A Compelling Way of Understanding the World: A Conversation with Jacqueline Shea Murphy | By Marie Tollon

At the beginning of the performance part of SHORE, Minneapolis-based choreographer Emily Johnson stands on a wooden box and tells the crowd gathered outdoors: “There’s a story that I’ve been meaning to tell you for a really long time, except that I don’t remember the beginning, which makes me think about all the things in my life that I don’t remember.” She pauses, before asking: “Do you remember?” She goes on, telling a story that connects her, and her viewers, to the land she is performing on. With her narrative, Johnson touches upon a collective memory bank – the stories, events, feelings that exist within our DNA. In addition to conjuring up links to an archaic past, the artist also exposes the transformative power of live performance: its ability to engage us as active participants in a journey of remembering and rediscovering essential pieces of our identity.

Emily Johnson  in "SHORE" Photo by Erin Westover

Emily Johnson
in “SHORE”
Photo by Erin Westover

Of Yup’ik descent, Johnson, whose piece SHORE in Yelamu (San Francisco) will be presented at ODC next week, is one of the Indigenous choreographers that scholar Jacqueline Shea Murphy evoked during her presentation of Here and Now: Indigenous Presence and the Contemporary Choreography of Emily Johnson/Catalyst and DANCING EARTH at Stanford Colloquium on Dance Studies last May. Shea Murphy is an Associate Professor of Critical Dance Studies and Chair of the Dance Department at UC-Riverside. She is the author of “The People Have Never Stopped Dancing”: Native American Modern Dance Histories (University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

In anticipation of SHORE, and Minneapolis-based choreographer Rosy Simas’ We Wait In The Darkness, which will be presented at ODC in October, Shea Murphy and I talked about contemporary Indigenous dance over the phone early this summer.

Marie Tollon: How did you come to research and write about Indigenous dance?

Jacqueline Shea Murphy: I came to write about Indigenous dance through literary studies. I was an English PhD student. As part of my literary studies, I was studying narrative theory and I was looking around for ways of thinking about storytelling and narrative that were different from what I was being taught. I became interested in and started reading a lot of Native American literary theory about Native American narrative. At the same time, I was looking at dance as a form of alternative narrative, a way of telling stories that wasn’t what I had been taught in graduate school. Because I was reading Native American literary studies, thinking a lot about the ways that storytelling connects people, and because I was also writing about dance and thinking about the way that dance connects people, how it works to make meaning in a way different perhaps than writing- I put them together. Eventually, I started to think about how they were working in similar ways.

Jacqueline Shea Murphy Photo by Bashir Anastas

Jacqueline Shea Murphy
Photo by Bashir Anastas

Then I was reading about Martha Graham who made a famous comment in one of her essays about “the Indian and the Negro” as sources of great importance in American modern dance. There were quite a lot of dance scholars writing about African American dance, but no one was writing about Native American dance and its contribution to American modern dance history. So my first book was provoked by that comment and made me want to understand why no one was writing about Native American dance history in relation to modern dance history. And that sent me on a long journey to study the history of Native American dance in relationship to dance history and to U.S. and Canadian political history, and to get to know and learn from and with and about contemporary Native American and other Indigenous choreographers. In the process of researching that book, I met many Native choreographers — and that was a number of years ago, in the late 1990s. Since then, I have been following the work of Indigenous choreographers in the US, in Canada, and New Zealand. So –I was drawn very intellectually to Indigenous studies because it provided a way of understanding the world that seemed compelling and important and different from what I was being taught in my academic programs.

MT: There is obviously a multiplicity of voices that make up the Indigenous dance world. What are the common characteristics that these works share?

JSM: Indigenous is such a troubling word. The scholar Mary Louise Pratt has remarked that people only become “Indigenous” when the colonizers arrive. Before that, they are just “The People.” So the very term is constituted through colonization, and is incredibly broad — as you note, it includes a huge diversity of peoples. Other scholars have argued recently that it is most helpful not as an identity category but as a term that can be useful for articulating a way of being in the world, so it’s more a way of doing, being, seeing, or enacting a way of being in the world rather than it is a state or category for what one is.

I do think that there are some shared approaches to understanding things that I have noticed in the choreographers that I follow. Some of it has to do with enacting situations of relationship or relationality. The dance is about coming into relationship with one another. And maintaining that relationship in a reciprocal way so that dancing isn’t just for entertainment of someone who comes to the performance, watches then leaves –although there is certainly a relationship in that as well, in that it’s foregrounding the relationships that can get made through the performance and through the making of the performance. The idea of reciprocity is central, that you support one another and that there is an understanding of shared responsibility in meaning making. By the way, these thoughts are also not my individual ideas– they have evolved through long-term discussions and continuing exchanges with many, many others–though multiple observations, and continual dialogue.

