using the technique of Iroquois raised bead work. Raised bead work is unique to the Iroquois confederacy. . The beadwork created by Iroquois consists of lines of beads that arch above the material which give the art work dimensionality. Karen Anne’s work reimagines the existing forms while remaining deeply rooted in Iroquois culture and traditions. Some pieces recall ancient legends, others refer to current social issues, and still others explore the future of the Iroquois. Her art has been exhibited in many museums across the country and is part of the permanent collection of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC and Chicago’s Field Museum. A three-time master-teacher in Wisconsin’s folk arts apprenticeship program, Karen Anne is both knowledgeable and passionate about Native American art in general and Iroquois raised beadwork in particular. I spoke with her recently, and we began our conversation with a little bit of history about the Oneida nation’s journey west to Wisconsin.
Karen Ann Hoffman: The homeland for we Oneida of Wisconsin is back east in what they now call New York State, but in about 1820 there was an issue, shall we say, around the Erie Canal, and as a result of those issues the Oneida Nation that lived in New York at the time was removed from their homelands. In about 1820, a good chunk of Oneidas began a three-wave journey from the homelands to the state of Wisconsin. Simultaneously, some of the Oneidas remained in their homeland and are still there today, and another group of Oneida moved up into Canada, another part of the original homeland at the Thames, and yet another group of Oneida was forcibly removed out into the Indian territories in Kansas and Oklahoma, but I come from the groups, the three waves, that left New York and came to Wisconsin in the 1820s, and that’s how Iroquois raised beadwork comes to have a home in Wisconsin.
Jo Reed: Now I’d like you to describe Iroquois raised beadwork and also explain to us what makes it distinct.
Karen Ann Hoffman: Iroquois raised beadwork is a beautiful, rare form of Haudenosaunee beadwork. Its forms and designs stretch back ten-, twelve-, fourteen-thousand years. We’re still using shapes and contemporary beadwork today that were originally scratched into rock or etched into a shell; those forms, those cultural content pieces stay with us across the millennia, but the materials that we use to express those ideas change. So now, instead of scratching into a shell or etching into a rock face, I’m privileged to use a steel needle, some cotton thread, some beautiful glass beads, and I am able to execute those forms in Iroquois raised beadwork, but I think we all know that steel needles, cotton thread and beads were gifts of the colonizers, and those gifts were distributed actually all across the world. What’s interesting to me is that those selfsame materials distributed to cultures all across the world produce distinctive, rich art forms, depending on the hands in which they landed and the fingers that are now executing the art form. So Iroquois raised beadwork takes our beads, and instead of sewing them flat onto a surface like many others do, we’re the only nations that use our beads in a dimensional pile, the exuberant three-dimensional fashion, so that our work is thick and rich and stands above the base fabric upon which we sew; that’s what makes it visually distinctive.
Jo Reed: Was creating beadwork something that you learned at home when you were growing up?
Karen Ann Hoffman: No, it isn’t, and in fact it’s my belief that Iroquois raised beadwork in this highly arched form wasn’t present in Wisconsin until the 1990s or so. You see, the high point, the exuberant point, of Iroquois raised beadwork really is in the middle 1800s; that’s when the form reaches what I call its zenith. We Wisconsin Oneida were gone from the homeland for 50 years by the time that happened, so the beadwork that we did wasn’t the same as this exuberant form that was occurring out east, back east, back in the homeland, and it wasn’t until, in my case, Samuel Thomas and his mother, Lorna Hill, came from Niagara Falls, Ontario, to Oneida, Wisconsin and gifted us with raised beadwork that the form really took fire in Wisconsin.
Jo Reed: Can you tell me how it felt to you when you first learned raised beadwork from Sam Thomas and Lorna Hill? Did it feel like, "Oh, man, I am home"?
Karen Ann Hoffman: Do you know what it felt like? I fell in love, that immediate warmth, that immediate desire to know more, that idea that you cannot separate yourself from the object of your love. That’s what it felt like to me. I just had to learn more and more and more about this. I think I was the right student at the right time with the right teachers and the right support system, and all of those things came together to give me the opportunity to really learn and really explore this amazing art form, and I’m really grateful for those happenstances of circumstance that came my way.
Jo Reed: You had said that there are kind of three strands of Iroquois raised beadwork, and you described some of the ancient art and the way it was reinvigorated in the mid nineteenth century, and then there are two other strands and I’d like you to describe those.
Karen Ann Hoffman: So what I talk about are, yeah, the popular form of Iroquois raised beadwork, "whimsies," a lot of people know it as, tourist-trade items that were made for sale deliberately by the excellent businesspeople that my people come from, so it was a deliberate attempt to produce and sell items to the tourist trade; that’s one stream. The other stream that I’m aware of are personal items, regalia items, ceremonial items; those kinds of things are typically not for sale outside of the community, although they may well be traded for within the community. The clothing that somebody wears when they’re married, when they die, when their babies are named, those pieces of culture aren’t for sale but they are gifted and handed down from generation to generation within the community. And the third stream and the stream that interests me the most is a contemporary form of Iroquois raised beadwork where, being deeply connected to the past, the form is taken, explored, pushed, expanded and reimagined against contemporary life. So much of the work that I do is in response to contemporary issues because we as Native people live in the middle of contemporary issues and they have social impact on us, and like artists all over the world we respond to that social impact with our art.
Jo Reed: Can you walk me through your work practices? How do you begin? How do you know when an idea is right and you want to go with it?
Karen Ann Hoffman: You know because it won’t let you alone. <laughs> So I’ll tell you about the piece that I’m currently working on. Most of my pieces take about a year to sew but they percolate in my mind for a lot longer than that. The piece that I’m currently working on arises out of this situation. I live in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and a couple years ago there was a designation by the state of Wisconsin that the university from which I graduated, UW Stevens Point, was constructed on a mass Native burial. Those Natives had died in the late 1800s of scarlet fever, and, not being allowed into town to buy groceries, they certainly weren’t allowed into town for burial, so their bodies were disposed of in an abandoned quarry. As the city of Stevens Point began to grow, that quarry got turned into the Stevens Point’s garbage dump. As the city began to grow even further and that kind of unused land got plotted off and sold off, the burial was never able to be sold because everybody knew that there were bodies underneath of it. Ultimately, that land by the 1890s was given to the state of Wisconsin, and in the early 1890s they built the Stevens Point Normal School or Teachers College on it, and that college has continued from the early 1890s to this very day to educate students from the state of Wisconsin and across the United States, and people don’t recognize that every day, every week, every semester thousands of us walk on the bones of those poor dead Indians. So I’ve been sitting with that idea for a couple of years, and that compels me to make a piece of art to honor and acknowledge those dead, and what happens for my process is these ideas, these things, percolate in the back of my mind and I don’t know that I’m consciously thinking of them all the time but very often a completed piece will appear in my head; whether I’m sleeping or awake I’ll just suddenly see a completed piece and that’s when I know it’s time to take out the needle and thread and begin the work. And then the next year is consumed with pattern making and bead-pattern design and the actual execution of the piece, and that’s what I’m in the middle of right now.
Jo Reed: Do you sketch it all? Do you draw on the fabric? How do you approach the fabric? Do you make patterns? What’s the next step?
Karen Ann Hoffman: Right. So each piece that I make I’m only interested in making once, which is a great way of saying you get the opportunity to create an entirely new object every time you sit down to bead, and that means you get to figure out an entirely new pattern and construction form and that means you get to explore the geometry of your beadwork and make patterns and make mock-ups and find errors and make corrections and spend all of that time constructing the body of the object. Now that body of an object is also decorated with beadwork embellishment, and when I do a beadwork design I don’t like to bead the same thing twice either, so all of those designs are original to me as well, and that means I get to spend a lot of time looking at whatever it is I’m going to bead. If it’s a tree I have to know what is it that makes an oak tree an oak tree and not a maple; how can you simplify that form down to its very essence so that the beads that I’m working with can do their best job explaining what an oak tree really looks like, and that’s a lot of trial and error; that’s a lot of sketching; that’s a lot of practice beading; that’s a lot of making an object just to see if I have it right before I make the object that I need to make.
Jo Reed: What is the structure for this project? Will it be a mat? An urn? What shape will it take?
Karen Ann Hoffman: So for this particular object it will be a medicine bag, but a medicine bag that would have been used by the displaced folks who lived in this area in the 1820s, ‘30s and ‘40s, so I’ve spent a lot of time looking at what those old skin bags were and how they’re made and what they need to have to be properly constructed, and so I’m doing my very best to re-create for those poor, unrested Indians a bag that can be sung and danced for them so that they can finally sleep, and it will need to be a bag that they’ll recognize.
Jo Reed: What about color choices? So much of your work is beautifully vivid, but you tend to limit the number of colors in each piece.
Karen Ann Hoffman: I do, I do, and I always say I work in what I call a dichromatic color scheme because I think a couple of things, and one of the things I think is that, no disrespect to the people who are amazing in their use of color, but for me color can be a distraction from the elegance and accuracy of a design. A lot of technique can be hidden by color, and so I like to be able to focus on the techniques and the accuracy of the needle placement so I limit my color palette probably to two, at the most three colors, and I always think too that I’m not in charge of choosing those colors; the idea, the concept, the story, the tale, the tradition-- that chooses the colors. So when I made a bag or an urn, an urn that talked about the water, obviously it was blue, of course the accents were silver because water and froth and foam are those colors. It wasn’t up to me, it was up to the idea, and I just have to get out of the way and represent for the idea.
Jo Reed: I'm wondering, Karen Ann, when you’re beading it will take a year for you to do a project. Is it meditative when you’re beading? I’m just curious; what’s going through your mind as you’re doing this?
Karen Ann Hoffman: I think that “meditative” is a good word, but another word that I like to bring to the table is “committed” because when you sit down with a piece and you know you’re going to live with it for a year, it’s going to live with you, it’s going to occupy all your free time, you have to be committed to that. It’s kind of like entering a marriage; you know there are going to be rough spots and joyful spots, but you’re committed to seeing it through. And so I take that approach once I start with these pieces, but the actual sewing, sewing, sewing, sewing, sewing, sewing, sewing does become very meditative to me. I think it must be like a pianist practicing their E-flat scale. It’s challenging, it’s repetitive, it’s beautiful, and it brings that music deep into your body and your soul, and once it hits that core, you just go with it.
Jo Reed: Everything you do with your art is absolutely deliberate and you encircle the central images you create with beads. I'm thinking of Winter Mat, for example.
Karen Ann Hoffman: Yes. Yes.
Jo Reed: There’s a reason for that and I’d like you to share that.
Karen Ann Hoffman: This is the way I understand that encirclement of beads. To me, every really good piece of Iroquois raised beadwork that I’ve ever seen is encircled in some way or another and the way it comes to me is to understand that each one of those beads stands for all the Iroquois people that ever were, all of us that currently are, and all of those whose faces we have yet to see, all of the unborn, but we’re all connected in this really beautiful, connected circle. What’s important to remember is that when you look at that encirclement, it’s not important to pick out an individual bead and say, “Oh, that’s Karen Ann Hoffman,” or, “Oh, that one must be her dad or her grandma,” or, “These are her children’s children’s children.” What’s important to remember is that each bead has a significant and equal responsibility and if any one of those beads got plucked out, the entire encirclement would suffer, and what that says to me is that that’s my responsibility as a good Iroquois person. If I or any of us don’t live up to our responsibilities to the whole, if we fail, if we fall out, we impact every other person in that chain, from the past, of the present, and into the future. So it’s about knowing that you as an individual are not the important part but that we as the community are.
Jo Reed: I have a sense that could be why three different times you’ve been chosen as a master teacher in the apprenticeship program.
Karen Ann Hoffman: I like to try to think I pass these ideas that were gifted to me on to another generation of beaders, and I really hope that that’s true because the other thing that I truly do understand is that this beadwork, these pieces that come out of my fingers don’t represent me in particular; they represent us as a whole.
Jo Reed: We’ve mentioned the dimensionality of Iroquois raised beadwork, but you’ve brought that to another level in any number of pieces and you actually created the beaded-urn form. I’d love for you to first describe that form, but then if you can to share the impulse behind it, behind giving that much structure to the beadwork.
Karen Ann Hoffman: Well, I would say I didn’t create that form but I may have reinvigorated it. I was at the New York State Museum, I’m going to say, 20 years ago, and they were nice enough to let me rattle around in their archives, and in that museum I saw a very small dimensional birch-bark container, and that was my first inspiration. It was a seed holder; it’s four or five sides sewn together, open at the top, a bulbous form at the bottom, dated to come from, if memory serves, the early 1500s, so it was a very old piece and I thought about that piece for a really long time. Then sometime later I bumped into some pieces that were to have been created in the early 1800s, and they were called jardinières and they were similar in form, the similar bulbous, maybe six-inch-tall, four- or so sided vessel, but what I did was I took that form, I blew it up, I exaggerated, I made the bulb huge; I made it 18 inches tall, not 6. I made it 15 inches wide, not 4. I made the corners, the ears twist and turn in a way that had not been done before, so that’s where I take these very old and traditional ideas and forms and I move them into this third stream of contemporary beadwork, deeply connected but pushing forward, pushing forward, and that’s what I love to do.
Jo Reed: I would love to have you describe what it was like when you found out Wampum Urn was placed in the permanent collection of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Karen Ann Hoffman: That was orchestrated for me with the guidance and the help of Emil Her Many Horses, an amazing beader that I had met when I was exhibiting at the Eiteljorg Indian Market in Indianapolis. Emil’s curator down there at the Smithsonian, and I have a high respect for the work that he did. Now Emil encouraged me as a young beader, so I screwed up my courage and I made a proposal that Emil should please take to his board and ask them to buy that piece, and when they did I kind of knew that my dreams were real possibilities. Other people judged that that piece of work was worthy of an institution like the National Museum of the American Indian; that meant that other people judged that my artwork had reached a professional form, and that validated my suspicions about myself and gave me the courage to step forward and pursue other high ideals. So I’m very grateful to Emil for showing that faith in me and letting me know that others saw me as I dreamed that I could be.
Jo Reed: I also think it is fabulous that your work was shown a few years ago at the Ukrainian National Museum in Chicago.
Karen Ann Hoffman: I know. That was so awesome.
Jo Reed: I think that is great because of course they’re known for their beadwork too.
Karen Ann Hoffman: <laughs> And I’ll tell you that-- do you have a moment for the story?
Jo Reed: Oh, yeah, please.
Karen Ann Hoffman: Okay. I got a call from Colette Lemmon who is curator at the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cavern, [ph?] New York, and Colette said that she was working with someone else and they were putting together an exhibit that was going to be at the Ukrainian National Museum in Chicago, and the theme of it was Women with Courage and did I think I’d like to be involved in that, and I had to tell her, “Jeez, Colette, I appreciate that you thought of me but I’m sitting here in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, fat and sassy. I am not a woman of courage, and thank you but I just don’t think this is for me, I just don’t think I fit,” and Colette was very gracious, but at that same time my dad was real sick, real sick with Parkinson’s; it was getting real bad. And my mother, his wife of-- since she was 15 and by then they were in their eighties, his constant companion, never, never left his side. He stayed in my mom’s home until the moment that he passed, and I looked at her and her daily caregiving, that loving, difficult, heartbreaking job that she did without complaint, and I thought to myself, there is a woman of courage.” And at that moment I saw a beautiful pink urn, gorgeous and rounded in the belly like women are with ears and arms that reach out to hold in a beautiful French-silk pink fabric that was beautiful and strong, and I knew that I had to create Feminine Balance to separate those women and that courage. So I called Colette and I said, “I think I have an idea,” and they were gracious enough to include it in that really amazing exhibit.
Jo Reed: Often art by Native Americans is sort of put to one side as a craft rather than a fine art, and I know you have thoughts about this and I’d like for you to share them.
Karen Ann Hoffman: I know that really highly executed Native American fine art can go head to head, toe to toe, heart to heart with any fine art from any portion of the world, and I think if we could learn to address fine art with the same critical eyes and the same kind of value system that we apply when we’re looking at the Dutch masters, we could begin to understand that the work that comes from contemporary Native hands is every bit as significant, meaningful, beautiful and technically executed as any other art form. Like people can diagnose the brush stroke in a Rubens [ph?] as compared to the plop of a Jackson Pollock, you can tell Iroquois raised beadwork between communities, between artists, between brush strokes or, shall I say, needle sticks. You can hold our art right next to anyone else’s and we will stand tall because we stand for our people.
Jo Reed: Karen Ann, your work is visually stunning, and it’s also for you not the point that it is; that’s not what you’re going after.
Karen Ann Hoffman: <laughs> Yeah. Well, thank you, <laughs> In my mind, fine art needs to be three things. One of those things it has-- is that it has to be visually attractive; that doesn’t necessarily mean pretty, but it has to catch the eye or no one will engage with it, so it has to be beautiful, it has to be intentional, by which I mean crafted of the very best materials with the very best technique that the artist can muster, and the third thing it needs to be is meaningful, and to me that is that it has a reason to exist, an idea to share, something to relate to an audience about. And so I like for my things to be striking so that someone will take a second look, but I’m more interested in the execution and the meaning.
Jo Reed: You’ve talked about how you see yourself and your work as part of a continuum from the past into the future but I wonder, if you think about your part of that continuum, what would your goal be for that?
Karen Ann Hoffman: My goal for my part in that continuum is to not disappoint those who have put so much faith and trust in me. I recently said to somebody about another thing that I’m working on, “Oh, don’t worry,” I told them, “I have faith in you,” and then I laughed and I said, “The biggest burden in the world is when somebody tells you they have faith in you.” Well, I’ve been told that people have faith in me, and so my part of the continuum is to shoulder that responsibility in a really good and strong way that doesn’t highlight me necessarily but highlights all of those who have come before and shed some light for those who are yet to come, and if I can do that well then the pieces will live and they will live up to that responsibility. Whether anybody knows my name in the future or not isn’t really very important; what’s important is that they know what I was taught and what I’m trying to pass on. And those teachings did not come from me; I’m just a needle-and-thread conduit.
Jo Reed: What did it mean for you to be named a 2020 National Heritage Fellow for your raised beadwork?
Karen Ann Hoffman: I was very honored by that because I know full well that that honor is built on the talents of thousands of Haudenosaunee artists from the past, that are currently practicing, and that will practice in the future, and I shoulder this responsibility gratefully and solemnly and will do my very best to live up to the representation that I’ve been gifted with. I think it’s my job to represent for all of the amazing talent that surrounds us, and so I appreciate that opportunity.
Jo Reed: Karen Ann, it is an honor that is so well deserved, and your work is stunningly beautiful and visually striking and stays in my mind; I really see it for a long time after I stop seeing it, if you know what I mean, so I think that’s wonderful.
Karen Ann Hoffman: I’m very, very pleased to hear you say that, and I think that will please my teachers and that’s a good thing. Thank you.
Jo Reed: Thank you, Karen Ann.
Karen Ann Hoffman: You’re most welcome.
That is Iroquois raised beadworker and 2020 National Heritage fellow Karen Anne Hoffman. Because of the pandemic, the annual celebration of the new class of National Heritage Fellows will take place virtually this year. Details will be available shortly at arts.gov. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.
And don’t forget to subscribe to Art Works and leave us a rating on Apple it helps people to find us. And follow us on twitter @NEAarts.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Stay safe. Stay Kind. And thanks for listening.
Madeline Sayet (Mohegan) – Theater artist
“I was really raised with this understanding of story medicine. You know, stories aren't neutral. They're often used as a part of healing practices, not just in my culture, but around the world. And what that always made me think of is the fact that like stories have power. You know, you can't just tell a story and expect it not to do anything. If you're actually wielding a story, it can create great healing, or it can create great harm.”
