Muriel Miguel

Artistic director and founding member of Spiderwoman Theater
Headshot of a woman.
Photo courtesy of Spiderwoman Theater

Music Credit: Incidental guitar music composed and performed by Jorge F. Hernandez

Jo Reed: Welcome to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed.

Forty years ago, Muriel Miguel with her sisters Gloria and Lisa created Spiderwoman Theater-- which became an indigenous women's theater ensemble that blends traditional native art forms with Western theater. Named after the Spiderwoman deity from Hopi mythology, it was the first Native American women's theater troupe. Its aim was and is: to be a voice for native women, to disrupt stereotypes, and to shine a light on little-known stories. Since its inception, Spiderwoman Theater has written and produced over twenty original works for the theatre…most of them directed by Muriel Miguel. A multi-talented actor, choreographer, playwright and visionary, Muriel also served as the company’s artistic director since it began. She joined me in the studio for an interview about the theatre, but when I began by asking her about Spiderwoman, she gently schooled me in proper native protocol.

Muriel Miguel: I have to introduce myself. Many years ago I was doing a panel, and it was my daughter, myself and we were talking about theater. And it was mostly a native audience. And after we were finished talking, one little Indian lady got up and said, "So who are you?" And I realized, I didn't follow the protocol. So I promised myself I would always follow the protocol, no matter where I am. And so it means I have to tell you my whole background before I even say anything. All right?

Jo Reed: I'm happy for it. That was going to be my second question. But we can start there.

Muriel Miguel: Okay, okay. Okay! My name is Muriel Miguel. My other name is Bright Sun, and my other name is Waga Nadili. I am from two different nations. I am from the Kuna Yala, they're off the coast of Panama. And I come from Rappahannock, which is in Virginia. My mother and father, they met in Brooklyn, they married in Brooklyn, and they had three daughters in Brooklyn, so I am truly a city Indian. I come from a Star family. And I am the third daughter from the Stars.

Jo Reed: What is a Star family?

Muriel Miguel: It's part of the Creation stories of how the Kuna began and where they came from. And they came from the stars. And I happen to be part of that Star family, in what you, I guess, would call clan. So that's really important to say what I just said. <laughs>

Jo Reed: I wanted to hear about you growing up. Tell me what it was like growing up. Being a city Indian, living with your two sisters in Brooklyn.

Muriel Miguel: I grew up in an Italian neighborhood, a native in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, and I went to all the elementary schools and high schools in Brooklyn. And sometimes it was very hard. It was hard because people had no idea who you were. And so because they didn't understand you, they would make fun of you. And so that was very hard. They would call my father, "Tonto," "Chief," they would call my mother "Straga," which is "witch." So I learned to be very-very hard shell on me. And that's how I grew up in Brooklyn. What saved me was that in the neighborhood, and in the vicinity of where we were growing up, I was growing up-- my sisters are older than me-- there were many native people, they came down from Canada. The iron workers came from Canada. They came from across the country. It was the end of these big Wild West shows, and a lot of those native families came across to come to New York. And a lot of people settled in Brooklyn. A lot of people got stranded there and started to live there.

Jo Reed: It’s hard for some people to remember but until 1978, Native People were prohibited by U.S. law from practicing their religions. But NYC was its own universe.

Muriel Miguel: When I was growing up, there was this-- a government act, it was a religious act with that, said that native people could not practice their religions. The sun dance, the ghost dance, left out a lot of things. So a lot of medicine people, a lot of people that just left their reservations and came to New York City. And there they found a very fertilized soil of young people that grew up that were native that grew up in the city, and they taught us dances; the sun dances, the ghost dances. They taught us songs. They told us stories. You were in New York City. No one cared if you sang all night or taught dances. And that's how we grew up, many of us, in New York City.

Jo Reed: And were you hungry for those stories?

Muriel Miguel: Oh, yes, very hungry. We wanted to dance; we wanted to sing. It was hard in school because they told us our culture was dead. And we knew it wasn't dead! We lived among <laughs> we lived in it! We were sitting in it. And so we would say, "That's not true," and we got into a lot of trouble. A lot of us got into trouble. Brought to the principal's office. That type of thing, because we would contradict the teachers. And then we decided at a very young age; we were like ten/twelve, something like that, that we would start a group. And we started a group called Little Eagles. We started it in a church. We had a lot of different young people come in. All the families were very excited that we decided to do that. And we just learned these songs, we learned the dances, and then we all started to swap. Like different people did different things different ways. And that was really what saved us. You know, that we went into schools. We talked about our culture.

Jo Reed: Muriel’s family were not strangers to their culture. In fact, her older sisters had performed native dances and songs for tourists with their father at so-called Indian Villages. And Muriel sometimes went along.

Muriel Miguel: My father and all those people that came with the rodeos, and all those people were show biz Indians. There were many of families, and they were families, that came across the States or came down from Canada, came up from South America, and they really did showbiz. They would go in all sorts of place, resorts and so on, and dance for the public. And that is what I remember also. I mean, that's what really got me interested in dancing as a profession. Not only native dancing, but I went to school to learn dance.

Jo Reed: You had two parallel tracks going on.

Muriel Miguel: Yes.

Jo Reed: Did you begin as a dancer?

Muriel Miguel: <laughs> Again, I had two older sisters who said that I could do anything. And they decided they would give me all the colonial stuff that people say it makes a success. They wanted to give me piano lessons and French lessons, and <laughs> they also gave me dance lessons. And with the dance lessons, I was very interested, because at that time, didn't speak much. And I started to dance really; I was like 13, 12/13, I started to dance, modern dance. I did all of that, and it was really separate. Really separate from doing native dance, because that was my life, and I kept that aside.

Jo Reed: Muriel became involved in the NY avant-garde theater scene and was one of the early members of Open Theater where she worked Joe Chaikin.

Muriel Miguel: One of the early members with me was Sam Shephard, Jerry Ragni, who did Hair. All these people, it was wonderful! It was wonderful and exciting. Talking Band came out of that. Medicine Show came out of that. Spiderwoman came out of that. Because it was so, again, fertile. You know, we were just dying for this kind of thinking and working and exploring.

Jo Reed: Well, explain what it was. Explain what the attraction to Open Theater was for you.

Muriel Miguel: Well, again, I was a crazy little girl. And crazy little girl meant that I've always felt, even in dance class, that I was going the wrong way. Everyone was swimming downstream; I was swimming upstream. And so in choreography, I would come up with really way out things for that time. And I realized that <laughs>, no one understood what I was doing or trying to do.

Jo Reed: It was pure chance that led her to a workshop at Open Theater with Joe Chaikin.

Muriel Miguel: I understood right away. I clicked in right away. I understood sound mixed with movement, and I understood movement and how working movement can bring the energy into a scene. And so then the plays were really wonderful. We were all at La MaMa.

Jo Reed: … And La Mama is an independent non-profit theater in NYC that would stage cutting edge productions.

Muriel Miguel: Yes. That’s right. All these people were there writing plays, or we were working on plays without a script, pieces that we brought in and how does one connect to another. That was all happening at the same time.

Jo Reed: Now from there, we go to Spiderwoman Theater. Now tell me what you wanted to do with Spiderwoman Theater that you weren't doing at Open Theater.

Muriel Miguel: Well, what I found interesting was that I started to feel like I really have to put together my background with what I'm doing. And how that happened was that Joe discovered storytelling. And they would all say to me how, "Muriel, you're such a wonderful storyteller." <laughs> You know? And I felt, "Oh, yeah!" You know? <laughs>

Jo Reed: "I know a thing or two!"

Muriel Miguel: I mean, I always told stories since I was a baby. I would be hiding under the kitchen table, you know, to hear all the family secrets. How Uncle Joe married Aunt Mary, or you know, who was going with whom, and all the juicy stuff. And they were wonderful stories! And I realized that I had that feeling of what the story was. I had the feeling of how do you make something important? How do you repeat it? All of that stuff started to come. And when I left Open Theater, I really wanted to really look into storytelling, because traditionally that's what we do. At the same time, it was the beginning of the feminist movement. And I really wanted to work with women. I wanted women's stories, because that was not happening. And this over 40 years ago. And I wanted to tell these stories, and so I had workshops all over. And then I got a CAP grant from New York State Council. And I was asked to do a piece at the Washington Square Methodist Church, which is now a condo. And I asked my best friend, Josie and I also asked another woman that I was interested in working with, she's Lois Weaver from Split Britches, and so we did a piece. And Spiderwoman is a Creation stories. And it's the beginning of the beginning. And Josie wanted to tell those stories. I just came back from the Sun Dance, and I told a story of talking to a butterfly. And the other woman, Lois, she told a story about Jesus. She was a white Southern gal, a Baptist. And I put-- I ran a film of water running, and I put it through all three of us as we were talking, and the water just ran. And I started to work on the idea of what it means to story-weave, and how do you get the story weaving? And when do you all agree on one word? And how does that word expand? And thinking about the breath and different words, because we're telling three different stories, but really they're one story of Creation. So I was excited, and I decided that now was the time I had to really start my group. And I was going to call it Spiderwoman. And so that's what I did. I got money to explore it. And I knew I wanted to look at violence, and I wanted to look at women, and I wanted to tell women's stories.