That is theater-maker and citizen of the Mohegan Nation, Madeline Sayet. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed
Madeline Sayet is playwright, a performer, and a director of new plays, classical work and opera. Among her honors have been a TED Fellowship, an MIT Media Labs Directors Fellowship, a National Directors Fellowship and a White House Champion for Change Award. Madeline Sayet is first and foremost an advocate for and participant in Native theater, championing Native playwrights, directors and performers. She builds worlds on the stage—directing powerful stories from a diversity of Native writers, bringing their words to indigenous and non-indigenous audiences. She interrogates the classic work she directs by foregrounding the voices of the previously unheard, interrupting gender identity and presenting work through an Indigenous lens. Her staging of The Winter’s Tale features an all Native, multi-generational cast, her direction of The Tempest gives Caliban his language back and it’s Mohegan, while Madeline’s production of “The Magic Flute,” according to a reviewer was enchanting—taking its cues lightly Native American tradition eliminating the sexism while preserving the enlightenment themes. Madeline Sayet grew up with traditional Mohegan stories and Shakespeare and it’s this intersection informs her exhilarating and intimate one-woman show “Where We Belong”. Madeline both wrote and performs in the play which is presented by the Wooly Mammoth Theater Company in association with The Folger Shakespeare Library. Where We Belong is Madeline’s journey --examining her time living in London working on a Ph.D in Shakespeare, and becoming increasingly uncomfortable in a country that doesn’t recognize its colonial past. But when she returns to the United States, to Mohegan tribal land in Connecticut where she lives—she’s finds it difficult to feel grounded again.
Madeline Sayet: For the first time in my life my feet didn't feel like they rooted to the ground correctly. Up until then, whenever I'd come home it was as if like the relationship I had to place was so deep, my feet just sort of like sunk in and rooted like all the way down to my ancestors whenever I came home. And this time I came home, something was different. I felt a little bit more distance. I felt a little bit more up in the air everywhere I went. And the name of my people, Mohegan, means Wolf People. And my name in Mohegan, Tokayis [ph?], means Blackbird, or The Dark One Who Flies Apart. And so, I was thinking about this journey from being a wolf to being a bird, and I was trying to process that. And I was also trying to process if in this moment having just moved back to the States in 2018, away from a Nation that actually, even though, you know, Mohegan has such a complicated history with English as our colonizers, I was leaving this 21st Century England, where they have socialized healthcare and companies can't put poison in your food, and some of these protocols that actually are much more community-minded than in America, and I was grappling with this question of, "As a Mohegan person, does missing England make me a traitor?" And that was the initial impulse from which the story came, alongside gathering together a series of stories around this question of wolf to bird journey, the way that you would in traditional storytelling, just a person sharing stories in space, and seeing what happened if you bring these stories together. Now all of that sounds very complicated but ultimately what it turned into is this piece that both navigates how my journey to the U.K. intersects with those of my ancestors who had to across the ocean in the 1700s, as well as the journey of a wolf becoming a bird. As well as the intersections of language, Shakespeare and colonialism. And so, it's like the nightmare of pieces to describe, because it's not really designed to have a logline. It really is like a very personal exploration of my experience, which when people witness, I feel like the thing that's been really wonderful is like them getting to sort of sit inside of my subconscious and grapple with those things and go on that journey, but when I have to try and explain it, this piece, that was really dealing with the "Where We Belong" was really supposed to be as much a question as anything else. This piece was never designed to give you answers. It was really about, "What does it mean in the 21st Century to be an indigenous person in a globalized context?" You know? And so, many other things that it's one of those pieces where I feel like I will never find exactly the right way to describe it. <laughter>
Jo Reed: Well, you know, you've said that you liked to-- you don't want to dwell on answers, you're much more interested in exploring questions in all of your work.
Madeline Sayet: Yes.
Jo Reed: And in fact, even on Facebook, you said, "I'm not doing any more statements. I'm just throwing questions out."
Madeline Sayet: <laughs> I did! It was a very long phase. <laughs>
Jo Reed: And I think that's a wonderful way to come at work.
Madeline Sayet: Yeah, well, I found that-- the funny thing is I actually-- I had this-- what happened was the reason the question thing started on Facebook-- it's funny that you mentioned that-- was actually because we were in this moment where things were feeling very divisive. I think I started doing the questions thing in 2015 or 2016. And what I found was people would just come together in this really interesting way, even though they didn't know each other, they would have these like long debates. I'd say something like-- you know, they'd be really-- sometimes they'd be really open like, "What is time?" or things that couldn't be answered, like usually it was intentionally questions that couldn't be answered, but I was grappling with in some way in my artistic work. And I'd post them, and like all these people from all over the place would come together and grapple around these things and that's really what "Where We Belong" is aiming to do, like a lot of my creative work. It's not supposed to like-- you might learn something from it, but it's definitely not geared toward being educational or a lecture. It's really geared toward like, "What does this bring up for you?" Because some of my most positive experiences of audience members witnessing it have been the ones who then go, "Oh! Now I feel like I can do this with my stories." You know? They make them think about their own stories and their own life a little bit deeper and grapple with the questions of the piece a little bit more. Because I'm just not interested in like what one per-- like what I, as one person, have to say, but I'm interested in like what I, as one person, in the questions that I'm asking in my life, what those questions might bring up for other people.
Jo Reed: Well, you begin your show with Nansenan [ph?]. Who is she? And tell us why you began there.
Madeline Sayet: Sure. So, actually, each version of the show is a little bit different. It's structured with a prologue and an epilogue in what's problematically Shakespearean. <laughter> But there's a couple little Shakespearean like nuggets that are still structurally in there. But the reason there's a prologue and an epilogue is because the prologue for every single place in which it's performed is supposed to locate you in place. And the epilogue is the moment in time that we're in. So, in the case of the D.C. version of "Where We Belong," in D.C., we are on the land of the Piscataway, and I thought it was really important for people to not just be hearing my story, a Mohegan story from somewhere else, but to know that there are as many, many-- there are many, many more stories in the place that they live, you know, in that land that they should be listening to. Nansenan is-- was one of the last traditional Chiefs of the Piscataway in the 1700s. And I start with her, because Piscataway scholar and historian Gabby Tayac told me a story about her. And. You know, think about how many people not only would have never heard the story of Nansenan if Gabby Tayac wasn't doing this new research on it. But then also it would never have occurred to that there were female Chiefs in D.C. prior to the advent of the United States, right? That women actually lost rights when the United States was created. That prior to that, female leadership was normal. You know, so I just feel like there-- or that they don't even know that they're on Piscataway land, right? So, what does awakening these relationships to place do for people and for each place the story's in? Because it's, you know, it's wonderful to be able to tell Mohegan stories, you know, stories that haven't been heard. But if I'm on someone else's land, I should be honoring and paying respect to the people whose land that I'm on. And in the case of Wooly Mammoth Theater Company and the Holder Shakespeare Library, we're on Piscataway land, and so it's the Piscataway Nation and their history that needs to be the beginning point for the story.
Jo Reed: Well, obviously, the issues that you raise in this about yourself, about Mohegans, about language and erasure and colonialism are very serious and very thought-provoking, but you also use humor a lot.
Madeline Sayet: <laughs>
Jo Reed: Especially in the voice of your mother.
Madeline Sayet: Yeah. <laughs> Yeah, it's funny, a lot of those <laughs>-- a lot of those-- it's funny you mention my like spending too much time on Facebook with my art. Because it's like a lot of those conversations honestly when I started incorporating my mom into the play, it was like, I had been doing like conversations with my mom 101 each time a conversation like that happened. And I had been putting them on Facebook, and so I just went back and I was like <laughs>, "What are some of these conversations <laughter> that I could use?" They were all like so well documented. But yeah, no, the piece is supposed to be-- I mean, that's actually the hardest thing about doing it online is that when we did it live, there was like so much laughter in the first half of the play! And I was like, "Oh, my god, is this going to be like really sad with no people?" Because I'm just standing up there talking to myself. You know? Yeah, there's a lot of humor, because I'm just-- I'm not interested in-- I think that-- I mean, one, I think that humor is necessary when talking about certain things, but I just am not someone who takes myself very seriously. You know, and humor is a big part of how I interact in the world in general. Like if some of the humor isn't very obvious, I didn't realize until I had someone else read the script out loud. And I was like, "Ohhh, these jokes aren't like that obvious that they're jokes." <laughs> You know? Like when I say them, it's obvious, because I guess I'm a little bit quirkier than I realized <laughs> in my sense of humor. But it's sort of that like ability to flip something on its head, you know? Because some of the things that are jokes, like maybe to someone else could be serious. But it's a matter of like the framing, you know, that the beginning of the play probably to the middle of the play, you know, it starts pretty warm, and it stays in that kind of-- I feel like I have a-- I sometimes have like a little bit of an absurd view on the world, in that like things can tilt-- in my directing work that's also true. Like I like things that flip from comedy to serious very quickly. And I think that that also helps us listen better. You know, I think that if we're warm and we're open and we're laughing, then we're in a space where we're more capable of receiving certain things. And I think the reasons people really like the mom section, so the humor is because like mom-- I'm not going to say like moms are all the same. <laughs> But like there are things I think that my mom does, you know, that while they're very specific to her being my mom and being Mohegan, there is a "version of" for other people.
Jo Reed: It resonates.
Madeline Sayet: Yeah, exactly, that resonates. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Well, you mentioned this, but that's exactly what my next question is going to be. This current production is streaming. You've performed this live. And I'm curious about the challenges of performing this without an audience for a camera.
Madeline Sayet: Oh, yeah, it was very challenge-- <laughs>. It was, okay, so it was <laughs>, it turned out to be really-- I'm really, really appreciative of how well the film turned out, but at the beginning, I was like, "This is insane!" Because in addition to the fact that there's no audience, the lighting for film has to be quite a bit darker. And so, for most of the time I was standing alone in the dark, you know, talking to myself. And I was like, "This is the opposite of what I envisioned when I initially created this." Because when I initially created this it's so much about the exchange with the audience and the people and that story medicine of like, "I am sharing words with you and we're--," there's a cycling that's going through, you know, in terms of like what the audience is bringing to the show. But what was really amazing was we-- I kept saying like, "Oh, there needs to be an audience, but at that moment of the pandemic, having an audience really wasn't possible. And so, we kept brainstorming different ways of dealing with this throughout. Honestly, it was pretty funny like the spectrum of ideas that came up. Like at one point, we were going to try and have like a Zoom audience on a teleprompter that I could talk to. Like there was so many different things. And honestly, what ended up happening at the end was it was really hard, because it's not like a film where there's a scene partner, you know? And it's not even a film where I talk to the camera. It's a multi-cam shoot of me doing a show in a theater to no reaction. Which is very strange and very isolating. And so, and also because it was being filmed, there couldn't be any verbal reactions either. So, it had to be silent. And what I ended up doing was I ended up, I was like, "Yeah, this isn't-- this is really hard. Can you just--," I asked Maria Goyanes, and Aman Tio [ph?], the director, if they could just like-- this is going to sound really ridiculous, but I think it's a good lesson for collaborators-- I was like, "Can you like just interpretive dance some response to me during the piece, so I just know I'm not alone?" And so, they came up with like gestures for like laughing, and like being with you, so just so that I had something that was there in the space with me, because I felt so crazy talking to myself for 80 minutes. And it made such a difference just to have someone out there responding. But then also in the epilogue, the section that takes place during the pandemic acknowledging the now of what was April, 2021, there's a really beautiful shot where the camera actually turns around with me and you see the empty audience, and I actually find that really moving. I find it really moving, especially that we move forward and away from that moment, you know? But thinking about what it was like in that space and that moment where we're all trying to tell stories and telling them separately. It's strange, you know? It's a very weird thing. And I do realistically with this show, really long to be back around people, again, but I also think about the accessibility that is afforded to this production.
Jo Reed: Exactly, that was my next question. You know, it's certainly this new opportunity, too.
Madeline Sayet: Yeah, definitely. And for Native theater it's been huge, because so, so much of our communities are in different locations, you know? That actually, with this whole pandemic time period for Native theater has been so interesting. You know, sometimes we have a reading online that in New York would have had 20 people come, and 2,000 come instead. You know? Just because that accessibility is there in a way that it wasn't before. And it means that like I can have a workshop for Native youth, where they come from all over, and that's true for this as well, and so I'm really grateful, because I feel like a lot more Native people will definitely see it because of the fact that it's online. Yeah, so I'm curious to see what that ends up meaning. You know, that's not really in D.C., the way that it would have been before.
Jo Reed: It's a lovely collaboration between Wooly Mammoth Theater and The Folger Shakespeare Theater, which is so unusual, but also great!
Madeline Sayet: Yeah, I mean, I think it's also, you know, it's funny, because it's like those are two institutions, too, that I think someone on point said like, "They're not the two institutions you think about as collaborating, because Wooly's known for like kind of like risky, innovative new plays, and Folger's obviously known for Shakespeare." But I think all institutions right now are really in this position where they have to grapple with this past year of social and political reckoning, and what it means to be making art going forward, and what it means to be telling stories. And The Folger's, I can tell now, is also really thinking about, "What does it mean to educate and how do we pair different ways of thinking within even our Shakespeare curriculum, and what is our responsibility to that?" And so, this pairing is really interesting and exciting to me because so much of my work has been around these intersections and seeing these like really important institutions come together and ask these questions in this moment just feels like such a step forward in so many ways.
Jo Reed: Mm hm. You're a member of the Mohegan Nation, as you said. Your mom is a medicine woman. And you've said storytelling was just so important to your family and your community as well.
Madeline Sayet: Yeah, yeah, so growing up I was really raised with this understanding of story medicine. You know, stories aren't neutral. They're-- I mean, they're often used as a part of healing practices, not just in my culture, but around the world. And what that always made me think of is the fact that like stories have power. You know, you can't just tell a story and expect it not to do anything. If you're actually wielding a story, it can create great healing, or it can create great harm. And so, our accountability to our communities and how we tell stories, how a story is told for the community, not for ourselves, is very important in thinking about what we're doing and how we do it and why. And so, all of my work with Shakespeare has really been grappling with that as well as a director, if we're going to do this play, you know, this play that is more than 400 years old. Like why are we doing it? And how are we doing it? And what is our accountability to our community in this moment. And I think that there are some things in Shakespeare that really serve that. You know, some of his greatest speeches are question-based, right? They are that staring out into an audience and asking a question, like, "To be or not to be," "Wherefore art thou, Romeo?" And like not answering it, but like grappling with it in front of the audience in a way that brings people together. But there are other moments where some of the language and ideas no longer serve us. And so, how do we interrogate that in the actual production of the work is really important to me, because I am deeply concerned with, you know, if the stories we pass down-- I mean, I believe that the stories we pass down shape our collective possible futures, and so we have a responsibility to care for how things move forward. What we carry forward and what we leave behind. And to be very intentional about that. Because of my deep belief that these stories are going to impact the world around us, and we can't just like be kind of lazy in our relationship to that. Yeah, and also growing up, yeah, traditional stories were a big part of my upbringing because of the fact that my family had founded a Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum in the 1920s, which is the oldest Indian owned and operated museum in the country. And so, I was also used to not only us sharing stories amongst ourselves, but also what it means to share stories of our people with outsiders
Jo Reed: When did you first become interested in theater?
Madeline Sayet: <laughs> It's a really good question. I don't-- you know, it's hard to say, because when I was really-- when I was like six or seven, I was already going to see outdoor Shakespeare, and had already read the complete works, and I was already used to like being a part of our traditional stories and all of that. So, it's hard to say when I first became interested, and see-- because we also, you know, like many a very lucky child had like a puppet show under the stairs situation as well. But I don't know that it was-- theater, what's interesting to me is that when I was a kid, I didn't know that there was Native theater. I knew we had our traditional stories, and I knew there was theater, but I didn't know there was a place where they intersect. And I think about that a lot, because right now, I'm one of the Co-Artistic directors of Red Eagle Soaring Native Youth Theater in Seattle, as well as the Executive Director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program, which are both programs dedicated to serving Native youth in theater. And I think like, "Whoa! If I had gone to a Native youth theater instead, like how would that have transformed the way that I actually make art? You know, if I didn't think that I had to do it through Shakespeare." Because I mean, I knew I wanted to do the-- I mean, I was constantly obsessed with different forms of storytelling. You know, whether it was painting, or writing songs, or writing stories. That was my entire, entire childhood. But honestly, it was really being good at Shakespeare that gave me accessibility to theater and how I started getting big parts was actually like the fact that I was good at speaking Shakespeare. And so, I'm very aware of sort of some of the privileging around like that language and the ability to use it, but I'm also aware that it wasn't until my final year of college that I found out there were Native plays. And at that point, I had been almost ready to quit theater, because I was getting so frustrated with like some of the dissonances of the American theater at that time. You know, and the sort of patriarchal, white people sitting on couches plays that were kind of operating, and how it wasn't actually the thing that I wanted to do at all. And then, I was lucky that there happened to be this course in Native American Theater at NYU being taught by Carmen Mara Eli [ph?], who was a Native Professor there at the time. And it changed my whole world to know that we had our own canon, and that we could be in the center-- our culture could be centered in the conversation. And then that also it led to me volunteering to go up and do a reading of a Bill Yellow Robe play that summer. And when I did that play, it was like everything in it changed. It was like suddenly everything went so much deeper. And I realized, you know, that like-- well, I ended up rolling into doing a master's actually looking at addressing issues of indigenous representation onstage, because I was so mortified that this wasn't something that was being talked about. You know? That the fact that the indigenous theater of this country was silenced in this way, was not being talked about. And now, obviously, so much has changed in the last ten years. And I'm so excited to see the prevalence of Native theater happening everywhere. But yeah, it was interesting, because when I was a kid and I got into theater, it was very much about having to be someone else. You know? It was like, "Okay, well, I'll be someone else. I'll go on these adventures." And then it's so funny to me that, you know, the first time I ended up performing at Shakespeare's Globe doing "Where We Belong," right? So, instead of like going off and doing Shakespeare, I was actually doing “Where We Belong.” Which was the complete opposite of anything I would have imagined then, and yet there's something to be said for speaking these stories that hasn't been heard that still need to be.
Jo Reed: Well, you know, in your career, you've both reinterpreted classics from an indigenous perspective and given voice to Native American stories onstage. And I'd like you talk about both of these impulses and how they align and how-- and where there's perhaps some challenges between them.
Madeline Sayet: Yeah. Yeah, so a lot of my early writ-- so "Where We Belong" is the first thing I wrote that was like deeply personal in a kind of mortifying way, where I feel like I'm very exposed. But <laughs> prior to that, a lot of my work I think was working with and reimagining and adapting classics. Because they were stories that I knew, but I thought, "Oh, what if this character was just a little bit more visible? Or what if we saw it through this other perspective? Or what if we dismantled the hierarchy in this piece? What would that do?" You know? Where I was interested in sort of intervening into the systems at play, to see how we could change-- I've always been really interested in world-building. A big part of the reason I became a director and moved away from acting was because the difference between the limitations of a world other people decide to get to exist in and knowing that you could actually imagine forward the kind of worlds you want to build. So, thinking about some of these ideas is how I help sort of re-shift and reimagine the classics in conversation with the original, sometimes very, very close to the original, just moving around certain ideas in a kind of accountability to decolonizing systems. But then with Native plays, it's just-- I can't even-- I read this play today. I have to tell you. It's the best play I've ever read. I swear. It was this new play called "Snag" by Tara Moses. And it's part of a cycle she's working on. It's also-- I'm directing her play "Arbeka" for a new play festival right now. And she wrote this prequel to it called "Snag." And honestly, it's a Native romcom, but it's so good! And you know, part of the reason I think it's so mind-blowingly exciting to like laugh and cry and read it, is because those don't get-- it hasn't been produced. Do you know what I mean? Like it hasn't been encouraged. When Native theater does get to happen, it's like about our history or about our trauma, because there was so much silence around that for so long that that needed to be sort of the first thing, you know, that opened up and got spoken to. Whenever I'm working on Native theater, I feel like I'm just so amazed and empowered, because the thing is I'm usually kind of working in this like exchange between Native Nations, which is like an act of diplomacy in and of itself, where you non-Natives don't realize sometimes that because of all of our cultural differentiations, it means that there's like so much specificity and nuance and language in so many of these plays where you're really learning about an entirely new way of seeing the world with each one. And things that haven't been staged. At a time when, you know, like there was a period I feel like where American theater was starting to feel like too much the same. And then now it's like cracked open. And there's just like so much possibility, and it's so, so exciting, because each one of these plays is an act of sovereignty. An act of creative sovereignty, or reminding people that like each Nation, each indigenous nation is its own sovereign state. And so, everything within the works of that Nation is like, you know, an expression of culture in an incredibly unique way. And this play "Snag" is so funny and heartwarming and all of these things! And ten years ago, it would have been completely absurd, because there wasn't even Native theater being produced. There was just redface being produced. Unless it was like, you know, obviously, it was being created in Native circles and avant-garde circles, but not in a mainstream way. And now the idea like coming up on also, right, like "Rutherford Falls" being produced this season. There was so much joy in witnessing that. And witnessing Native humor without it having to explain itself, that now I feel like so much has been cracked open, and honestly, I don't know that I would have needed to write "Where We Belong" if I was in this moment when I started writing it. Because now we can go forward from here. You know, like this started, this story started in 2018, because that was-- those were the questions I felt we needed to explore then. But now I'm so excited about like the more joyous worlds we can build because we've broken through some things in terms of representation.
Jo Reed: You mentioned that you're the Executive Director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program. Can you just briefly describe what the mission is here, but also how you guided that program through the pandemic?
Madeline Sayet: Yeah, sure! So, yeah, so the mission of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program is to promote indigenous arts and perspectives both at Yale and throughout Indian Country. And what's really great about that program is it serves Native students and it serves the Native theater field. So, it's not really beholden to Yale Drama or to non-Native theater. It's actually really a space where we can think about what are the needs of the youth and what are the needs of the field, and how do we create programming that serves that? And during the pandemic, it was incredibly-- it was really transformational, because instead of the programs being sort of elitely confined to who can show up on campus at Yale, every program became available to Native people whoever, whoever could come online. And it created a real space that way for youths to gather together, but also not just youth, right? Because we created programs that weren't just for youth, that were for all ages. Really opening everything up. How can we create workshops and opportunities that are open to all Native artists who want to like learn a new skillset, who want to gather, who want to make something? And so it's just been really exciting actually this year to really think about what can be done virtually to bring people together in ways that being in person couldn't. And how to actually build on that for the future, because we actually like dynamically increased our programming during the pandemic, instead of the other way around.
Jo Reed: Yes… if theaters went back to the roots of indigenous theater and storytelling, what would that look like?
Madeline Sayet: Yeah, it's a great question! Because I mean, so I when I think about Native theater, I always think about telling a story through your community in that moment that they need in the way that best serves them. And so, it's a really great question the way that you just posed that, because it's like that is sort of what we were doing in the pandemic. You know, you wouldn't think about this being the same thing, because you think about like a fire, and you think about us all gathered around a fire. And I remember there were actually conversations I had for like ever with the MIT media lab, way long before the pandemic thinking about this idea of scaling storytelling and the intimacy of storytelling. Like and what technology would be involved with that? But of course, the pandemic came and it was like, "We're all on Zoom! You know, <laughs> that's just where we are!" But just thinking about the simplicity of the necessity of gathering, and how there was that moment when we all thought like, "Oh, it's all over," last Spring, and then it was within a few months it was like suddenly people started gathering again, but in new ways. And I feel like that's really the thing, right? It's not about what we did before, or doing something right, or doing something in a way that is like posh, or it's about how do we gather together around story in a way where we can serve people by exchanging those stories, in a way that we can bring people what they need? And I think when you really focus on that and those questions, there's just so many more possibilities, because it's not about being in a space in a theater that has nice seats. It's not about there being a separation between the audience and the speaker. It's not about any of that. It's about just figuring out the best way to share stories in a way that can heal community together. And that has infinite possibilities that are specific to each community. And also, the question, too, right, it's interesting with what you said, of like what does community mean? Because like in a lot of those situations, it was like dynamic and physical. It was like who you're local to. But now I feel like community can mean so many other things. Because there are these digital communities, there are these like national communities, there are these international communities. And thinking about what those different spaces are is also really interesting.
Jo Reed: Yeah, and I wonder if that's one of the models to use when we think about theater and how to make the field more inclusive, more diverse. How to address issues of equity. How to do that moving forward, and what we learned from this time when we were on pause, well, you certainly weren’t on pause, but still it was a time of rethinking and reflection and what we might have learned that enable us to do that better?
Madeline Sayet: Yeah, and it's so strange to me, because you know, some people-- at this time when we were on pause, I don't think I have ever been busier than during this time when we were on pause. And I think a lot of it is because, you know, people weren't willing to invest like large funds and resources into Native theater, but they're more willing to with small pockets of resources. And so, so much-- and then also Native theater was like self-generating so much within this time. Because they weren't-- I'm always surprised when I find out about like directors and things who weren't making art during this time because like Native theater was making so much in this last year. Like I don't even think like people who are outside the community can realize like how much was going on, that I could have like never have considered this actually a pause. Because the number of plays that were like developed or there were digital production of or there were like, yes, we weren't together necessarily in a physical theater space. But there were audio plays, you know, there were so many different projects that were created. I mean, gosh, Native Voices at The Autry's audio play production of Arigon Starr, The Adventures of Super Indian. I mean, there are just so many cool things that were made during this time! That I think we gave ourselves permission to make because we knew we were new and messy at this medium, you know? Like before the pandemic, I was terrified of like film and like au-- anything that wasn't on a stage. Because I was like, "I understand it when it's on a stage and there is an audience, and like that is the relationship. That is what I understand." And I think that's a real boundary that we created for ourselves, because we were scared of failing. I think that's also why we say, "Oh, the pause is over and we're going back to in-person," right? Because we didn't fully understand these other things, because we only had a year with them. But honestly, for me it feels like a real moment of liberation to think about how we collaborate in new ways and how we actually get past that fear and those boundaries to learn how to create differently, instead of just only doing what we're already comfortable with.
Jo Reed: I agree, I agree! There was a way in which, I mean, as you mentioned earlier the outreach was so much greater. I mean, I know just for me in my job interviewing people. People couldn't go into a studio so we use a program like this one, Zencastr. And you click on your computer and boom! You're there! You don't have to schlep anywhere. <laughs> It's not as time-consuming and people are much more apt to say, "Yes." And you're also much more apt to take chances because it's a fairly new-ish technology, and everybody's making mistakes. And if you do, guess what? We live with them! <laughter>
Madeline Sayet: Yes! <laughter> Definitely, definitely!
Jo Reed: So, tell me, what is next for you now?
Madeline Sayet: Oh, gosh. What is next for me right now? So, I'm currently in a workshop of "Arbeka" by Tara Moses for Native Voices at The Autry. And I-- because I just finished a workshop of this new Tlingit Opera Project that is a collaboration between Sealaska Heritage Institute and Perseverance Theater. I am about to start a new position this Fall as a Clinical Assistant Professor in the English Department with the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at ASU, which I'm really excited about, but also "Where We Belong" it seems like is going to have potential future life separate from the streaming, and so a lot of it's navigating that. The pandemic's been interesting for me, because I switched a lot from director mode to writer mode during this time. And so, there's a lot of writing projects I'm currently working on. I've been working on this piece with Border Crossings in London on specifically this period of time Pocahontas Matoaka was in London leading up to her murder and how some of those interactions with The Virginia Company actually serve as the foundations of capitalism as we know it. I've been working on this piece for The Vineyard, this mini-commission called "The Fish," which is like an allegorical reinterpretation of the Noah's Ark story. And I'm creating this new decolonized adaptation of Peter Pan called "The Neverland" that looks at this concept breaks down the original colonial structures and puts it through an indigenous futurism lens for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne. So, those are all things that I have to write in the next few months. <laughs> But I'm also directing alongside it, and still teaching and all of that. So, it's really, really been really exciting. And I'm just so grateful for all of the collaboration opportunities. The one thing that's so sad about "Where We Belong" is it's-- you don't have like a whole big group of people to work with, the way that you normally do in Native theater. But Maria Goyanes was so understanding when I said, "Hey, we need to do a workshop with other people. It can't just be me all the time." And so, she created a space in which I could bring in Tara Moses, Madeleine Hutchins, Kenny Ramos, Erin Tripp, Emily Price and DeLanna Studi, and have other people read the work and talk about other Native theater artists and that was just so transformational because just, you know, theater, I don't know. It's not really meant to be done in isolation, you know? It's meant to be done in community. And then to have the extra layer of not having an audience there, all the ways we could create community online over the course of this process were just so important. And I'm really excited to see now that it's out there, you know, what that means now. You know, are there ways that it's shared, and the sharing of it creates community. It's so hard for me to imagine, because again, we're so new to everything about the way this moment has changed the way we think about theater.
Jo Reed: Yep, I agree. Well, Madeline, I thought Where We Belong was a wonderful piece of theater. It was thought-provoking and it had a lot of charm as well, which is a rare combination! And it was beautifully staged.
Madeline Sayet: Thank you, thank you. Yeah, it was-- everyone put a lot of thought into it, and there's also a lot of respect of understanding that this was a culture that I was coming from. It was very specifically Mohegan culture and so, you know, I knew what the symbols and protocols were, but other folks didn't. And there was a lot of thought and care around that and a respect for that. And I think it's just-- I'm really excited to see what people think, and hopefully to get it back onstage soon. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Yep, me, too. Thank you so much for giving me your time. I really appreciate it.
Madeline Sayet: Of course, thank you.
Jo Reed: That was Mohegan Theater-maker Madeline Sayet, we were talking about her one woman show Where We Belong presented by the Wooly Mammoth Theater Company in association with The Folger Shakespeare Library. Its streaming until July 11 at Woolly Mammoth.net You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.
Joy Harjo (Muscogee/Creek) – Poet Laureate of the US and NEA Big Read author
“It’s been astounding, actually, the effect that [my position as Poet Laureate] has had in Native communities because we’ve been so disappeared in American culture, period. You look at any aspect of American culture and we’re not there or if we’re there, the cavalry is chasing us or we’ve been disappeared or lamented, but we’re very much here and we’re very much present and the roots of America – there would be no America without us.”
Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Jo Reed Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Today, as a holiday treat, we’re dipping into the archives and reposting an interview with the Poet Laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo. Joy, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, is the first Native American to hold the position of Poet Laureate. She has recently been appointed to a third term, making her the second laureate to receive this extension since 1943. I interviewed Joy very early on in the pandemic—because I found myself reading her poetry for many reasons—for the power and beauty of her language, its sense of history and transcendence, the way it inhabits landscapes as it as it draws on myth and native storytelling. All these months later—upon multiple re-readings, my appreciation of her work has only deepened. Joy Harjo is an artist who creates work in many different spheres. She’s written nine books of poetry, two award-winning children’s books, a memoir, several screenplays, three plays, and one musical. She’s also a musician, who plays the saxophone, flute, and bass. She and her band have toured around the world and she’s produced four award-winning albums. As a poet, she’s received more awards and honors than I have time to name. But I’m not sure what that tells you about the work itself because Joy Harjo’s poetry is a marvel.
Her recent collection “An American Sunrise,” which is an NEA Big Read selection, Joy writes of tribal displacement, a trail of tears that sings of ancestral lands, of a history that remains present, and of a culture that’s essential.
Here she is reading her poem “Road” which is from An American Sunrise…
Joy Harjo: I’ll read “Road” and this poem is so stripped down and sometimes I wonder if it’s stripped down too much but I think about it, how our lives can be quite complex but then when it comes to it, it’s very simple. There’s a simple journey, a simple line, a journey.
We stand first in our minds and then we toddle
From hand to furniture
Soon we are walking away from the house and lands
Of our ancestral creator gods
To the circle of friends, of schooling, of work
Making families and worlds of our own
We make our way through storm and sun
We walk side by side or against each other
The last road will be taken alone--
There might be crowds calling for blood
Or a curtained window by the leaving bed
It's best not to be afraid
Lift your attention
For the appearance of the next road
It might be through a family of trees, a desert, or
On rolling waves of sea
It's the ancient road the soul knows
We always remember it when we see it
It beckons at birth
It carries us home
Jo Reed: “It's the ancient road the soul knows..” Joy, what a lovely way to begin our conversation.
Joy Harjo: Thank you.
Jo Reed: Joy, you have a poem in “An American Sunrise” called “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War,” and I wonder if you thought about how to write a poem in a time of pandemic.
Joy Harjo: Yes, I have. I’ve had a few people deride me “Why aren’t you writing the poem to hold the country together, to pull everybody together? You’re the Poet Laureate. You should be writing this poem,” and I think about it and I think we’re all writing that poem. It’s not just me. I’m an ambassador of poetry. Yes, I’m a representative of poetry in this country, but I’ve been writing this poem all my life, a poem for these times, a poem for where we are and so on and yeah, how to write a poem in a time of pandemic-- I’ve been writing. I’ve been writing and writing and writing. The way I come to poetry, I’m not very good at writing occasional poems or poems that I want to have historic dimensions. I come to poetry in a much more smaller and intimate way and then sometimes it goes larger. So, in my dreams last night, I was trying to write that poem and it wasn’t working because I wasn’t coming at the poem from the inside. It’s a different kind of language if I come from it, “Okay, I need to do this and this and this,” in a poem. I don’t work well with an agenda for poems.
Jo Reed: I can understand that. Joy, when did you first come to poetry?
Joy Harjo: I came to the love of poetry-- I think I brought it in with me, actually. I think I brought the love of poetry in, but my mother nurtured that. She used to write songs. Actually, my first influence in writing poetry was song language with lyrics. My mother used to write songs, make demos, and send them off and sing her demos. She’s a very good singer and she also loved poetry. She always felt bad she had only an eighth-grade education, but what she brought from that education was really important. She brought the love of poetry and could quote William Blake and others. She loved the emotionality of rhythm and what it could convey in a song lyric or in a poem. I didn’t start writing poetry, though, until I was in my early 20s.
Jo Reed: What do you think opened that up for you, writing poetry?
Joy Harjo: I find out things by writing sometimes. Of course, I read and listen and go back in memory, but I realize that what really-- it was certainly hearing that there were native poets and we could write poetry that came from the place and the events and the culture that were our lives, but I also realized when I was writing something on a poem, “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee” by N. Scott Momaday, that I started writing poetry because I loved that ritualized places or language and I see every poem as a kind of a ritual, a beginning to things, that there were kind of ritual to make something happen or to open memory or to open understanding or find another way of using language to open some kind of acknowledgement or door. It works in that way and I came to poetry because I was certainly enthralled with how the use of sound and language could evoke change and open up ideas and notions that I had never thought of before until I put my pen to the paper or-- I used to write on typewriters-- or started hitting those keys.
Jo Reed: Your collection, “An American Sunrise,” is an NEA Big Read selection and it weaves together poems and prose and lyrics and excerpts from oral history and I wonder why you chose to construct the book with such a multiplicity of voices.
Joy Harjo: So, yes. I guess this all started, this multiplicity of voices, which I’ve done in some way or the other since my book, “The Woman Who Fell from the Sky,” and with that book, I thought about poetry and how poetry is in my Muscogee Creek community, which is mostly as performance and in song language and oratory and I thought about how poetry occurs usually in a lot of communities. So, I constructed that book thinking about poetry as an oral performance because even in a book-- even if it’s something in a book, it has the roots-- it’s about orality. I constructed “The Woman Who Fell from the Sky” with that. I did the same thing with “A Map to the Next World” with entries that were a lot more prosaic and “American Sunrise,” I’m also thinking of oral performance. But in this book too, I’m thinking particularly of how we hold the memory of a people in this country and especially of a people that’s been forced to immigrate from homelands to where we are now here in Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma.
Jo Reed: You know, in “American Sunrise,” history is certainly prominent, but intergenerational trauma also figures prominently throughout the book and it reminded me of the recent television series “Watchmen” because “Watchmen” begins with the Tulsa Massacre in 1921 and then spent the rest of the series looking at the impact of that event on three generations going down the line and in that same way, as it is in your work, history is just always present.
Joy Harjo: I think it is, not just in my work, I think it’s present everywhere. I will have to watch that series. It’s on my list because I’m living right down the street from the place of that massacre, the Tulsa Massacre, which included a lot of Creek Freedmen citizens and Muscogee Creek citizens, Freedmen citizens, and I’m also living at the intersection of the Cherokee Nation west of the Mississippi, the Muscogee Creek Nation west of the Mississippi, and the Osage Nation.
Jo Reed: Joy, tell me how the book “An American Sunrise” came to be.
Joy Harjo: That happened because I was teaching. I had agreed to take a Chair of Excellence at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville for a number of reasons and it turned out to be one of the best decisions, wonderful people, wonderful place, but it provided us a launching place-- my husband is also Muscogee Creek-- to drive around to places that had belonged to our families, historical places. So, we were often driving around going to places that we knew about in family stories and in stories in our history books. So, the book came about-- we were getting ready to leave Tennessee and I looked out into the trees and my spirit asked “What did you learn here? What are you going to take with you?” and I began this conversation with history. It’s a person who returned to our homelands to find that we were not there, that we had been utterly disappeared from any culture in the Southeast, that we were essentially there as stories or people who used to be, even though we were very alive and we’re a people and continue as a people with our culture, our language, and so on. But to be there was so disturbing and shocking and to realize that I am home in our homelands and we are not here.
Jo Reed: Well, the book reflects on the centrality of remembering and there’s the remembering over generations, but then you have a different kind of remembering. It’s through generations, but it’s also a kind of quotidian remembering and I’m thinking about the poem “Honoring,” which I think has such particular resonance right now and I wonder if you would read that for us.
Joy Harjo: Yes. I’ll read this one because it really is-- I mean, if you think about what the pandemic has shown us is that we’re all absolutely connected and that’s really what this poem is about is about acknowledging those connections and realizing that even the nature of our interaction with those connections makes a huge difference.
Who sings to the plants
That are grown for our plates
Are they gathered lovingly
In aprons or arms
Or do they suffer the fate
Of the motor-driven whip
Of the monster reaper
No song at all
Only the sound of money
Being stacked in a bank
Who stitched the seam in my clothes
One line after another
Was the room sweaty and dark
With no hour to spare
Did she have enough to eat
Did she have a home anywhere
Or did she live on the floor
And where were the children
Or was the seamstress the child
With no home of his or her own
Who sacrifices to make clothes
For strangers of another country
Let's remember to thank the grower of food
The sun, and the rain
Let's remember to thank each maker of stitch
And layer of pattern
The dyer of color
In the immense house of beauty and pain
Let's honor the maker
Let's honor what's made
Jo Reed: Oh, that’s such a beautiful poem and I was so happy to reread it when I was getting ready for this interview. So, thank you.
Joy Harjo: Thank you. It’s one of my favorites but yeah, I get so hyper-critical of my poems. I think “Hmm, I should have done this or I could do this,” but thank you.
Jo Reed: Silence seems so critical for you in your work and also, for you as a person, as I’ve read your memoir, “Crazy Brave,” and you talk about the importance of silence in that book and I’d like you to comment on that.
Joy Harjo: I think when the spirit of poetry came to me and basically snatched me because I was going in another direction and certainly, speaking coherently or beautifully was not something you would associate with me. I always stood in the back and didn’t say anything. What the spirit of poetry was that at the center of being chosen was well, if I agreed to do the work of poetry, I would follow through and I have, and two is that I needed to learn to listen. The agreement was “Okay, you need to learn how to listen and if you agree that that’s what you need to learn how to do, we will help you through poetry and with poetry, you can be of use in this world.” So, I agreed and learning how to listen, which involves silence and engaging in silence, which really isn’t so quiet at all, it’s filled with resonances of history, of mythical and mythical presences, and it’s filled with the voice of the earth and earth beings.
Jo Reed: I was really reminded of an interview I did with the jazz musician Roscoe Mitchell and silence figures prominently in his work. There are big patches of silence in his music and when I asked him about it, he said “Well, yeah. Silence is perfect. So, if you interrupt silence, you better have something to say.”