Jo Reed: Muriel Miguel wanted to tell stories about the impact of violence on women; she wanted to do this combining native and western tradition. She asked her sisters, both of whom were studying theater, to join her in forming Spiderwoman Theatre.

Muriel Miguel: I wanted to work with them because I thought it was important to work with them. Don't ask me why I thought it was important. <laughs> It was very hard! But my older sister thought I was too avant-garde for her. You know, she would say things like, "Oh, my god! She stands on her head!" <laughter> "She does yoga! Oh, god!" You know, "Ew, ew, ew!" But my other sister was really interested, and we worked in a studio at West Beth. And I asked certain women to work. And we talked about violence. And that's how it really started.

Jo Reed: And were you focusing at that point on native women?

Muriel Miguel: No.

Jo Reed: Indigenous women? It was women in general.

Muriel Miguel: Women in general.

Jo Reed: Spiderwoman’s first piece Women in Violence created a sensation. It opened in New York and toured around the US and Europe.

Muriel Miguel: It was a big piece. <laughs> And it was so shocking. We shocked everybody with this piece.

Jo Reed: What did people find shocking? That you would talk about it?

Muriel Miguel: Well, we talked about things, we talked about penises, we talked about men feeling women up and what women can do about it. We talked about rape. We talked about a lot of things that, especially in Europe, they were not talking about.

Jo Reed: It was challenging theater and staged brilliantly with simple lighting and a backdrop made of different quilts and native materials that would become a trademark of Spiderwoman Theatre.

Muriel Miguel: When I was sun dancing. I received from many people quilts, and I brought it home with me. They were all these patch work quilts and material, and I would put them out on the floor of the studio and look at them and think about what I wanted to do with them. And then my sister Gloria came back from came back from Kona Yala, and she had a huge "mola," which is traditional tapestry of Kunas. And so we put that in it. And then my other sister said she had material. And then I started to ask the other women what they had. And so we started to create this very big quilt. So now it's very huge, and all the women that have passed through Spiderwoman have put things into the quilt. And that's our quilt.

Jo Reed: From the quilt to the topic, to the manner of story-telling…. no one had ever seen anything like Spiderwoman… and soon they were being invited to theater festivals around the world.

Muriel Miguel: We worked so hard. The first year that we went to the Dansie Festival, and it was wonderful! And people wanted us. And so we were supposed to stay a couple of weeks, and we stayed, I don't know, like a month. So then we came back again with Women and Violence, and we stayed like six months. And by that time, we weren't talking to each other. <laughs> We hated each other. <laughs> And then there was a big split and so on.

Jo Reed: The split came in 1981—with some of the women going off to start the theater troupe Split Britches, but Muriel and her sisters, Lisa and Gloria stayed with Spiderwoman and decided to do a piece that focused on their background.

Muriel Miguel: At that point, we started to think that we really have to look about who we are. And I wanted to do a piece about growing up native in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. And so I also found all these old, old films that my uncle took. He bought a camera, and he took all these pictures. And some of them were old powwow pictures, and some of them were just the family. And so I used that, and I used my sisters talking about growing up and how different it was for them growing up than for me growing up. And we made a piece called Sun, Moon, and Feather, and that's our native names. We took this piece all over, and one of the places we took it was to Harbor Front in Canada. And after the show, these three little girls came up to us. And they said, "Hello, my name is Elizabeth," she said to my oldest sister. Another one said, "My name is Gloria." And the other one said, "My name is Muriel."

Jo Reed: And these are your names? They were naming themselves after you.

Muriel Miguel: And so we were looking at these three kids, you know, and the mother said, "This is the first time they've ever seen women of the same color as they are onstage. And you are their models." And we were like shocked, because we were so busy, trying to make a living that we didn't even think in those terms. And it was then I realized, "Oh, my, we're role models. We're role models and we never even thought about it." And that began a whole new era for us at how we look at our pieces and what we say, and even how we act.

Jo Reed: With Spiderwoman Theater, as she said, the focus sort of morphed into looking at the stories of native women.

Muriel Miguel: Yes.

Jo Reed: And some of them obviously are difficult. But no matter what story Spiderwoman is telling it's always known for its humor.

Muriel Miguel: Yes. Well, as my older sister would say, "But darling, it's not funny!" <laughs> She would say. <laughs> You'd have to step back and look at it and say, "No, it's not funny." Look, if you keep on hitting people over the head, all they can say is, "Ouch." And that's all they think about. So if you can get them and catch them at times when they're laughing, and you really get them to understand something, it's an "Aha!" moment for everybody. And that's how I look at it. And that was the fun part of it. Now when Spiderwoman, you know, and the first one we told such dirty jokes, and such awful jokes, no one could believe it. And after we'd tell the joke, we would just give-- you know, we'd stick out our tongue and give them a raspberry. You know?