Joy Harjo: That’s great.
Jo Reed: Isn’t that wonderful?
Joy Harjo: I love that and it’s true.
Jo Reed: Music has always been central for you and you wrote in your memoir, “Crazy Brave,” literally, it was on the first page-- you wrote about listening to Miles Davis and what that meant to you. Can you describe that?
Joy Harjo: Well, I can tell you. That memory of a child-- yeah, what it did was, again, silence is absolutely important and I love the idea that it’s kind of-- it is perfect and you better have something to say and certainly, Miles had something to say and it wasn’t always words. That’s one thing is I think poets, we go to words because we’re looking for that place beyond words and then when you have a horn and you do it with music, you get at it another way and so, to hear that horn was to go into that place without words, where when you hear that and you’re not really totally versed in the world of words yet, you’re able to take perhaps even more of it in and to read it even in a more profound way than when you have so many words badgering you to get through, you can’t hear anymore. We’re bombarded with-- it seems like these days, we get bombarded with words and yet, if you stop with music and especially jazz-- I mean, I think especially jazz, there’s a lot more places for opening in unusual ways and closing out a moment for silence to exist and in the usual forms of popular songs. That’s what I love about it even though most of my family doesn’t like jazz, but what I love about jazz is the way you can take a horn and with a tone or a series of tones up against the backs of silences, something happens that is-- it’s like what happens in a poem.
Jo Reed: Well, you play a few instruments, including the saxophone. What drew you to the saxophone particularly? When did you start playing?
Joy Harjo: I started playing when I was almost 40 years old and I like the sound of it. I can sing and the saxophone led me back to singing, but I don’t have that kind of Aretha Franklin voice that I’ve always loved. So, the saxophone allows me to have an Aretha Franklin-like voice. Anyway, these singers, these heartbreak blues singers that just tell it like it is but are so unique in the way they move their voice to express that emotion. So, that’s what drew me to it and then I remembered going to Sandra Cisneros’ place in Chicago, her family house when I was a-- we were students at Iowa and she had all these brothers running around the house and one of the brothers had on Gato Barbieri, the Argentinian sax player and oh, my God, when I heard that, that also was another step onto the path of saxophone because his horn was a cry. I could just hear him, the same cry that is flamenco and blues.
Jo Reed: Well, you wrote a prose piece in “An American Sunrise” about the sax and I would love to have you read that now.
Joy Harjo: Oh, okay. Sure. Yeah. Here it is. “When Adolphe Sax patented the first saxophone on June 23rd, 1846, the Creek Nation was in turmoil. The people had been moved west of the Mississippi River after the Creek Wars, which culminated in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. We were putting our lives back to together in new lands where we were promised we would be left alone. The saxophone made it across the big waters and was introduced in brass bands in the south. The music followed rivers into new towns, cities, all the way into our new lands. Not long after in the early 1900s, my grandmother, Naomi Harjo, learned to play saxophone. I can feel her now when I play the instrument we both loved and loved. The saxophone is so human. Its tendency is to be rowdy, edgy, talk too much, bump into people, say the wrong words at the wrong time, but then you take a breath all the way from the center of the earth and blow. All that heartache is forgiven. All that love we humans carry makes a sweet deep sound and we fly a little.
Jo Reed: I love that sense of the saxophone just traveling through history. It’s just wonderful.
Joy Harjo: Yeah. I think it’s important. It’s like the poem, “Honoring.” It’s important to honor the ancestors of whatever it is we do. Familial ancestors, and not all of them deserve to be honored, honor those ones who deserve to be honored and the same thing with the ancestors of music or the ancestors of the-- I love my saxophone and honor that history of them being made, just like honoring the poetry ancestors. That’s why I included a poem by Emily Dickinson in here and then I included a poem in “American Sunrise” by my daughter, Rainy Dawn, as just like okay, here poetry comes to me from Emily. She’s one of my predecessors and I want to honor here and then my daughter, who follows with her poem, “Directions to You.”
Jo Reed: You wrote or described-- I think that’s more accurate-- “poetry as a conversation of the soul,” and I’d love to have you say a little bit more about that to tease that out a bit.
Joy Harjo: I think you could probably argue that any art is like that, any art because the path of an artist, we travel outside the known universe even as we’re traveling deeply inside and yet, are very much part of the natural world of shape, sound, architecture, aesthetic, and so on. But when you go into the deep like that, who do you speak with? Where does art come from? I think of a collective soul, the collective soul of earth. What is earth? What is this universe, this galactic universe as well as the soul of particular kinds of plants? What makes the soul of this two-legged human race and so on? What I love about that journey is that kind of communion. I feel like a poem or a song becomes a place that you can go in and pull up chairs and sit down or sit down on the ground and listen and then you become part of that communion.
Jo Reed: I wonder when you’re beginning to create, do you know when you sit down if what you’re doing is going to be a poem or a song or a piece of prose, a piece of music? Do you have a sense of where you’re going when you sit down or do you sort of let it unfold as you go?
Joy Harjo: It depends. Sometimes I do that. Sometimes-- right now, I’m in the middle of a memoir, but other things come in. I wrote-- out of the blue, totally out of the-- unexpectedly, I wrote probably the best song lyric that I’ve ever written and then I did it differentiate-- a song lyric is I hear it in a little bit different way, even though some of my poems become lyrics and then if I sit down to write a poem-- it’s different when I sit down to write a lyric because the lyric, I’m aware of the other elements of music and how those lyrics will move with music. With a poem, I’m still in a musical mode, but it’s different. I’m not-- I’m listening in a little bit different kind of way, just like the difference between when I’m working on my musical play versus this memoir, but I’m hot on the memoir right now because I have a good deadline. If I think I know what I’m doing, then that’s when it doesn’t work. If I say “Okay...” and I open it up and follow, usually, something comes out of it, but there’s a lot of revision. I do a lot of revision and reworking and I think I probably revised “American Sunrise” more than any of my books, even though it was done in a relatively short time and even though I revised this so many times and even now, I’ll catch something and think “Oh, I should have done this,” or “Maybe this or this,” btu that’s part of it.
Jo Reed: I’m curious-- when you sit down to create a poem, do you begin with an image or is it a sound or is there a story that you want to tell via poetry?
Joy Harjo: Like with the poem “Honoring,” I got carried away by the rhythm.
Jo Reed: The rhythm is gorgeous.
Joy Harjo: Yeah. The rhythm is what carried-- often, probably my most famous poem, “She Had Some Horses,” again, I got carried-- I’m very rhythm-oriented. That’s why I picked up playing the bass too. I love the bass. I guess during this period where we’re all kind of holed up in our places, I’ve been playing a lot of bass and enjoy it as such a rhythmic thing, but some of them are images or some of them like the poem “How to Write a Poem in a Time of War,” it starts-- how in the world do you start? What’s the starting place for any of us, whether we’re poets or not? Where do you start in the story of history? History is such a huge thing and then you come out, okay, Muscogee, where do you start? That’s where the first line came “You can’t begin just anywhere. It’s a wreck,” and that was me as a poet too, thinking okay, how am I going to start talking about this history that is so painful that when I try to read history books about Muscogee Creek history, I read a chapter and then I have all these books sitting around with bookmarks in them because it’s so painful or it pisses you off or you try to make sense of something that can’t be made sense of and something comes out of the somewhere that’s nowhere. It’s probably that perfect silence that Mitchell is talking about, that perfect silence is the place of giving us these gifts.
Jo Reed: Joy, you’re the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States and the first Native American Poet Laureate. Do you see your appointment in some ways providing a reaffirmation for Native peoples, an inspiration in the way that N. Scott Momaday was for you when he received the Pulitzer?
Joy Harjo: Definitely. The outpouring was-- it was and is amazing and what has been so exciting is that it has helped this image or this standing in this place-- I realize it’s about poets. It’s about women. It’s about so on, but for Natives, this position became a doorway for affirmation, especially for young Native poets, writers, artists, just people. It’s been astounding, actually, the effect that this position has had in Native communities because we’ve been so disappeared in American culture, period. You look at any aspect of American culture and we’re not there or if we’re there, the cavalry is chasing us or we’ve been disappeared or lamented, but we’re very much here and we’re very much present and the roots of America-- there would be no America without us.
Jo Reed: No, certainly not. Joy, during your tenure as Poet Laureate, what is it that you’d like to accomplish? What’s your vision of what you want to do while you’re in that position?
Joy Harjo: Well, I remember when I first started writing poetry, I was a painting and drawing major, a studio art major at the University of New Mexico. When I walked in and told my painting teacher, who had been my mentor, that I was giving up painting for poetry, which didn’t make sense to a lot of people, but I thought about it a lot, of course, and then sometimes, you’re just moved. Like, the poetry spirit did come to me and did say those things and I knew that’s what I had to do, but I knew what I wanted to accomplish as much or more of anything, one is the art of it, of course. We all want to engage with the art of it in a way that matters, but I also remember saying to myself “If I do anything else, I want people to see, I want Americans, I want the world to see indigenous peoples as human beings.”
Jo Reed: You dedicated “An American Sunrise,” and I’m quoting now, “To children so they may find their way through the dark,” and I wonder, especially now, if there are any poems or music that you’re leaning into that help you right now.
Joy Harjo: I’ve been in the middle with my team, with my editing team, which includes LeAnne Howe, Choctaw poet fiction writer, storyteller, Jennifer Forester, Muscogee Creek poet, and many other contributing editors in the final editing of this “When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: a Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry.” So, I’ve been leaning a lot into Native poetry and Leslie Silko, who I always go back to some of her early poems, she always had this sense-- she’s very prophetic in her novel making and I think her poetry gives her insight into a place that’s quite timeless. Music-- I always go back to John Coltrane. I’m trying to listen now to everything he’s done from the very beginning and oh man, I’ve been listening to-- where do I start? I listen to a lot of James Brown. He’s quite profound and Louis Armstrong, the two of them, and then, of course, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, of course. “Sketches of Spain,” of course, is one of my favorite, favorite albums. If I had two albums I could take with me, it would be John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Miles Davis, “Sketches of Spain.” Their work is timeless. You listen to them and you could say “Well, this belongs in such and such an era.” There’s no age to that. There’s a kind of timelessness. Poetry goes there. When poetry is really working, you wind up in a place of timelessness.
Jo Reed: And I think that’s a good place to leave it. Joy Harjo, thank you so much for giving me your time and for giving me years of your incredible work. Thank you.
Joy Harjo: Well, thank you so much too. I enjoyed visiting with you.
Jo Reed: I enjoyed it as well. Thanks. That was the Poet Laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo. Joy’s latest book, “An American Sunrise” is an NEA Big Read selection. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts and then please leave us a rating on Apple because it will make us happy because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe, stay kind, and thanks for listening.
Jo Reed: I enjoyed it as well. Thanks. That was a rebroadcast of my early spring interview with the Poet Laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo. Joy’s latest book, “An American Sunrise” is an NEA Big Read selection. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works and then please leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe, and thanks for listening.
Bryan Akipa (Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux) – 2016 National Heritage Fellow and Dakota flute player and maker
“This is what ties you to your culture…it’s the art and the dance that ties you and makes you the Dakota person you are. This is traditional flute, traditional music, traditional instrument, and if there’s no more traditional music and flutes, the youth are gonna lose that cultural journey. And they won’t be able to have that cultural connection that I did.”
Music Credits: All songs written and performed by Bryan Akipa. “Eagle Dreams” and “Buffalo Nation” from the cd Eagle Dreams; “First Song” from the cd The Flute Player.
Jo Reed: You’re listening to the music of 2016 National Heritage Fellow, Dakota flute player, and maker, Bryan Akipa. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts—I’m Josephine Reed.
Although Bryan Akipa grew up on the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate reservation in South Dakota—he knew nothing about traditional flutes. But then he came across a wooden flute in the studio of his mentor. And his world changed. He began to learn to make and play the distinctive Dakota flutes. Akipa sought out tribal elders who knew the flute tradition, remembered songs, and showed him old flutes. He’d soon excel at both which led to a career in music and art that helped revive an almost forgotten tradition. He became a teacher and began playing the flute for his students, as well as in different venues during the summer. He produced his first CD in 1993 and has since earned a Grammy nomination and won several Native American Music Awards. Meanwhile, He was also making and selling Dakota flutes, carving them by hand in the traditional way. And in the traditional way, Bryan Akipa also passes his knowledge on to the next generations teaching, demonstrating and performing at workshops, museums, schools, and colleges across the country. As well as taking on apprentices who work with him closely. I spoke with Bryan Akipa when he was in Washington DC to receive his National Heritage Fellowship and asked him to tell me more about the beginning of his journey with the flute.
Bryan Akipa: In 1975, I was studying painting under the artist, South Dakota artist laureate, the USD artist emeritus professor Oscar Howe, and in his studio, he had a mallard head flute sitting on his desk, and that's when I found out about the flutes.
Jo Reed: Can you explain what you mean when you say “a mallard head flute?’
Bryan Akipa: Most of the flutes - at the end of the flute, they carve a bird’s head and on this flute (and it was made by Richard Fogel) had a mallard duck carved at the end of it.
Jo Reed: Beautiful, and you were just taken with it?
Bryan Akipa: Yes, yeah, it just seemed so amazing, and I was so attracted to it, and I wondered what it was, and I wanted to play it, and I wanted to have one, and the only thing I could do was to figure out how to make one.
Jo Reed: You grew up on the reservation in South Dakota?
Bryan Akipa: Sisseton, South Dakota.
Jo Reed: Did you grow up with a traditional culture? Did you grow up hearing the language and hearing the music?
Bryan Akipa: I heard the language. My parents are first language speakers, and all my grandparents are all first language speakers. Dakota language as their first language, so I heard it a lot, but it wasn’t taught to us because the assimilation process and although it wasn’t illegal to learn the language, a lot of people felt it was better not to.
Jo Reed: And what about music?
Bryan Akipa: The music was mostly the drum and the singing, so I have never heard a flute.
Jo Reed: You’d never heard one...
Bryan Akipa: No.
Jo Reed: ...before you saw that mallard flute?
Bryan Akipa: Yes.
Jo Reed: How did you go about learning how to make one, if you hadn’t even heard one?
Bryan Akipa: Oscar Howe kept old things in his classroom, and I got really interested in. Flutes wasn’t the only thing because he had some traditional games too. I asked him if I could sketch them and when I studied the flute; I measured it, I sketched it at every angle, I studied it, I looked into it, and I tried to figure out the best I could and just with a pocketknife and with what I was able to see in a piece of wood. That's how I made it.
Jo Reed: Do you remember what kind of wood you used?
Bryan Akipa: It’s a cedar. And I did know that the flutes were made from cedar, so I paid attention to that and I did get a piece of cedar.
Jo Reed: And how did you then learn to play?
Bryan Akipa: It took me a really long time just to get any sound, and it was-- sometimes it was discouraging ‘cause it just wasn’t playing, but finally, it did. Basically, the flutes are easy to play once you get them constructed the right way and you just blow into it, and it’s the fingering.
Jo Reed: So you did it by ear. Did you speak to elders about the music and the way the music should sound?
Bryan Akipa: Once I got that far, my aunt said that I should go talk to my grandmother’s cousin and his cousin, David Marks, and Norman Blue. He made and played flutes when he was younger and David Marks received his flute from his grandfather in 1918, but all these years, he just put it away, and he hid it away, and so not too many people really knew about it. I had to work up the courage to ask him to see it, his old flute, and it turned out really good because it just brought back so many memories for Norman and David when they were little, and their grandfather was alive, and they told me a lot of stories when they were kids. So I learned all the oral history from them about the flute and the songs and the way they’re played, and he played for me. He played some songs for me. So I had a chance to really know how the traditional flute sounds.
Jo Reed: And that gave you enough to be able to learn more and master it yourself?
Bryan Akipa: Yeah, and as I went on, it was a journey for me, a cultural journey, because I would meet different people and I would learn more oral history, more songs. I would see other flutes that people had in their family that were old flutes that were handed down, and that's how it just kept going like that, and even today, I still meet people and talk about the oral history.
Jo Reed: The animal head aside, sonically, what makes this flute unique?
Bryan Akipa: It’s like a hollow tube, and then there’s a solid piece that blocks it that the air comes back out of the flute. And then channeled across the top using a birch bark and cutting a slot, like a spacer and a tuner is put on that and another hole on the other side of the solid block is carved in there. And then a block sits on top of that and holds all the air in, so the air is channeled across the top and splits evenly on the edge of the birch bark. All cultures have flutes, and this is the only one that uses this method to make it whistle or to make it sound.
Jo Reed: I would love to hear an example.
Jo Reed: Beautiful. Beautiful. What’s the name of that song?
Bryan Akipa: That's called “Eagle Dreams.”
Jo Reed: And does that have a story attached to it?
Bryan Akipa: Yes, and this is a song that I made, and we were traveling one time and we seen an eagle, and it was winter. There’s a light snow, and up above our-- us was a ridge, and it was early in the morning, and the eagle was sitting there, and so we stopped to look at it, and we could see that it was sleeping. We could watch it wake up, and it started ruffling its feathers and looking around, and just with one leap, it spread its wings and started to fly. And it was one of the most beautiful eagles that I seen, and it looked like it just disappeared into the air because of the snow and the mist and the sky. It just flew off and disappeared, and it was so inspiring to me, it made me think about my life, and the song’s melody is talking about that eagle and what happened that day.
Jo Reed: You play using an indigenous musical scale. Can you explain what that is?
Bryan Akipa: It’s also based on the way they sing because when they sing the songs, it seems like they start really high and then kinda drop down quite a ways. And they sing some notes in there, then they drop quite a ways again and sing down in one low note and back up, so you try to imitate that with the flute too.
Jo Reed: And you also take the songs that have been traditionally sung and you play them on the flute.
Bryan Akipa: Um yes. The traditional songs was mostly the drum and the singing. You could sing them, and they have a melody, and they have a word, but you take the melody of that song and play it on the flute, and there’s different techniques that you used to add in. Accents like bird imitations and they imitate the meadowlark or the chickadee and different birds like that, songbirds, and they put that into the song wherever they fit, and this is what brings it to life and becomes a flute song. And so as I’m playing the flute, I can hear the singing in my mind, and so that's what gives me my rhythm and balance and accompaniments, and I know where to accent the song. I know where to-- if it needs an overblown note or if I need to put something in, it’s all done the right way.
Jo Reed: How old were you when you started playing?
Bryan Akipa: In 1975, I was 18, so it took me a while. It took me-- so maybe I was 19 by that time I-- and I don't know if you could really call it playing back then, so I think I started more playing once I met Norman Blue and David Marks.
Jo Reed: You’re also well known as a traditional dancer. Was it your flute playing that got you involved with dancing?
Bryan Akipa: Actually, it started when I was younger. My...
Jo Reed: So that came first?
Bryan Akipa: ... dad would take us to powwows and Sisseton had one of the oldest, longest-running powwows there is in the United States, and I think it’s maybe the hundred and fiftieth anniversary. So it was a big powwow when I was little. We used to go and then they had little powwows too out by the lake out by Enemy Swim. So we always had a chance to dance, and back then the regalia wasn’t real expensive. Just mostly, you just got out there and danced for enjoyment, and so that's how it started. When I was about 12, my grandmother could see my interest in that, so she made an outfit for me and again when I was 16, I had, like, a full regalia outfit by then.
Jo Reed: Can you explain the significance of the “Eagle Dance?”
Bryan Akipa: It’s a ceremony to show respect for the eagle. Dakota people are related to the eagle, the Eagle Nation, and there’s a story how that came about. The rebirth of the Dakota Nation. And so it’s mostly to show respect, to sing the correct song, to be able to do it the right way in the four directions.
Jo Reed: Tell me the story of the “Dakota and the Eagle?”
Bryan Akipa: It goes back to a flood story, a time when a great flood completely covered entire world and all the bad people were killed, and one young girl made it to a hill, and an eagle came to her and befriended her, and he took care of her. He went out and hunted for her, brought her food, and she could talk to him. And she asked him, “Is there other people anywhere?” and she said no, there’s no other people that he could see, and he said, “You are the last of your kind.” And this friendship became so close, the eagle asked to become a human, a young man, ‘cause he wanted the humans to continue on, and he could see the good in her. He changed into a young man, and they were married, and they had twin children. And so this eagle man became her husband, her friend, and the father of her children, and this was the rebirth, not the origin, but the rebirth of the Dakota Nation.
Jo Reed: I would imagine there’s challenges, as well as great rewards from reclaiming the culture and reinvigorating it again.
Bryan Akipa: One of the things I did as a elementary teacher, I met the shop teacher, and he had a woodshop class, and he was really interested in making flutes, and he just tried it, and he just couldn’t do it, so I helped him. I made lesson plans, I drew it out, and this is in about 1987. And he started a flute making, a two-week class once every year since then and he just retired from teaching this year. So every year, he would teach that class, and every year I would go into his class and make sure they were adjusting and sounding it and some of those kids back then are playing flutes. So that to me, that’s one of the recognitions.
Jo Reed: When you're teaching younger people these art forms, these traditions, what’s a really important aspect of that for you? Just the culture. This is what ties you to your culture. Probably the most important is the language. Also, it’s the art and the dance that ties you and makes you the Dakota person you are. This is traditional flute, traditional music, traditional instrument, and if there’s no more traditional music and flutes, the youth are gonna lose that cultural journey. And they won’t be able to have that cultural connection that I did.
Jo Reed: It’s almost like a conversation with people who came before you.
Bryan Akipa: Yeah.
Jo Reed: And to people who come after. Yeah.
Bryan Akipa: And early on in my flute playing, I used to go to powwows and play the flute. Early in the morning at, like, flag raising. I was playing for the campers, cause people camp all night at powwows. And they’re around, and I used to get compliments from campers saying, “I was waking up, and I could hear the music, and I liked that.” And one time, I was in one of the most traditional communities. It’s kinda like Red Scaffold and Cherry Creek area, some of the-- and the Green Grass area’s where the sacred white buffalo calf pipe is kept. For all the Dakota Nation, that's where it’s at, so this powwow was right in the middle of that, and so these are some of the most traditional people. And I was playing early morning at the powwow, and all a sudden, seven old men, elders, really elders, really old elders, and they just came, and they sat all around me, and I didn't know what to do. I was kinda getting nervous. I said, “The only thing I do is just play all the songs I know,” and so I just kept playing and these old men were sitting there, and when I was done, they all shook my hand. And here, that one said, “That's the way the flute’s supposed to sound.” Said, “You played it the right way.” And so that was one of my biggest accomplishments. That was the first biggest one that happened to me, this elder, these elder men sitting around and they approved it, so that was really special.
Jo Reed: Oh yeah, I can see why it would be. Of course. You know, it’s an interesting thing because it’s a tradition but it’s a living tradition, it’s a living art that has to have its roots in tradition, but at the same time it needs to breathe now.
Bryan Akipa: Yeah, so a lot of people hear my style of playing, and they say, “Oh, that's different. What does that sound like?” That’s ‘cause nobody plays traditional flutes anymore. Nobody plays traditional songs. They mix them with guitar and piano and all kind of electronics and everything, so it’s different for them to hear the traditional song, ‘cause there’s just not very many.
Jo Reed: And the sound is so distinctive. And receiving a National Heritage Award, what does that mean for you and what do you think it says about the significance of your art and the work that you’re doing?
Bryan Akipa: Where I live is in a rural area. It’s called Agency Village. And I get a call from the South Dakota senator John Thune, really surprised me, and he’s the first one to announce that I received that and he said I’d receive more phone calls. The director and all the people involved, I started-- I talked to, and then it just exploded once they had the press release. And I was getting phone calls and asked me about interviews, and I got invited to flute play for a 50-foot sculpture in South Dakota called Dignity, and that was a big event for South Dakota. And all the South Dakota dignitaries were there, and that’s because of the award, and it’s been really fun-- especially when I read it. It said, “The highest honor for traditional arts,” and this is our nation’s highest honor, and I would tell that to someone, and it’s really-- it seemed amazing to say that. And it’s been really fun telling family and friends and even at the tribe. They had a general council meeting, and they acknowledged it there, and I played flute there. I could see how much recognition it already got. On Facebook, someone from Idaho sent me a newspaper article with my picture and the NEA award on there, so it sounds-- looks like it’s going all over the place. And so it’s really amazing.
Jo Reed: It’s such a well-deserved award. Thank you for giving me your time.
That’s 2016 National Heritage Fellow Dakota Flute maker and player Bryan Akipa.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. And the Art Works podcast is now available on iTunes—please subscribe and if you like us—leave us a rating—it helps people to find us.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Anita Fields (Osage/Muscogee) – Osage Ribbon worker, multimedia artist, and 2021 National Heritage Fellow
“I started thinking about all of the mentors that I've had, all of my teachers, all of the people who shared their skills and their knowledge. But most importantly they taught me how to create – how to connect my hands to my heart, to my mind, to be able to make an expression. And they gave me the confidence to do that.”
Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Anita Fields: I started thinking about all of the mentors that I've had, all of my teachers, all of the people who shared their skills and their knowledge. But most importantly they taught me how to create-- how to connect my hands to my heart, to my mind, to be able to make an expression. And they gave me the confidence to do that.
Jo Reed: That is Osage ribbon worker and multi-media artist Anita Fields sharing the thoughts she had when she learned she was named a 2021 National Heritage Fellow. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Born in Oklahoma, Anita Fields, a citizen of Osage nation, is a renowned textile and clay artist. Her art reflects the world view of Osage philosophy and its connection to nature as it explores the complexities of Native history and culture. Native American ribbon work is colorful, precise, and complex. It’s the cutting, folding, and sewing of different colored ribbons into geometric patterns—it’s a form of applique and used as a decorative overlay, especially in ceremonial clothing. The style of Osage ribbon work is unique and Anita Fields is an exemplar of the art form. An innovative artist, she honors the tradition while taking it to new places—drawing on the designs of ribbon work and incorporating them in her ceramic and clay pieces for example. She is inspired by the Osage culture and inventively incorporates some its visual language into her art. Anita textiles and clay art pieces have been exhibited nationally and internationally—her art is part of the permanent collections at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of Art and Design in New York and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. A Tulsa Artist Fellow since 2017, her work was also part of the landmark 2019/2020 traveling exhibition, Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists.
While Anita Fields was named a National Heritage Fellow for her outstanding Osage ribbon work. She clearly is a multi-media artist equally at home with clay as well as textiles. And that’s where I began my conservation: by asking her about navigating these two very different mediums--textiles and clay-- and the innovative ways her art frequently brings them together.
Anita Fields: My work as an artist is multidisciplinary and I work in several forms, several mediums, primarily clay and textiles and the combination of the two. My background comes from very early childhood of learning how to sew when I was really young, asking my grandmother to teach me how to sew, but also, just creative play, playing outside with natural materials, dirt, mud, rocks, sticks, those are my earliest memories of creating. So, as an artist, I feel free to go in and out of materials and so, my practice covers a lot of materials, kind of whatever I feel is comfortable and what needs to be in the piece, but yeah, a lot of my work, my clay work is found in museums, galleries, collections, as well as my textile work too.
Jo Reed: I know you were born in Oklahoma. Were you raised there?
Anita Fields: We lived in Oklahoma until I was about eight to ten years old. I was born in Hominy, Oklahoma on the Osage reservation. My dad built us a home on his grandfather’s allotment, original allotment and we moved to Colorado. We made this kind of journey back and forth from Colorado back and forth to Hominy until we settled in Denver, Colorado. My dad was there and he wanted to be a guide and outfitter, which he accomplished and so, there was this back and forth journey for a couple of years because my mother was lonesome, but we always came home and stayed with our grandparents, our grandmothers during the summer. Yeah. It was a trek that we made many, many times during the year.
Jo Reed: Your father was a painter and as you said, your grandmother was a great seamstress. So, I would have to imagine that art and appreciation for visual languages was something that you really grew up with.
Anita Fields: It was. My earliest memories, really, of pattern and design come from the trunks that my grandmother had that held her most prized possessions, which were our Osage traditional clothing and she would open those up when it was time for our dances and for our ceremonials and she would lovingly take each item out and kind of assign what relative would be wearing what, what cousin, what brother or sister and as an adult, I realized that was really my introduction to something finely and beautifully made with love and integrity, which held all of the basic principles of art, which are pattern, design, color and my dad was a painter and he painted wildlife scenes and he was really good. He didn’t have a lot of formal training, but he really enjoyed it and his passion showed in his paintings.
Jo Reed: As you said, your grandmother taught you to sew. This is random, but do you remember the first thing you made?
Anita Fields: Oh, I do. Yeah. So, my grandmother was a great seamstress and she had these baskets full of scraps of fabric and she would just throw them in there and I would kind of play around with those. So, one day, I asked her and said “Teach me how to sew.” So, she taught me with a needle and thread, first of all, you know, how to sew and encouraged me to do that for quite a while and I had this crazy cheap rubber doll from the dime store and she was probably only about five or six inches high and so, I made her a gingham-- it was blue gingham-- I can picture it right now-- blue gingham coat. I went into my grandmother’s bathroom and she had this little glass container of cotton balls, pulled out some of those cotton balls and glued them on to the cuffs and to the collar of the coat and it’s funny. I don’t remember a whole lot of clothing that I made for that doll after that, but that memory is really vivid to me.
Jo Reed: You ended up going to the Institute of American Indian Arts and you went to study painting, but there, you discovered other media. Tell me about the experience of being there.
Anita Fields: Okay. At the Institute of American Indian Arts, we were encouraged to try every medium that was available to us and at that time, I had very little experience with other mediums other than the ones that I was introduced to in high school or that I had found on my own. So, we were highly encouraged to try a little bit of everything hoping that we would land in a place where our passion was really at. So, that was my first introduction to clay and to multimedia and I felt like clay was-- that I was home, that I was very comfortable with it. It felt very intuitive to me to be working with it, that it’s just something that’s very easy to form, manipulate. It’s very human-like. It has a memory. For instance, if you roll out a piece of clay and you crack it and you repair it, it’s going to kind of remember that place where it was torn or it had been repaired. Yeah. It has lots of characteristics. It can be forgiving, it can be easily transformed. That’s one of the things that I really am drawn to by working with clay is that it’s a very transformative material to work with and, of course, it’s the earth that holds us up, provides everything for us.
Jo Reed: You were at the Institute of American Indian Arts at a really interesting time. Things were really breaking up and breaking out when you were a student there, correct?
Anita Fields: Yes. Yeah. There was lots of things happening in the world at that time and there was-- like this time when there was civil unrest and also, for native people, that is during the time that Wounded Knee was happening and protests were popping up on native reservations, on Indian land. So, there was a lot happening and that filtered through to the kind of work that people were doing at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I would think. You met your husband in Santa Fe and he’s a photographer, whose work is really pretty fabulous.
Anita Fields: Right.
Jo Reed: You got married and began having children. Did you return to Oklahoma then? Did you stay in Santa Fe? Just geographically, where were you situated at that time?
Anita Fields: Came back to Oklahoma.
Jo Reed: Okay. Here’s the question. How did you juggle making art and being a young mother?
Anita Fields: That’s a great question because it was really difficult. I found myself wanting to continue to create and so, I would always try to find a community center, a junior college. Sometimes I just enrolled in classes to be able to have a studio to go to work at, always taking classes to further my practice in finding new ways to be able to create. But it’s hard because having little children, there’s little time left for that kind of thing. So, it was definitely a juggling act that went on for quite some time, but luckily, I always found the time to be able to satisfy that urge to be able to make something and to be able to create.
Jo Reed: Is this when you began to learn ribbon work or had your grandmother taught you some of the aspects of it previously?
Anita Fields: My grandmother did not teach me some of the aspects of ribbon work. So, when I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband worked for the Osage Nation. He’s not Osage, but he worked for my nation and so, they held classes at the Osage Museum for ribbon work, shirt making, Indian dyes, a lot of the cultural items that we use and make within our culture. So, these classes were free and they would provide all of the materials and had great mentors, great teachers who were very knowledgeable, who were skillful, who were masters at what they did and they were very generous in sharing that with the people who had interest in learning how to make these things. So, they would begin with kind of the simpler designs and encourage you to keep working up to the more difficult stages of making these items.
Jo Reed: Well, I saw a YouTube video of you making a ribbon and it is an immensely complicated process. Do you think it’s something that you can describe so even though we’re listening to it we can kind of see it in our mind’s eye?
Anita Fields: I’ll try.
Jo Reed: I know it’s asking a lot.
Anita Fields: We use all kinds of ribbons. Depending on what pattern you’re going to work on, if you’re working on like a four-ribbon pattern, the ribbons, perhaps, might be two to three inches wide and you would sew those two down the middle to create a seam, open those up. You would baste on top two other ribbons that are of contrasting colors. You would take a design-- for us, Osages are known for their patterns that are geometric-- and you would trace your pattern on one side. You would flip that pattern to go on top of the ribbon on the other side and then this is a process of cutting and folding under those top ribbons. When you fold those under, when you snip and fold those ribbons under, the two colors that are underneath those top colors create the design and so, then depending on what it’s going to be for, if it’s going to be for a woman’s skirt or a man’s blanket-- it just depends what it’s going to be for-- would be how long that pattern needs to travel.
Jo Reed: I saw that in my head. So, that was good.
Anita Fields: I was like-- I don't know if this will make sense or not, but it’s definitely visual.
Jo Reed: So, they’re used for skirts or for blankets-- decorative items that people would wear?
Anita Fields: Sure. So, they decorate the traditional clothing that we wear and they trim women’s skirts and women have traditional Osage women blankets. So, they also would be added to those. Osage men have a blanket that they wear and then that can be also the border for those blankets. The suits that men wear for the traditional dances are trimmed, the men’s bridge clothes and their leggings, all of that is trimmed with ribbon work.
Jo Reed: And the designs have meanings. I mean, there’s significance to the patterns that are used. Is that correct?
Anita Fields: Yes, they do and some of them are easily identifiable, like the double arrow pattern. There’s different patterns that have evolved. There are patterns that at one time denoted clans or belonged to families and depending on how you were taught and who introduced you to ribbon work, some of those names are going to vary a little bit.
Jo Reed: You’ve said that your artwork is really guided by Osage philosophy and duality has a centrality in the philosophy and in your work. Can you share a little bit more about that philosophy and then how you manifest it through your art?
Anita Fields: So, I’m looking into the worldview of Osage, of our culture and that is a worldview that is based on observation of nature. There is an order found within nature and so, our worldview thinks of divisions between the early and sky and so, they found that to be true in everything that happened within one’s life. So, this idea of earth/sky, night/day, man/woman, really these contrasts and these things that you find in everyday life in one’s time here, in one’s journey. And so, for instance, things like the movement of the sun, that is something that happens every single day and that it has a path and it has order and there’s order found in nature on this observation of nature where everything is interconnected and things rely on one another to exist.
Jo Reed: Okay. You had said that you really came to a decision that art is what you’re going to do. You really just committed yourself to art. Can you tell me about that moment and what shifted for you when you made that decision moving forward?
Anita Fields: I was young. Well, actually, I wasn’t that young. Yeah. It was very distinct. It was very direct and I was at a time in my life when I was having a lot of difficulty in deciding what was true for myself, what it is, what was it that I needed to be doing, doing things that weren’t really healthy for me, partaking in those kinds of activities and I was really looking at something to ground myself and to really find out what it is I was supposed to be doing for the rest of my life and so, I knew that making art was part of that. I knew I was having a difficult time attaining that because all of these other things that were happening in my life and so, I just really made a commitment to be able to honor my time here and begin doing what I was supposed to be doing and that really was the shift because I think it was the shift in my heart and my mind, alerting my hands that this is what I was going to be doing and I fully committed right then and there.
Jo Reed: Were you working in both textiles and clay then?
Anita Fields: More so in clay at that time.
Jo Reed: When I think about working with clay-- and this is everything to do with me and being limited-- I tend to think of things being functional, making things that are beautiful, but functional. You make things that tell stories. That is a qualitative difference. Can you tell me how you arrived at that?
Anita Fields: That was actually what that shift that I’m talking about because up to that point, I did make things that were utilitarian, throwing on the wheel. I still throw on the wheel because I can alter things to fit the ideas that I’m having when I’m making these things that are more narrative, but up to that time, that’s pretty much what I was doing. I was making things that were utilitarian, that you can use. It was when I made that shift in my mind that I decided to tell things that were-- I call them narrative. They’re pieces that are narrative in nature. I can be inspired by lots of things. I can be inspired by a good book. I love poetry. I can be inspired by poetry. Many times before I begin a body of work, I’ll just sit and read poetry. I can be inspired by something that I see at a social gathering with Osage people. I can be inspired by the kinds of things I was talking about earlier that is found in our world view. For instance, I make these landscapes and they’re abstract in nature, but to me, being able to travel to our Osage original homelands, which I had been fortunate enough to be able to do brought this feeling that the earth holds memory and that it holds the memory of the cultures who were first there and because of the way that clay is created, that erosion, time, layering. I think of all those kinds of things and clay holds this memory. So, it’s the perfect material to transform these kinds of ideas. So, yeah, it was definitely a shift with what I was talking about earlier.
Jo Reed: Well, it’s so interesting because you’ve made every-day objects with clay but in the service of telling a story and an example is your 2001 installation. In English, it’s called “Call to Eat.” I’m not going to attempt the Osage pronunciation but there you created a table set for dinner ready for a family or a party. Can you describe that installation and what you were doing and how that’s part of your philosophy of work?
Anita Fields: So, that piece is called “Wa-No'-Bree” and that’s the Osage word for “Come and eat,” the call to eat and so, this is particularly about Osage dinners and the sharing of food. We don’t do anything without the inclusion of food. As Osage people, we gather at that table in all of these instances from the celebration of a marriage, sending a soldier off to war, welcoming him home. It would be naming babies. It would also be saying goodbye to somebody on their final journey home. Every aspect of our lives, from birth to death, you gather people together to come and share this food with you as an expression of who we are. And I find so many things within our culture so very beautiful, and I’m always looking for the essence of what’s happening within these experiences and these times.So, in that particular piece, kind of based on memory when I was a young girl then I was thinking about the dinners when I was particularly a young person going to them with my grandmother. So, I used her dishes that she had, as many as I had left, and I press-molded the clay into her dishes so that they were actually the dishes that my grandmother used and then I used Osage designs on linen napkins and imagery that would reflect us and I know I took my tape recorder to a dinner and after the prayer, I told my relatives who I was sitting with what I was doing, that I was making this art installation and that I just wanted to record the noise that was happening around us and so, I put out my tape recorder and then everybody was quiet. I wasn't trying to intimidate. I was just trying to gather you know what it sounds like at a dinner. And because a lot of these dinners, they don’t happen inside of a building. They happen outside under a tent. then I think I remember that the installation included, you know, limbs and trees and a scrim, you know, to give us the idea of being in nature.
Jo Reed: And you also had real fry bread.
Anita Fields: I did have real fry bread. I forgot about that. Yeah. I had real fry bread that I dipped in polyurethane about 10 times.
Jo Reed: Sometimes you take details from your ribbon work, and you recreate them in clay.
Anita Fields: So, for a long time, you know, I was just trying to replicate ribbon work on to clay like the surface, you know, when I would think about surface decoration, and it just wasn't working. For me it just wasn't happening. It didn't hold the kind of nuances that I wanted. And I thought, well, ribbon work is ribbon work. And this clay is the clay and the surface, they’re two totally different things. And then I thought about, well, I could take my patterns and impress them in the clay and make clay stamps. And then I could use those stamps to develop textures on the surfaces of my clay. So I would take bits of clay and flatten them out and then impress the clay stamps of ribbon work into them. And then just, you know, I call it's kind of like a clay collage for me, where I take these fragments of clay, stamp the texture into them and then apply that with slip to the surface of my clay forms. And I really I like that. You know? That worked for me because it was just a layer again, you know, of these languages that I have developed as an artist. And I think of that, you know, directly as that. It's a language that I have developed for myself because, you know, the ribbon work patterns aren't the only thing. I use all kinds of different objects to impress into clay to make stamps and they can be from a walk. They can be from travel that I've had. They can be a favorite pair of earrings. They can be, you know, beadwork. So, I think of it as a language, you know, that as an artist that I have developed that tells the story of my journey. But I also think of it, you know, as the language that this is the language as an artist that I have chosen. Just as, you know, when I was a really young girl remembering the language that I remember my grandmother and all her relatives and peers, you know, speaking Osage as their first language.