Jo Reed: Well now, 40 years on you're doing a story that in some way, it's almost full circle. It's called Material Witness.

Muriel Miguel: Right.

Jo Reed: … and Material Witness looks specifically at violence against Native women. How did this project start?

Muriel Miguel: I did another piece called Throwaway Kids. I did this at BANF. And I used native dancers, and when these two native dancers opened their own studio up in Nipissing, in Canada, on their reservation, they asked me if I would come and do parts of Throwaway Kids for the opening of their studio. And I took a section of it, which was about being beaten, and what happens. It was a whole section, and it's all in dance. And afterwards, I was really shocked at how women came up to me. You know, women were crying. Women talked to me about how they were beaten. And how their children were beaten. And I was saying to myself, "I'm just an actor, you know? I'm just a director. I'm not a counselor." And how do you get past that and not feel cheap, that you're taking something from someone. And I started to think about it and think about what happened in the United States and in Canada. If a man beats a woman, you know, there's no tolerance anymore. He goes to jail. He's taken away. But that has not happened to most native women. It has happened all around us, but it's the same where we are. So I was thinking about that thing. At that time, it was 35 years, 35 years I'd been working, and nothing has changed in our communities. So how do we-- how do we shine the light on it? How do we talk about it? How do we heal? How do we make people feel that they can be healed? So we went in, and we did many workshops talking to women. And then we thought of doing a fabric workshop because we were already doing workshops with drawings and so on. So we started to take just fabric and buttons and bows and anything, anything. We started to ask people to come and find material that makes you think of yourself.

Jo Reed: Muriel then began to ask the women a series of questions, and they would answer by placing an appropriate piece of material on the table. One piece layered on top of another each representing an answer to another question.

Muriel Miguel: "What is your secret? Is it a dark secret? What do you think of your life?" And at the end, the last layer is your legacy. What do you want to leave behind? And women would sit there and then they would explain their patch. And all kinds of stories came out. Sometimes people cried, sometimes people laughed. We all laughed. And we gave food, we gave tea, we made bean soup, and it was very heartening. It was very wonderful to sit amongst all these women and have them laugh and let us laugh with them. And then we asked them if they wanted to give us this patchwork that they did, and we would carry their stories with us. We don't necessarily tell that story, but we have the patch that tells that story. And some women wanted to keep them, and some women wanted to put it in our quilts. And that's what we did, and we went to various reservations and reserves, and women were quite committed. And they really made big quilts, and some of them just gave us material and things to put in the quilts. And that's how we started Material Witness.

Jo Reed: Let me ask you this about Material Witness, because the cast is all indigenous women.

Muriel Miguel: Right.

Jo Reed: What about the audience? Where is it performed? And who is the audience, typically?

Muriel Miguel: The audience is everybody! We do go on reservations and reserves. We just finished a gig in Toronto at the Living Ritual Festival. And that audience was everybody. And men, too. And one man said to me after the show, "You know, I have a responsibility here." And he was a Mauri man. He said, "I don't know what it is, I don't what happened to me looking at your piece, but I know I have a responsibility." I said, "Oh, wow!" "Yes!"

Jo Reed: Part of what you wanted to do with Spiderwoman Theater is to tell stories that really hadn't been told.

Muriel Miguel: That's right.

Jo Reed: What is it, do you think, about telling those stories and hearing those stories that can be so transformative?

Muriel Miguel: For us, there's so many stories that we have kept secret. There are so many stories that as soon as you start it, people say, "She can't tell that story." And that once you tell the story, it's a freedom! It's freedom! It's out in the air. It's there. Your words are out in the air. Looking at how does it affect you now? How does it affect you that you can tell this story? How do you understand the story now? That's what was, for me, is so important. I mean, my sister, my older sister said to me, she never had violence in her life. And <laughs> I couldn't believe that she was saying this to me because they were-- "Did we have the same mother and father?" <laughs> "The same family?" <laughs> You know? Because all that violence that came in with a father that drank and drank and drank. Where it was like almost normal to have alcoholics in your family. That’s a big thing to fight against. And sometimes people just close off and won't look at it at all. I wanted to look at that. I wanted to look right in the face, and say, "This is where I came from, and this is where I am now. And this is how I understand."

Jo Reed: That is Muriel Miguel; she’s artistic director and founding member of Spiderwoman Theater. Find out more about their work at You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed thanks for listening.

<Musical Postlude>

Forty years on, the first Native-American women’s theater is still going strong.