Jo Reed: I'd like to talk about the exhibit Fluent Generations which was a show with work by you, and your husband who's a photographer, and your son who's a painter. And I can only imagine what that experience was like for your family.
Anita Fields: It was, first of all, a great honor to be able to show with them. And, you know, we don't really as a family sit-down and-- well, we do talk about art quite a bit. But we don't really talk about how we influence each other because that's just how we live our lives. We don't really have conversations about the relationship of my work to my husband's work or my work to Yatika’s work. Yeah. I try to stay out of the creative aspects of when somebody's making something about what your opinion of it is because we know that that's a real solitary decision that has to be made by the person who's doing it. We think of it more in like, just real general terms, that we raised our children to understand this language of art, not to be intimidated by it. That this is very natural. And so, that exhibit we had to really kind of slow it down and really start thinking about those things because people started asking us those questions. And you know I thought about it and thought well we just wanted to give our children a lot of experiences to be comfortable in the creative aspects of life and to feel comfortable with it. And if that is the path that they chose then that's great, because we, as a family, all understand that it's a language that we do understand and deeply, deeply appreciate, and know its importance, you know, in our lives and in other people's lives, how important it is in culture.
Jo Reed: I wonder when you see your work in a gallery or a museum, is it like seeing it with fresh eyes? Is it seeing it anew in some ways?
Anita Fields: It is. And it's, you know, it's one thing to see it in a beautifully lit gallery, a beautifully lit space, you know, with lots of light and plenty of room around it. As to seeing it on the table that you're creating it on, you know, or taking it out of the kiln or, you know, putting it under a sewing machine, you know, that's one thing. But yeah, when you are able to see it, you know, properly presented, it takes on a whole different air. I think more than anything when I'm able to see a piece I haven't made in a few years, you know, and I'm able to revisit that that is sometimes when I have these kind of really surprises. And then, you know, start thinking about oh I kind of remember that time and I think I'm seeing you know this in it where I wasn't really consciously thinking of that when I made that. You know? So that kind of realization oftentimes comes later.
Jo Reed: There was a large important path-breaking exhibit that you were a part of called Hearts of Our People, Native, Women Artists. And you created an installation for it called It's In Our DNA. It's Who We Are. And I would really like you to describe this for us. And beginning with how you begin a project like that. How you begin to conceptualize it. Where do you start?
Anita Fields: So, I've been wanting to make a contemporary Osage wedding coat for quite some time. And I started that with my daughter, a couple of years earlier. We started one. And then the opportunity came a commission from, you know, the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts for the show “Hearts of Our People”. And proposed making the wedding coat-- another wedding coat. So, you know, the wedding coat is based on a military style jacket that has history and that is an iconic piece of clothing for Osage people. They made their way into our culture in the very late 1700s at a time when, you know, we were negotiating with foreign powers including the United States with treaties. And they were given as gifts by these foreign powers to our chiefs. And they made their way back and so that they were given to the women. And the women incorporated them into to the wedding ceremony but it's not just a wedding ceremony. These marriages were arranged marriages between two clans. until the ‘50s actually, the late ‘50s, you know, there were still a few arranged marriages happening. And when that was no longer happening, the Osage the wedding coat found its way into our ceremonial dance, called the I’n-Lon-Schka Dance which is a man's dance. And so, they are used as a way of gift-giving, from one drum keeper’s family to the next drum keeper’s family and committee. And, you know, my initial thoughts were that this is such an iconic item for Osage people that I think of it as holding this history, this really important history of who we are. And so I wanted to make a contemporary Osage wedding coat because I felt like it's the thread, you know, it's one of the items that links the past to now and on into the future. But I wanted my wedding coat to be something that was reflective of that kind of history. So on the inside it has a silk lining that that has been set up with Photoshop images. And these images are everything from historic documents, photos of relatives. The idea of our creation story, there's images from that. Also, there's oil wells on it because, you know, oil has impacted our culture, you know, in a huge way, the economics of our culture. And so all of these images speak to who we are as Osage people. And then, you know, it's embellished on the sleeves with ribbon work panels and different items that we use as Osage people, metal dots, embroidery. Most always the panels on the front of these wedding coats are embroidered. And so I wanted to hand embroider with symbols that are reflective, again of our history and with plants that were and are important to us. I wanted it to be a reflection of all of those things and pay homage to the Osage people that I know who sew all year round so that our culture can continue.
Jo Reed: It's stunning. It's just stunning.
Anita Fields: Thank you.
Jo Reed: I wonder now, Anita as you reflect upon your career and what you've done so far, whether there's a through line that's going through it and what that through line might be. Or another way is, you know, are there stories that you find yourself returning to again and again that you tell through your work?
Anita Fields: Well, this idea of transformation I think is something that I think about a lot whether I'm working in fabric textiles printing on cloth, or making a form out of clay. Because it's this overriding idea that the idea of transformation is bigger than just transforming a material. You know? Because when I look at clothing I think of it.… for instance, when you put your Osage clothing on you are able to connect with who you are. And so this transformation happens, not only physically outwardly, but it's something that is a transformation of your heart and your spirit and your mind. And a reflection of where you come from because you're wearing the same type of clothing that your ancestors wore. I think of transformation a lot in my work in all of the disciplines that I work in.
Jo Reed: And finally, Anita, what did it mean for you to be named a 2021 National Heritage fellow?
Anita Fields: You know that I'm still soaking that all in actually. Of course, I’m really honored. But you know what it took me to thinking about the whole journey, the whole beginning of creating, making. And I started thinking about all of the mentors that I've had, all of my teachers, all of the people who shared their skills and their knowledge. But most importantly they taught me how to create-- how to connect my hands to my heart, to my mind, to be able to make an expression. And they gave me the confidence to do that. They gave me the understanding of there's no right way to make something, there's no wrong way to make something. There's only the way that you feel is the most expressive for you. And I am forever grateful for that.
Jo Reed: And Anita, I think that is a really good place to leave it. Thank you so much for giving me your time because I know you're very busy. And congratulations again on this well-deserved award for your wonderful, wonderful work.
Anita Fields: Thank you. I really appreciate being able to talk to you.
Jo Reed: Thank you.
That was Anita Fields—an Osage ribbon worker, multi-media artist and 2021 National Heritage Fellow which is the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.
Wayne Valliere (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe) – Birchbark Canoe Builder and 2020 NEA National Heritage Fellow
“I truly believe that we as human beings we all have a destiny, and my destiny from the day I was born was to be involved in culture. My grandmother predicted, when I was born I was born with a white streak in my hair, my grandmother told my mother that she believed I was a reincarnated elder and that at the time she said someday that this grandchild of mine will be a cultural bearer…”
NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Jo Reed: Welcome to Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed.
Wayne Valliere is an Ojibwe birchbark canoe maker, , a language advocate, and one of the great educators and protectors of cultural practice in his community of Lac de Flambeau in Wisconsin. He’s also a 2020 NEA Heritage Fellow. His work in reinvigorating the tradition of birchbark canoe-building is in some ways an archetypal form of folk and traditional arts. That is an art form that is made for and by and about the community that uses it. The Ojibwe is a nation and cultural community that has a deep connection to waterways… And the birch bark canoe was used for transportation, fishing, harvesting wild rice, and hunting. The tradition of building these canoes had been handed down for millennia and require carpentry, weaving, the ability to read a forest, and engineering. It is a boat as beautiful as it is functional. And, it is one of the most sophisticated inland watercrafts in the world. Wayne Valliere is one of only a handful of Native birchbark canoe builders today in the United States. Wayne has made it his mission to preserve his culture as a living tradition for the future generations. I spoke with Wayne recently with a less-than-wonderful internet connection. I began by asking him if he was raised in the traditions of the Anishinaabe.
Wayne Valliere: Yes, I was. You know from my earliest memory traditional ways were spoken of and practiced in our family, and my parents, they kept company with elders themselves so I was exposed to elders at a very early age and learning from elders and the importance of Native knowledge that the elders hold.
Jo Reed: And was that unusual at that time when you were growing up, was your family unusual for keeping to traditional ways, or was that more common?
Wayne Valliere: It was unusual because in the early '70s it was, in our community the cultural light was growing quite dim at the time. There were very old people that still had our old knowledge but there were very few younger people picking it up. Boarding schools, different things in the historical traumas, you know there was a pause I guess, and so what happened was there wasn't a lot of culture around at the time. There was just a few elders that had that kind of knowledge.
Jo Reed: I'm curious how you came to recognize the centrality of reclaiming that culture, not as a dead tradition but as a way of living.
Wayne Valliere: Well, I truly believe that we as human beings we all have a destiny, and my destiny from the day I was born was to be involved in culture. My grandmother predicted, when I was born I was born with a white streak in my hair, my grandmother told my mother that she believed I was a reincarnated elder and that at the time she said someday that this grandchild of mine will be a cultural bearer, and as I grew up my mother was very, very surprised at how I was drawn to culture since my earliest memory and throughout my life and the importance of saving our different cultural areas before they slipped into the pages of history so they could remain alive, so that's where I'm at with that.
Jo Reed: Now you learned to make a vast array of different Native arts and artifacts, moccasins, needle points, et cetera, but you came to it, if I understand this correctly, through your painting, you were painting these things and then wondered how to make them.
Wayne Valliere: Yes, being exposed and seeing these things but also doing research of the daily life of the Anishinaabe and through I guess museum pieces and different writings and different photographs and researching the tools and the weapons and the clothing they wore at the time, and I think I was 16 when I realized that I really wanted to learn how to make the things that I was painting and it started a remarkable journey of knowledge for me and it was one thing led to the next and pretty soon you know I have enough knowledge to pretty much build everything in those paintings I used to make.
Jo Reed: And is that when you learned Ojibwe, or did you know the language earlier?
Wayne Valliere: Ojibwe, Anishinaabemowin, Ojibwemowin, it was spoken by our grandmother fluently, and she spoke it to us a lot, and the elders my parents accompanied also spoke a lot of Ojibwemowin, so we were raised hearing the language a lot, and then I guess when I was along that time (at) 16 I started to make a decision that I was going to move to fluency in my language and I quickly realized that our language, our sound, is the nucleus of our culture because without our language we can't convey our prayers to the Great Spirit and its helpers, and we can't thank what we call manidoo spirits for the gifts that we get in the woods. So the language is the nucleus for our culture. Our language has our worldview, which is totally different than American worldview. But it's a very respectful language, there is no swearwords in our language, it's always positive, the respectful manner people are spoken to when they're addressed.
Jo Reed: Birchbark canoe making was almost a lost art, and I'd like you to explain the importance of the birchbark canoe to the Anishinaabe.
Wayne Valliere: Well, I guess the importance of the birchbark canoe for our people is everywhere we traveled, we're a hunter-gathering tribe, the Ojibwe people, and we hunt and gather our foods in nature and this brings us to different seasonal camps where we have to travel to, and in Northern Wisconsin you can't throw a rock without hitting a lake. So it was much easier to paddle across a lake and portage a light 68-pound canoe over a mile to the next lake and paddle nine miles across. So the birchbark canoe was used for that, but it was also used as a shelter when they were traveling. It was used for, like I said, all of the industrial yeah of Anishinaabe, it took them to the rice beds and also harvesting wild rice from birchbark canoe. They hunted from a canoe using a torch shining, casting artificial light into the woods where the one's whose eyes glow, the deer, would shine, they would hunt the deer that way by seeing their eyes with the torch, and also spearing fish in the lakes, the eyes of the walleye glows at night from our torches and we spear fish through a birchbark canoe. So all of these things from the child to the elder, birchbark canoes played a big role in the life of the Anishinaabe, and I believe that it's a great part of our identity at a time when birchbark canoe building was common knowledge amongst all Anishinaabe because everybody, every family needed a birchbark canoe so the knowledge was common. Going down to, getting down to five master Ojibwe canoe builders in the Midwest is kind of, it became a very scary thought, becomes a very scary thought for me, so in my life I've actually produced one canoe builder and I'm working on the second right now. So we're changing that in my generation, we're making sure that some young people will have this skill enough to keep it alive to teach the greater public.
Jo Reed: They are as beautiful as they are functional and obviously it is a time-consuming art, as most art is, and you've said you have to make it on nature's time, not your time. I want you to say more about that and talk about the steps that go into making these canoes.
Wayne Valliere: Yes, we are on nature time when we do most, work with most natural materials when we're doing different things. But the birchbark canoe, it brings us to all the seasons. For example the bark, the birchbark that comes off the tree comes off in the spring, in June of the year, that's the only time you can really get it off in huge sheets where it's easy and the best time. It can also be harvested in the fall, it's called winter bark but it's, there again we go to the fall, another season, to harvest another bark. The cedar is harvested in the winter here because we go into the swamps, the cedar swamps are quite impassible any other season so we go in the winter when the swamp floor is frozen so we can harvest the cedar and skin that off and process that. The roots are gotten in the summertime when the ground is soft and processed. The pitch is harvested in the fall when the tree expresses, the pitch, the sealant for the canoe is harvested in the fall when the pines, the evergreens express all their sap from the previous summer. So all these different materials are harvested at different times and they're processed down and it's usually in the spring of the year when the bark comes off the tree is the time Anishinaabe would begin his canoe building, and so that's kind of on nature's clock, and when that season comes you have to be there, and I tell my apprentices that we're on nature's time and nature isn't on our time. Grandmother Earth, we're on her time.
Jo Reed: You don't make these in isolation, you have students, you have apprentices, you've mentored over 100 students, and you are determined that this will be carried on as a living tradition. These canoes are meant to be used. They are alive and vibrant and vital to the Anishinaabe culture.
Wayne Valliere: Yes, at our public school we do a canoe launch and we actually bring our canoe off the wall, display it where all of our students can see it, but we also use the canoe at different times of the year to demonstrate different cultural areas for our students. But me personally, I have my personal birchbark canoe where I could be seen all the time using it, and we try to, and also we went to several other communities throughout the Midwest and had projects where we built canoes in different communities, planting the seed of birchbark canoe building. So those people are coming back to us and they're doing it, so we're pretty happy about that.
Jo Reed: Well, and you don't just teach them how to build a birchbark canoe, you've developed a program called "These Canoes Carry Culture," which I think is really terrific, and I'd like you to say more about the program and the culture that the canoes carry.
Wayne Valliere: Well, these canoes carry culture, like I was saying, everything, the industrial year of the Anishinaabe, all of the different harvesting we do throughout the four seasons is in that canoe. During that time there's storytelling, there's teachings that are happening, life happens around when we're building canoes, camaraderie happens amongst strangers that are building canoes, friendships happen. So it's really magical; it's kind of a teaching, we have all these different materials that come from different parts of the environment, that come to make a beautiful watercraft. When people come together like that we become one, and there becomes harmony amongst canoe building because it's really hard work and it's also very gratifying each stitch that's put in, the smells and all the sounds, and it's very sacred to the Anishinaabe, and people that are involved with this building process they see the spiritual part of it because all the materials that we harvested we have ceremonies for. The material is asked permission to take it, and it's begged a thousand pardons when we do take it. But also in these canoes that we teach also we have a message of conservation and environment and making sure that we have birch forests for they owned obviously for the ones that are not yet born making sure that we have good pine trees that are going to produce the pitch that we need, and also the cedar forest so that they're healthy and our grandchildren will be able to go and harvest those things as they need them. So those messages are also passed on to our people and to my students about the importance of conservation and awareness of these environments and speaking all to the world the importance of the environment, about clean water and clean air and all these things are very important to the Anishinaabe people because it's our way of life, it affects our way of life every day.
Jo Reed: I'm curious how teaching and learning how you see the difference in Western culture and in Anishinaabe culture, how teaching and learning is different.
Wayne Valliere: Well, I see teaching and learning quite different. I actually teach a method I call teaching culturally, which is I don't teach culture, I teach culturally, meaning that for example a pair of moccasins for example, moccasins are made out of deer skin and quills and different things that we've made traditionally. But showing the student a pair of moccasins as opposed to going farther back and explaining about the deer herd, where the deer come from, what the deer do, how we harvest the deer, bringing the deer in and actually tanning the deer skin, showing all that work, showing patterning, talking about patterning, actually making the moccasins and how the pocket-toe moccasins signifies our tribe and what those stitches mean, and finally when you put that moccasin on you're walking in the steps of your ancestors. So that's teaching culturally, and we do that in what's a lot of different things. While we're teaching we think three-dimensional, it's always been three-dimensional for our students. So we try to make our teaching three-dimensional the same way. We bring in Western techniques and show the parallel with Anishinaabe techniques that way our children tend to take better ownership of it and it's known, it's a known fact that students do better when they see themselves in school, so we make sure of that in our public school, and we have an administration that's they're really good people and they're totally behind our endeavor.
Jo Reed: You were artist in residence at the University of Wisconsin at Madison where you built a birchbark canoe and you brought in children from the public school at Lac du Flambeau, and I really want you to tell me about this project and how it served as learning for everybody involved.
Wayne Valliere: Oh, yeah, the residency at UW Madison, it was really awesome. We built it in the woodshop. It was right in the building where they had all the artists, I think it's called the Humanities building. What was really cool about it was there was so many different cultures that came and visited the canoe, and pretty soon these different cultures started getting involved in this canoe building. We had people from, you know studying the Asami culture to the Scandinavians to Koreans to Chinese people to Latino people that were involved. We had a day when we were standing around the canoes and we were singing all these different cultural songs in all these different languages, so it was really cool, and it was also an awesome opportunity to bring something, to bring our students in the Lac du Flambeau public school down into a Big Ten university and see Native culture being showcased at a Big Ten university, and since that time we've actually had two students that have enrolled in UW Madison from our public school that were exposed to the school because of that residency, so it was really cool, and there was a lot of really good things that happened at the University.
Jo Reed: Well, you've said to your students that they don't have to lose their identity to become educated in the Western world. Is that the fear that somehow you do have to lose your identity to get that education because, in fact, historically that had been true?
Wayne Valliere: What happens is it's because of historical trauma, things that have happened in the past in our grandparents' time that has brought us forward to the way people feel about certain things today, we're still affected today by it. So, what we show, like our traditional teachings, we have values in teachings, and what we're showing is how to use these values in modern times in modern problems in modern things so we can live as spiritual people and believe our way, our creation stories, we can believe all of our medicines, all of our different things we do that makes us Anishinaabe. We can still have all those things, but also we have the ability to learn Western culture also, and Western education, and we can have the best of both worlds.
Jo Reed: Yeah. Sustainability, as you mentioned, is so central to your work and slowly, slowly we in the West understand more and more the damage we're doing to the environment. Do you find people are paying more attention to the way of life that you're practicing?
Wayne Valliere: Yeah, I think they are, you know, I mean, especially my apprentices. Like my apprentice, his name is Lawrence Mann, he's been with me for six years and it's been amazing to watch the transformation of this young man and the knowledge that he carries and how he carries that, and how he passes it back down to the next generation already, and it gives me hope that it is possible and it is happening because we're seeing it.
Jo Reed: When you were young your grandmother challenged you about the way you want to be remembered. Can you recall for us what that challenge was?
Wayne Valliere: My grandfathers, they were written throughout history by different non-Native history writers in the past going back as far as 150 years. But not only that, but in the stories of our people and our oral stories that go way back, all the way back to Madeline Island, which is the 1500s. We can from our mother we can retrace our grandfather all the way back to Madeline Island in the 1500s. She talked about each one of them because while he was the chief of all the Ojibwe of the Midwest at one time off Madeline Island, and all of Wisconsin Ojibwe. So his sons in the lineage of chieftainship that came down through our first grandfather that landed on Madeline Island. They were great men and they did great things for the people, and she challenged us as she talked to us and told us stories about these men, she challenged us also. She said, "Now look at your grandfathers, the ones that came before you, and what I challenge you guys, you young boys is what are your grandchildren going to say about you, what are the stories that are going to be written about you, what things are you going to do?"
Jo Reed: And finally when you've received so many awards, it's really extraordinary, and now you've been named a National Heritage Fellow, and I wonder what this award means for you.
Wayne Valliere: Well, it's very humbling, but also I accept this award on behalf of the Anishinaabe, the Anishinaabe, the Ojibwe Nation because ultimately the knowledge that I carry is not mine, it belongs to the Anishinaabe Nation, and I thank all of the, my teachers and people that have taken their time to show me these things, and also the promises I made to pass it down, how important it was to them not to hold onto it and make sure I pass it down so it stays alive, so that's it.
Jo Reed: Your work is so beautiful. Aside from its cultural importance, it is utterly gorgeous. Thank you, and congratulations and thank you for giving me your time.
Wayne Valliere: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That is birchbark canoe builder, teacher, culture bearer and 2020 NEA Heritage Fellow Wayne Valliere. Celebrate the 2020 National Heritage Fellows in an online broadcast on March 4, 2021 at 8pm ET at arts.gov. trust me, you really want to see Wayne at work. So mark the calendar for March 4!
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works and leave us a rating on Apple—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening
Anna Needham (Red Lake Anishinaabe) – Theater Artist and former NEA Intern
“The reason why I do theater is because I’m so interested in the way humans interact. I am somebody who’s interested in having a conversation with the audience, not at the audience…I’m thinking about how we have conversations and how we integrate ourselves into certain things and are able to activate laughter and empathy and then also have these uncomfortable truths come out and really actually talk about it.”
Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Anna Needham: Arizona has 22 tribal nations, 5% of the population is Native, and there is no Native theater company there. There’s no Native stories being told in those spaces and it’s something that really surprises me every time I really think about it because that space is such a rich area that has so much interest and tourism and just love of Native festivals and there’s so much interest and yet, these stories don’t feel like they’re actually being told in these spaces.
Jo Reed: That’s theater artist, indigenous rights advocate, and arts administrator, Anna Needham and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. This past February, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, in partnership with Native Arts and Cultures Foundation presented a convening on Native arts, humanities, and cultural heritage. The all-day event was filled with panels, breakout sessions, and performances. It was a busy and historic day with members of over 40 tribal nations and the heads of several federal agencies present. There were over 100 participating Native artists and arts administrators, including Anna Needham. Anna is a young emerging theater artist, which is typically an uneven career path, the performing arts being what they are. Add to the equation that Anna’s passion is Native theater and the road becomes that much more challenging. In truth, Anna’s name was familiar to me. I realized she had been an intern here in Folk and Traditional Arts and I thought her story as a young Native theater director would be an interesting podcast. Anna graciously agreed to talk with me when the convening broke for lunch. So, this podcast is shorter than usual because I wanted to be sure she got something to eat. I began by asking Anna about the morning session of the convening.
Anna Needham: The convening has been really incredible to be witness to Joy Harjo and people who I’ve been aspiring to meet is an incredible experience as somebody who’s an emerging professional. When we have gatherings like this, it’s allowing for information to actually be disseminated, the creation of partnerships, creating connections that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
Jo Reed: Now, I know your background is theater.
Anna Needham: Yes.
Jo Reed: Why theater? What drew you to theater?
Anna Needham: The reason why I do theater is because I’m so interested in the way humans interact. I am somebody who’s interested in having a conversation with the audience, not at the audience. I am interested in how we discuss relationships and that relationship includes relationship to land and so, when I’m doing theater, I’m thinking about how we have conversations and how we integrate ourselves into certain things and be able to activate laughter and empathy and then also have these uncomfortable truths come out and really actually talk about it.
Jo Reed: Now, you’re a citizen of the Red Lake Nation of the Ojibwe.
Anna Needham: Correct.
Jo Reed: I think a lot of people are surprised to hear that many Native Americans actually are dual citizens.
Anna Needham: Yes. It’s a thing that’s really shocking to people how much there is a nation-nation relationship that is in the Constitution, where treaties are the supreme law of the land in Article 6 and having that highlighted and recognizing that these treaties are important and there’s a relationship that’s built in from the beginning is something that I am really interested in highlighting in my work and discussing a contemporary way as people who are representing their nation but maybe don’t live there, just in the same way there are people here who are also citizens across the Atlantic can still be citizens also in America. I have the same thing where my tribe is in Minnesota, but I’m also based on Arizona and I’m still a citizen in the United States along with Red Lake Nation.
Jo Reed: And you were born in Colorado. Is that correct?
Anna Needham: Correct. I was born in Colorado and then raised in Arizona from age 8 to 18 and then went to school on the East Coast.
Jo Reed: Tell me when you first got interested in theater.
Anna Needham: Oh, goodness. When I started theater, it was actually because in second grade in Colorado, they were having our classes combine with third graders and so, they were taking their standardized tests and we were actually developing plays to show them-- doing readers theater, basically, and I was pulled for Mama Bear and I took it really seriously that I was conveying certain motions by having the stirring and making the props really something as part of my character and creating the sets and just having this whole experience of creating something that people would experience and get to enjoy was something that delighted me and then once I came to Arizona, I started becoming shy again and it wasn’t until sixth grade, where I did “The Jungle Book,” where I was able to open up again and actually say “Hey, I have a voice that needs to be sharing my stories and the ideas that I have,” and so, theater was kind of my gateway to that.
Jo Reed: You went to the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, which is a fabulous place for theater, I must say.
Anna Needham: Yes, incredibly.
Jo Reed: So, yay for that. Tell me what was some of the significant things that you got from Tisch that you’re just going to carry with you?
Anna Needham: So, when I was at Tisch, I went through the Playwrights Horizons theater school, which is a theater studio that I consider kind of the overachievers’ club. They have you focus your first year on doing everything design, directing, all these aspects of theater and being able to know how each of the things work and even if you’re not necessarily somebody who eventually does everything, although I still enjoy doing that, you can at least understand the different languages and terminologies that make up theater and so, what I got out of that was in my directing class, working with Mikhael Tara Garver. She really inspired me to understand the way in which context affects the story that you’re telling and that’s something that I take into my directing now, especially context of land and the histories that are there.
Jo Reed: Which, of course, is so central to Native Americans. I mean, it should be to all of us, but it is certainly central to Native Americans. Were there other Native voices at Tisch or were you a bit of the lone voice in the wilderness?
Anna Needham: It was lone voice, definitely. What was interesting is that I found out after I left New York that there was a Native theater community there, that Amerinda was like right near my freshmen dorm, but I felt so alone and didn’t feel like I could really share my voice in that space. I didn’t have Native actors that I could call on to be like “Oh, I can direct this Native play.” There wasn’t really anything about that. So, it became more of discussions of race and gender and these more expansive things about-- for example, I did “We’re Proud to Present a Presentation,” which deals with the genocide in Namibia but also deals with the histories right here in America, and so, that’s how I was able to integrate my indigeneity, but it was something that I had even mentioned when I lost my wallet in New York City and they found it and the police had, at that point, had to take out all my cards and had noticed my tribal ID and was asking me if I was Native and I said yes and the police officer was like “Oh, we don’t have really that many Natives in New York.” So, that idea of invisibility was something that I kind of had always in the back of my mind when I was in New York City.
Jo Reed: So, there was a way in which there were universal ideas that you could discuss in theater about race and about sex, etc. but the specificity of being Native American was something that was lacking.
Anna Needham: Correct. Yeah. It was something that I kind of always felt like when I was young because I was in suburbia. I was in a very white neighborhood and so, it was always kind of like a fun fact for me to share, rather than something that I brought constantly into my life and that’s something that changed once I came here to DC.
Jo Reed: You came here to DC because you were at GW and you were in the Native American Political Program.
Anna Needham: Yes. Their leadership program comes out of their AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy and so, I got a full scholarship to come here to DC and they have internships and that’s how I interned at the NEA and so, I was able to meet Native youth my own age for the first time and constantly be in conversation with them and at the same time, also meet with Native theater makers, like Mary Kathryn Nagle and Larissa FastHorse and really get to see what was possible beyond what I had just known in New York City.
Jo Reed: What led you to apply to that program? Were you feeling that discomfort in New York? Is that really what guided you to say “You know what? I have to own this.”
Anna Needham: A hundred percent. It was that and the kind of buildup in anxieties that were happening, where it was Standing Rock was happening and there was a lot of discussion about what it means to be Native, what does it look like to have Natives on screen, and so, I became kind of the point person to have these discussions once I was like “I am Native. I am Ojibwe. I am here to share that voice.” It was something where I wanted to be able to have the best information to share about tribal sovereignty and all these other issues that are part of being Native.
Jo Reed: Also, here at the NEA, you were with Folk and Traditional Arts, which is probably the agency’s strongest connection to Native communities.
Anna Needham: Right.
Jo Reed: Was that helpful as well? I’m sure it was helpful for us, but was it helpful for you?
Anna Needham: Yeah. It totally was. Cliff Murphy has been a fantastic mentor for me.
Jo Reed: And Cliff Murphy is the Director of Folk and Traditional Arts.
Anna Needham: Yes. He is somebody who made sure that it wasn’t solely a focus on traditional as in waves like it’s solely in the past, but traditional as “Here, we’re using these traditional elements, but there’s also a contemporary thing,” and then also recognizing that there’s contemporary artists that are doing work that has nothing to do-- you can be a native artist and not necessarily be traditional.
Jo Reed: I wonder if these two programs in some ways affected the way you’re looking at your art now.
Anna Needham: Yes. I would say it really made me realize that my voice is important to share, but also as a way that can be utilized to create a platform that can share other things and so, I’m able to create stories that can then have other Native actors and find people who are interested in engaging as techs and other things so that their stories can actually be shared and empower them to share their own stories and have the ability to by having these connections.
Jo Reed: It’s like creating an ecosystem.
Anna Needham: Completely. Yeah.
Jo Reed: Because Native playwrights, I’m assuming-- I shouldn’t assume. But do you think that Native actors should portray Native characters written by Native playwrights?
Anna Needham: I think so. It’s really a thing of these are the stories that we know. So, when I participated in the collaboration that happened between ASU Gammage and Cornerstone Theater Company with Larissa FastHorse’s “Native Nation,” that was a huge key thing, where it was the first time for many of these people being able to actually act as somebody who was in the contemporary moment able to talk about issues that were affecting them directly, where there was discussion of blood quantum and ICWA, where it’s the Indian Child Welfare Act, where we had somebody who was a lawyer as well as a playwright and was able to say “Oh, yeah, these are things that are directly affecting it and being able to help then shape the play to correctly portray that issue.”
Jo Reed: I would think one challenge-- and it’s certainly something that comes up when I speak to Native artists or arts administrators is the percentage of other Americans who really are not aware Native Americans literally exist. It is shocking.
Anna Needham: It is. It really is something that I’m interested in in focusing on contemporary moments versus anything else and making sure that there’s an understanding of how these issues affect us, but there’s also a joy in our community. There is different ways in which we’re interacting with technology and conversations on the internet and there’s this joy that lives in our spaces that I think also should be palpable within spaces that are not Native-centric or if they’re Native-centric, there should be a Native-led feeling to it and mission to it versus just the aesthetic of it, which is something that I think I’ve been witnessing a lot in my time in Arizona after my time here in DC and New York City.
Jo Reed: That you’ve been more aware of a Native aesthetic?
Anna Needham: Yes, the way in which there are certain elements that fit the Southwest Native aesthetic, but not necessarily an actual embedment of the leadership of those communities whose lands they’re on.
Jo Reed: Got it. It would seem to me that there’s kind of this dual track because on one hand, because so much of Native culture was attempted to be eradicated, there’s a reclamation of that and at the same time, there’s also speaking about the contemporary moment and I know these two things can certainly work together, but sometimes they’re a little antithetical too.
Anna Needham: Yeah. That’s a big thing I think that this convening is also trying to have a conversation about. What does it mean to be traditional? And the understanding that tradition can evolve and that’s what it should be doing-- that is not something that’s static and so, having the conversation of what it means and having that conversation in front of those who aren’t necessarily witnessing this conversation constantly, where it’s curators understanding that it shouldn’t just be an exhibit in the corner that’s native but there can be native artists embedded in the conversations that are happening, for example, at the Whitney or MoMA, where it’s embedded in the conversation versus being its own little corner.
Jo Reed: Got it. In other words, you don’t want to just enter the conversation in November when suddenly it’s Native American Heritage Month and you’re invited to come in.
Anna Needham: Yeah.
Jo Reed: You started off acting but you moved to directing. Why that switch?
Anna Needham: That was a time which I had witnessed in one of my-- when I was in school, where it was the continued mistreatment of actors as something that kind of felt like chess pieces more than collaborators and so, as being one of the actors in that process as well, I didn’t think it was right and I felt like there was something that I could do and I had an interest in directing already, but it was that moment where I felt the need to step up and say “If I’m a leader in the room, I’m going to make sure to center the humanity of these artists and center their mental health, their physical health, instead of a focus on a product that’s ephemeral.” So, that’s what led me to directing is the ability to be a real collaborator for these people.
Jo Reed: And I know you’re just starting out, but you’ve directed a couple of plays and I’m just wondering what that collaboration is like with you as the director with the playwright, with the actors, and with the audience.
Anna Needham: Yeah. I actually haven’t done a play where the playwright is in the room, but in terms of the cast, it’s really fun for me to witness what they come up with and then kind of find ways to refine it or see that they’re really somebody who’s an actor who lives constantly in their brain. So, how do I get them to physicalize it? How do I turn it on its head is something that I really enjoy as a doctor, kind of seeing how to get them out of their comfort zone but keep them safe. So, playing with that idea has been a real delight for me as a director and something that I’m interested in doing now in my time in Arizona with this new community that I found.
Jo Reed: Now, it’s very hard to get a directing job for anybody starting out. It’s hard. So, you’re a production assistant and you do lots of things, which not only builds your resume and your skillset and your network.
Anna Needham: A hundred percent. I mean, it’s interesting in Phoenix, where I don’t feel like I know quite yet the landscape of that theater community, but there was something with Michael John Garcés, who is the director of “Native Nation,” where he at least had acknowledged and was like “Oh, would you be interested in assistant directing with this play that was happening in Tucson?” But I think I’m interested also as a director in moving outside the typical structures that happen with directing, where it’s like “Oh, you have to get this job and then have this presenter do this thing,” and what happens when you’re also your own producer, I think, has been something I’ve been interested in and finding those partnerships in different ways outside of just traditional stage settings.
Jo Reed: Yeah and there’s a lot going on now. I mean, it’s a really, really interesting time in theater, I think.
Anna Needham: Yeah. I think theater is beginning again to see itself as something outside of a black box space, outside of a proscenium and being able to really recognize that experience and the place itself are important to the story, not just necessarily the words written down or the people telling it.
Jo Reed: Now, you’re also-- and I want to make sure I get the title correct-- you are also the Artist Program Coordinator for the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Did your time at the-- and be honest about this. I’m just curious. Did your time at the NEA sort of open up your eyes to the world of arts administration? Because God knows, it did for me.
Anna Needham: Yes. I say I always think that arts administration is a thing you kind of fall into. It’s not necessarily a thing where you’re like “Oh, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to be an arts administrator,” because my thing was that I really loved office clothes, kind of like that whole environment, but then I was also an artist and so, I was like “I don’t think these can ever join together.” So, when I was in New York, I did an internship in more of a commercial theater space and that made me realize that that was not my calling whatsoever. It was not-- profit-driven arts experience isn’t something that I was interested in. So, when I came to the NEA and was able to witness being on the grant making side, it was eye-opening that I could have these experiences where I’m building relationships and then give artists money and so, that’s what I get to do now, where it’s like I’m helping artists tell people about their work and figure out how grant writing can actually function and then get funding for that and make sure that they can not just get these fellowships that are for mid-career, but actually helping emerging artists craft what they want to become.
Jo Reed: How do your two careers in arts administration and in theater, how do they support one another?
Anna Needham: They’re extremely supportive, especially in relationship to the connections that I’ve made in both portions of it. So, at the Commission, we’re actually very-- I think everyone is a practicing artist. So, it’s constantly expected that you’re kind of doing both and that’s encouraged that you’re still continuing to practice as a way in which you can connect with the community and not just necessarily be a separate entity from it and so, I’ve found that it’s super helpful that I can do outreach because I’m just giving a card to somebody who’s like “Oh, my mom is an artist who does this,” and I’m like “Oh, perfect, she should apply for this grant. This is great,” or “I have a connection because of Native Nation,” “Oh, okay, I have a connection with Salt River. Let’s talk to them so that we can actually figure out how we can help fund them.” It’s these constant relationships that I get to build in both spaces that then cross over.
Jo Reed: And you’ve talked about you want theater that is presented in a context and have that context be geographical and I wonder as you see yourself in Arizona, how you place yourself there.
Anna Needham: Yeah. I have had a weird experience with growing up in Arizona. I think it’s always an interesting thing where you go back to where you were raised. But I’ve been becoming more confident in actually finding myself actively wanting to learn more about that space and see what happens when we have theater in that space because what’s actually happening in Minneapolis right now is there’s New Native Theater, who’s run by somebody who is Navajo. So, she’s working with my community up in Red Lake and doing work at the college there. So, it doesn’t feel wrong to me for working with the Natives that are in Arizona and that I’m able to have this dialogue happening, not just in my area but across the States.
Jo Reed: Okay and the hard question-- where do you want to see yourself in five years?
Anna Needham: Five years-- having already started an indigenous-led theater company in Arizona. It is a space that has 22 tribal nations, 5% of the population is Native, and there is no theater company there. There’s no Native stories being told in those spaces and it’s something that really surprises me every time I really think about it because that space is such a rich area that has so much interest and tourism and just love of Native festivals and there’s so much interest and yet, these stories don’t feel like they’re actually being told in these spaces. I think the last time there was a Native theater piece, I think it was a while ago where it was at least five years and so, having that be a constant rather than just a blip in the theater seasons is something that I’m really interested in actually seeing and bringing forth with others.
Jo Reed: Oh, I look forward to it when you do, Anna. Thank you so much for giving me your time. I appreciate it.
Anna Needham: Thank you. Miigwech. Thank you.
Jo Reed: Thank you. That’s theater artist and indigenous rights advocate Anna Needham. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts. So, please do and then leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
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Jeffrey Palmer (Kiowa) – Filmmaker
“In Kiowa tradition, we have a mode of speaking and the language actually changes in this mode too. It’s called storytelling mode, and you actually take on and embody that type of storytelling and your voice changes, and it’s performance…it’s an amazing thing that really can put you into a trance, which I think storytellers are supposed to do.”
Randy Reinholz (Choctaw) – Producing Artistic Director and Founder of Native Voices
“The aesthetic is reciprocity. If I bring something to the conversation, it’s to share with you. So that’s the reciprocity that marks Native theater. The story is alive. It grows. It’s not static, and it will always have some kind of generosity, even if it’s difficult or a tragedy.”
Music Credit: “Eagle Dreams” composed and performed live by 2016 National Heritage Fellow Bryan Akipa
Randy Reinholz: The aesthetic is reciprocity. If I bring something to the conversation, it’s to share with you. So that’s the reciprocity that marks native theater. The story is alive. It grows. It’s not static, and it will always have some kind of generosity, even if it’s difficult or a tragedy.
Jo Reed: That was Randy Reinholz—he’s Producing Artistic Director and Co-creator of Native Voices at the Autry and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Native Voices at the Autry is a Los Angeles theater company that produces new work by indigenous playwrights. Begun in 1994, it became the resident theatre company at the Autry Museum in 1999. Native Voices not only puts on equity productions of native work—it also nurtures new and emerging talent, providing workshops and retreats for writers and actors, creating staged readings for new work, and providing a platform established playwrights as well. Randy Reinholz who is a member of the Choctow nation is at the center of all of it … he started his career as an actor and has moved into directing with over seventy-five productions in the United States, Australia and Canada; he’s also playwright whose play Off the Rails—an adaptation of Shakespeare’s measure for measure set in Buffalo Bill's Wild West was produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. With Randy as producing artistic director Native Voices at the Autry has produced 32 plays, including 19 world premieres; 13 Playwrights Retreats; 22 New Play Festivals; 6 Short Play Festivals and more than 200 workshops and public staged readings. Just as significantly, it is deeply respected in both the Native American and theatre communities for its innovative artistry which highlights the unique points of view within the more than 500 Native American nations in North America. Like many successful programs, Native Voices was created to address an absence—not of talent but of opportunity.
Randy Reinholz: It was 1993. I’d just joined the faculty at Illinois State University, and my wife was also on faculty, Jean Bruce Scott, who is the cofounder of Native Voices. And essentially we were looking for a play that we might be able to produce there at Illinois State. It was kind of a homogeneous, mid-western state school, not very diverse, and the question came up, could we find a script that could reflect my culture. I’m an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Could we find that script, and then what would it look like if our students performed it? I didn’t know of any scripts, but I did know a lot of people in play development, so we started looking at those folks, started calling, seeing who knew what, and nobody really knew any more than I did, which was a little surprising. And one thing led to another. We found some folks. We worked through Native Earth in Toronto, a Canadian company, and then IAIA, Institute of American Indian Arts, and from there we brought some of those playwrights to campus at Illinois State in 1994. They started talking to each other quickly. We had panel discussions and so forth. We read their plays and they were really grateful to have their plays read out loud. One of the things that came up over and over again is in the United States, people hadn’t invited more than one native playwright to anything. And so to get to see each other’s work and start to think about how other people were approaching some of these topics of colonization was really, really good. They were excited. We did have a script that was filled with multicultural characters and one native character, and that’s called Now Look What You Made Me Do by Marie Clements--Marie has gone on to win the Governor General’s Award several times in Canada--and we produced that play the following year. The playwrights were so excited about being able to see each other’s work that we invited another cohort in. So the first year we had five. The second year we produced a play and brought in four more plays to read, and that became Native Voices.
Jo Reed: Well, obviously it’s so important to be able to have the voices and talent of Native American playwrights out there. One would think that you would want many of those parts to be in fact portrayed by Native American actors, so you can't just do one piece of the puzzle.
Randy Reinholz: There you go. That’s exactly right, and we were just looking for a play to produce at a university. Often the universities, we produce plays-- I’m still a professor. I’m at San Diego State now. We often produce plays where the actors aren’t quite age appropriate. Sometimes they’re not ethnic appropriate. But as we move into professional theater, of course we do want those things. And I think the other thing that’s part of that, when there aren’t people in the room who know native culture, so much of the rehearsal time is spent on Indian 101, just ideas, you know, basic ideas about how tribal enrollment works, what are issues on reservations, what are the federal programs, what are the basic history. People in the United States up until very recently were given misinformation about Native American history, and that’s I suspect because we’re very uncomfortable with the stolen lands and the broken treaties.
Jo Reed: Did you find that you really had to spread your wings and make it much more inclusive?
Randy Reinholz: Absolutely. And I got a new job, like I said, here at San Diego State, and we had been consulting with The Autry in Los Angeles about their programming and their institution, which they wanted to become more multicultural, and they’ve been incredibly successful.
Jo Reed: And that’s the Autry Museum of the American West.
Randy Reinholz: There we go. Right, right, they’re in Griffith Park. And as we started to talk, we were consulting on one of their major exhibitions called Powerful Images, the plan was it would start at The Autry and then a number of museums that focus on western culture, would take this exhibition. They asked our opinion about does it portray contemporary native people enough? The vision was powerful images of Native American people through American history. And, you know, the overwhelming criticism was it’s just too historicized if it constantly looks at native people in the past, and this is a surprising thing the research revealed. People who attended Western Heritage Museums believed by the factor of 85 percent that Native Americans were extinct, and that was really surprising, that what our informed audience should’ve been thinking. And so we really thought it was imperative, then, to have contemporary stories and contemporary images. If we only had images, it’s fed into that, even if they were contemporary. So a play a play became a way to put native people with native stories in front of an audience on a regular basis. And it was a good strategy, and that led to Native Voices at The Autry, and we’ve been there for 20 years.
Jo Reed: Before we get into some of the specific theater programs that are created and run by Native Voices — let’s hear an excerpt from a production. This is actor Román Zaragoza in They Don”t Talk Back which was written by Tlingit playwright Frank Henry Kaash Katasse and directed by Randy Reinholz…
Jo Reed: That was an excerpt from the Native Voices production They Don’t Talk Back… I know being an equity company is very important to Native Voices— Randy Reinholz explains why.
Randy Reinholz: My wife and I, Jean Bruce Scott, who founded the company, we started off as actors. We believed actors should be paid. Los Angeles is an interesting town. It’s a feast or famine place for a lot of actors. And so we thought we would work with the union to pay the actors a living wage. There’s a lot of people who pay actors in Los Angeles $20, $30 a performance and little to nothing for the rehearsal, so we really wanted to compensate the actors. The second piece of that was many of the actors would be Native Americans, people who didn’t often get a chance to play leads in plays at all, much less in film, so we thought that that would be equitable. So we’ve been on those equity contracts since 2001, so really proud of that. And, then, as you build a theater company and the actors are paid a working wage, you pretty much have to pay everybody in the room something. Again, a lot of theater in Los Angeles trades on good will, and we thought, well, everybody at least deserves minimum wage. And now we’re to the point where all the creative team gets paid the working wage, whatever the union representation is, whether it’s stage directors and choreographers or United Scenic Artists and so forth.
Jo Reed: And you also do, I have to say, something very near to my heart, which are free stage readings, which as a theatergoer is one of the things I just love.
Randy Reinholz: Thank you. I’m glad that you enjoy that. That makes up a big part of our audience. A lot of people are interested in what’s next or what might be on the margins that’s not quite capable of these productions that cost upwards of a million dollars. So the staged reading is a chance for the actors to show the playwright what the play sounds like, and to some extent, there’s some limited staging so we can see if tricky costume changes and so forth, do we have time for those sorts of things. They tend to take place in front of a music stand with very, very minimal staging, the actors have script in hand, and it really turns into an evening of the imagination, so the audience’s imagination really is deeply engaged. So we do those standalone readings. We do playwright’s retreats. I think we’ve done 15 radio plays through the years. We tour work. We work with youth groups. We have a special curriculum to go in to work in community. Often what’s really fun is when we have very established actors who always come back to Native Voices because they want to give back and they want to give particularly to native communities. And so they’ll go out to community and we’ll work with these young, usually junior high kids. They get so excited when they realize, “Oh, my gosh, my mentor from my play is from blah, blah movie or blah, blah television series.” So that makes it real, and a lot of native youth haven’t had people to look up to in the media. There’s been maybe one, two, three, and now you’re starting to see a lot of people making it in the media, in mainstream media, they’re mostly playing native roles, but sometimes they actually are playing things that aren’t ethnic specific, and it’s just because they’re talented actors.
Jo Reed: And the Festival of New Plays is a really important cornerstone.
Randy Reinholz: Correct. What we noticed early is that sometime-- most of the scripts that we receive-- we evaluate scripts once or twice a year. We have an open call. Everything’s on the web, Native Voices at The Autry. We have these calls, and a lot of times people would send us a script--and they’d been working on it two, four, five years--they were so close to it that it was really difficult for them to make any kinds of changes. And of course what happens when developing theater, there’s the thing I think I’ve written when I’m in my room reading it to myself, and then when other people read it back to me you hear so much. And, of course, the big thing, are there questions. What questions do the other artists ask, and that becomes really crucial. And of course, that’s the great story feedback that all writers need, and that’s what the retreat gives us, is a little bit of time. We read the script early. We have this company of actors. Usually we have 30 to 40 actors involved with this process. They’ve been involved-- I think we’re 25 years into this, yes, so they’ve done this kind of work a lot. Often they’ve seen the playwright’s work in other places, sometimes at Native Voices. Sometimes they have a relationship, so that becomes really integral artmaking, and I think it’s the way theater has been made for a long time, and we’re really grateful to be able to do that. It gives us about a week to be together, ask questions. The writers are not from Los Angeles, so there’s also a little camaraderie or community that starts to build. We make sure we have a number of community meals and so forth. We always have representatives from the local tribal government, so Gabrielino-Tongva is the land, the traditional lands of where The Autry sits, so we often start off with blessings and recognition of the land, and then really great conversations about, “Well, where are you from?” “How do you do this?” “How do your people--” “Really? We do-- we don’t do it like that. We do it like this.”
Jo Reed: You’ve been doing this for a generation, which is extraordinary, so I wonder if there were issues that native writers perhaps were focusing on when you first began and what they were, and whether you’ve seen a shift over time.
Randy Reinholz: Sure. We really do feel that we kind of have an insight into what are the issues in Indian country. Often when a group gets their voice back, the conversation is about oppression, what that feels like, all the forms it takes. That was with the early days in the early plays that we looked at. Then it was about oppression and how abuse was central to that, whether it was being abused, having been abused, learning to become an abuser, and then all the forms abuse takes: alcohol, sex, drugs, and so forth, violence. Then as tribal gaming comes into play, the question of, well, who’s really native and what does it mean? And, of course, the big insult you can throw at someone when you’re in a community of color is to say, “But you’re not really,” and then fill in the thing that we all say we are, and we pick someone out to beat them up for not being that. So that becomes a question of who’s what. A question we’re seeing right now, there’s tremendous violence against native women that’s rampant in the country. Native women, four out of five experience sexual violence. A native woman is 10 times more likely to be murdered than the regular population. The suicide rate in communities waffles between five times the national average up to ten times the national average. What’s causing that, and how do we start to pull apart this epidemic of murdered and missing women? How do we start writing plays that start to hold the law enforcement agencies accountable? The population that’s most likely to be killed by a law enforcement officer is a native person. So bringing those kinds of issues to the floor are part of the plots of the different stories we’re looking at. That’s a big deal right now.
Jo Reed: And let me just ask you, what’s the gender balance like with the participants in Native Voices?
Randy Reinholz: We probably have a few more women than men as actors. We’ve been pretty balanced in the number of plays we’ve produced. We tend to produce plays by women as often as by men, which is not in line with the professional theater. The professional theater has not been particularly good at that historically. We have gender balance both by playwrights, directors, and actors and also the rest of the creative staff becomes important. And we’ve also become a center for people particularly here in the southwest but on the west coast not only for casting, which makes a lot of sense that people would come to us, particularly large resourced institutions looking for casting, but people are asking us about, “Hey, we have an entry level position for a stage manager,” you know, that sort of thing, and so people are proactively seeking our talent out to engage them to round out the whole field.
Jo Reed: Of course, that allows, as you mentioned earlier, Native American kids who can then look and say, “Oh, it’s possible to have a career in theater.”
Randy Reinholz: Absolutely. And we don’t get out into community as much as we like because it’s really expensive, and native communities don’t have a lot of resources to host us, so that is something we’ve been looking at. You know, how do we rebalance? Ever since the Great Recession that’s been a real problem. But we do bring youth in, and last year I had a play called Off the Rails, which was at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and it’s an adaptation of a Shakespeare, Measure for Measure. But it’s set in the old west, the 1880s, and the backdrop is the American Indian boarding school system, which is a very difficult piece of American history that a lot of Americans don’t know. But since it was set against the boarding school, it has a lot of youthful characters in it. We knew a lot of students would come see the play. And I think a lot of young people-- they saw themselves in those characters. It was a really interesting way for young people to view Shakespeare and the old west. And we did get a lot of native kids to the show. But, of course, the kids, what they recognized, the native kids, were the dances. One of the characters is written so that it’s always played by a culture bearer from the region, and so that character, informs the end of the play with dances that are recognizable to people from the region. And so when those young native kids saw all those dances on stage, some of them would hop up and dance at the seat. Bill Rouche, the director, he’s so smart. He just invites the audience to come on stage. And the kids would rush down to be part of that dance, because they were taking stage in a power arena, and their culture was being celebrated.
Jo Reed: There are so many ways I want to go with this, but let me just ask you this first. Is there an aesthetic, do you think, that’s distinctly native that’s being brought on the stage through the work that you’re doing at Native Voices?
Randy Reinholz: The aesthetic is reciprocity. If I bring something to the conversation, it’s to share with you. And then as I share that story, you start to share your story, which all the sudden causes Collin over here behind the desk to say, “Huh, that reminds me of my story,” and then he tells his story. And after I’ve heard those stories, I understand my story in a deeper, more meaningful way that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t shared it with you in the beginning. So that’s the reciprocity that marks native theater. The story is alive. It grows. It’s not static, and it will always have some kind of generosity, even if it’s difficult or a tragedy.
Jo Reed: And do you see the plays over the years kind of in dialog with each other, in conversation with each other?
Randy Reinholz: Absolutely. To some extent, having a stage, a dedicated stage, a time of year when these stories happen and a place, has been super empowering. And of course what’s happened is, is it sort of exploded in a very good way, native theater that is. So like last year we had three plays in major venues by native women at the same time, whereas five years before you wouldn’t have had a show by a native woman in a major venue the entire year. So people want these stories. It’s not to commercial theater yet. I would like to see a native play on Broadway, but I’m not saying I think there’s gonna be one next week. But rather I think the major not-for-profit theater companies are starting to realize if they’re in dialog, not only do native communities want to see native plays, but theatergoers want to see native plays. I think theatergoers have an appetite for the country where we live, and we want to see all of these important ideas on stage, not only the entertainment or the great craft.
Jo Reed: I want to get back to The Autry for just one second. Do you work with the curatorial staff at all at The Autry so that the plays and the exhibits, there can be a kind of symmetry?
Randy Reinholz: Yeah, they’re in dialogue, absolutely. As you said, the plays are in dialogue with each other, and whether we plan it or not, our patrons come see our plays. And if things go well, they’re curious and want to go inside the building, the museum. There are lot of rotating exhibitions. And about 12 years ago I guess now, The Autry merged with the Southwest Museum, which was the first museum in Los Angeles. I think there are 300,000 or 400,000 Native American objects in the Southwest collection that has been merged together and preserved with The Autry collection. And then the ARC is about to open, which is the Autry Research which will be a really large facility in some ways based on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indians’ Maryland Complex. So you can go arrange a trip out to Maryland, and you can look at specific objects based on geography or time. And you have to be a researcher and you have to be pretty clear about what you want. One time I was doing a play there, so they offered this to me, so I was shocked when I went out there. My favorite story from that memory is, is when I went there they said, “Well, there’s a room to pray if you want to pray before you see the objects, and of course you might need it after you leave.” And I thought, pray, huh? Well, that’s really thoughtful. “I won't need that. I really appreciate you. Thank you.” So then I get in there. I get on the Genie lift. I pull out the drawer, and I start looking at these objects, and I realize I’m crying, and I can't control myself. And I was shocked. Like, I’m just not this kind of person. It doesn’t happen very often. And I was like, I’d better lower the Genie lift and go find that prayer room <laughs> and calm down.
Jo Reed: Wow.
Randy Reinholz: So it’s amazing that when people with these backgrounds connect with things from their culture, often objects that were taken -- many objects in museums were intended to be grave, burial, funeral objects. And of course, The Autry is incredibly vigorous about NAGPRA and repatriation and holding onto objects and preserving them until the culture bearers for the places that they belong are in a position to make sure that they’re gonna last for generations. And it’s a fascinating piece of American history to be part of. So, yes, we are involved with curatorial and we do hear these conversations. We often are thinking about how does the play we’re planning on doing next connect with things?
Jo Reed: Funding is never easy, and I know you’ve gotten grants over the years from a number of organizations, including the National Endowment for the Arts.
Randy Reinholz: Yeah, I mean because you and I are talking, it’s gonna sound like I’m sucking up to you. It was super important that we were recognized by the NEA because in the field of theater when we started presenting plays by Native Americans, the professional theater really treated us as if we were cute children in that of course they should be applauded for what they’re doing, but it’s not real theater because we do real theater and none of them are ever in our theaters. That’s a hard Catch-22 to overcome. Again, that was why we started working with union contracts, so we could get working professionals that the professional theater companies recognized working with us, and then they could go out in the community and talk about our professionalism. It was because of the funding of the NEA that we could make those bold choices and commitments. And, again, in Los Angeles, when we said we’re paying a working wage based on union minimums, they were shocked, because many of the people who denigrated our work weren’t paying people. And the NEA gave us the faith to say we’re gonna do this and we’re gonna do it for a period of time -- it’s the backbone. It’s the gold standard in American art, particularly for startup companies. We’d only been I think producing five years when we first got our first NEA grant. Well, then the city and the county came on. Well, then we had the NEA, the city, the county, and then corporate funders started to come on, and then in the Great Recession, we started having individual donors come on. And of course, that’s the mix that any not-for-profit needs to be sustainable. And the NEA has been through there for us the whole time. Sometimes the NEA had more capacity than others and sometimes maybe our work merited it more than others, but it was exciting to say that we are funded by the NEA. And then because we were funded by the NEA, I started being invited to serve on NEA panels, and then from serving on NEA panels, I started serving on panels for granting organizations all over the country, which has helped keep native voices aware of best practices, to be deeply involved in community, to bring the best artistic practices they can to those projects, and then to make art that is breathtaking. It’s not just, “oh, it’s good because of those poor people getting a chance to do something.” It actually ends up being the innovative art that changes the way things get done.
Jo Reed: You have supported a generation, which is-- congratulations.
Randy Reinholz: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That is a wonderful thing. What has surprised you doing this work?
Randy Reinholz: I guess, you know, I had faith that the talent was there. I had faith that the talent would be deep and important beyond just the culture. And watching these artists whose personas and whose work is grounded in these ancient ways of working find ways to adapt to become innovators in the field, I think that’s the thing that’s the most exciting. I think we’ve often thought that the way people succeed is to make compromises, and I think what happens is real culture that’s important actually informs what the emerging culture of the country wants to be. And, of course, we’re at this crossroads of, what will our culture be as a country? And it’s great to see that people who have had resiliency for hundreds and hundreds of years are actually being looked to to model what are some next steps. That’s exciting.
Jo Reed: And what do you want to see for the generation to come?
Randy Reinholz: We’re always thinking about the past and what needs to happen next. One of our goals is to have a very successful succession process. So my wife and I are cofounders. Next year is the 25th anniversary, and we’re hoping to announce the new leadership of Native Voices as that season rolls out. I’m not quite sure when and how that’s gonna happen, but we are starting to engage in conversations with people. So looking for that succession, looking to have this next generation of artists define what they want the role of the senior elders in the process to be, like myself. So looking for that next generation to take over the leadership, the visioning, building on what’s worked in the past but also defining what really needs to happen next, that’s what’s exciting. That’s what I want to continue to see. I want to see these artists that are going off and working in these professional venues and being paid well to keep coming back to Native Voices to find ways to plug in and give back to this company of artists, the new generation of artists, and that’s been happening. I want to see that happen more.
Jo Reed: Fair enough. Well, Randy, thank you. Thank you for giving me your time, and thank you for your extraordinary work over the past 24 years.
Randy Reinholz: And thank you for bringing the attention of the NEA to people across the country. It’s so vital, this work, and I know it’s not a lot of money in the world of billionaires, but it’s so crucial because the process is so rigorous. But year in and year out, the NEA has picked a lot of winners, and that’s exciting to be part of that legacy.
Jo Reed: Yes, indeed. It is on this end, too.Thank you.
That was Randy Reinholz—he’s Producing Artistic Director and co-creator of Native Voices at the Autry —You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works where ever you get your podcasts. So please do and leave us a rating on Apple—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.