Through these, I’ve also come to see how storytelling is something that is also central to a lot of the dancing. There are stories that choreographers and dancers brought forward, through their experience as Indigenous people, whether they are creation stories –say, the Haudenosaunee story of the Woman who Fell from the Sky- or some or part of a transformation story, or some other particular story from one’s people or experience. Some choreographers work in those ways, with specific stories. Even those like Emily [Johnson] who aren’t working with storytelling in quite that direct a way are still bringing stories from their experience and from their background into the dance performance as a central part of what they are doing. And if “Indigenous” is a word that is constituted through the arrival of colonizers, one commonality is that the stories often are about that relationship as well, in some ways, even as they are also articulating worlds that are outside of that experience.

Rosy Simas in "We Wait in The Darkness"

Rosy Simas in
“We Wait in The Darkness”

MT: There is something very specific in these choreographers’ relationship to time –Emily Johnson’s piece spans over the course of a week; Rosy Simas’s We Wait in The Darkness addresses her female lineage and engages past, present and future. Would you say that these choreographers’ relationship to time is also what characterized their work as Indigenous?

JSM: I think of it as an expansive and layered sense of time. So that time isn’t just existing in this one minute or this one moment, but rather, here and now also has in it these layers or different realms of connections to other times, which sometimes get called past, present and future. What does an artist do? An artist is a visionary who brings forward a vision of the world that they see. I feel that this understanding of time as not being quite so finite as it is usually represented in the world that we inhabit –with weeks, years, minutes, clocks- is definitely there. It happens in Emily’s idea of having this dance piece not just be the dance piece. First of all, it’s not just the staged dance. There are the other aspects that are choreographed as part of it: the reading, the community volunteer action, the feast. There are also all of the performances that came before, and the people who are being accumulated into it. Then there’s the other two parts of her trilogy that came before and that are layering into it and there’s the reverberation that continues after. The conversations that continue and the way the piece might affect people and reverberate out. This way of understanding time is encapsulated within its structure, this idea that time and space are more connected and more expansive than is usually seen.

Rosy Simas’ work is doing that as well. Her piece notices the layers – like the sounds of colonization and trauma on her ancestral land–in the layers of her body. And then, she has talked about noticing who from her family, who has passed on, shows up at each performance. So there’s definitely an awareness of those kinds of connectivity in the dance and its performances to other times and realms and places. It’s also connecting from one time to another time by leaping across it without having to really travel in a linear way, without having to account for every moment in between.

MT: There is also a sense that not only time is expansive but also space, that boundaries are flexible. This is true of SHORE, which happens in many locations, but also of Rosy Simas’ performance which happens along and converses with an exhibition –All my relations: a Seneca story- which consists of objects that belonged to her family.

JSM: I went to that exhibit. It included a number the changing maps of the Seneca reservation and memorabilia from her mother and grandmother, and then excerpts of the dance were performed there as well. I sensed that she was commenting – well, on a lot of things –including the shrinking political boundaries of Seneca land in relation to the U.S. government’s broken promises, and how unconscionable that is, yes—how those boundaries have shifted. But one more abstract thing I sensed, through the multiple maps, was the misguided faith that we seem to sometimes have in the written document as stable. Things written on paper and supposed to be archival are not actually really that stable-they mark change and power relations, not a stable historical truth or reality. In a way, the dance may be a better form or site of archival history. I think there is some commentary about how we hold memory, about how knowledge is understood to be considered valid. I understood the exhibit and dance to be suggesting that dance holds knowledge in some ways that are perhaps more trustworthy than a written document. They are both different forms of holding histories and memories.

MT: You have mentioned that Indigenous choreographers are using contemporary dance in ways that strengthen and assert Indigenous knowledge. Would you say that this last point –accessing and validating these memories- is one example?

JSM: Definitely. To answer the first part of it, I think a lot of older ideas about Native and Indigenous history and culture is that it is about loss, about trauma, and the ways that colonization has depleted Native culture. On the one hand, that’s of course true and irrefutable: Native peoples and cultures have experienced incredible trauma and loss through colonization. But what I am seeing in these choreographers’ work and other contemporary native artists’ work is that’s it’s also about enacting particular Indigenous ways of being in ways that are strengthening for the future. So they are not only about enacting a healing of the past –although perhaps that too- but also and more so even, a strengthening and enacting of an Indigenous future in the now.

Rulan Tangen Photo by Henry Weinstein

Rulan Tangen
Photo by Henry Weinstein

You are asking about using somatics or bodily exploration to find knowledge. I see that happening in ways that connect to Indigenous experience. If you have been cut off from your family or your language or your tribal culture through these colonization processes, you can still locate fragments of knowledge within your body or within your process of dance making. Rulan [Tangen, Artistic Director of DANCING EARTH] asks her dancers to go back to their family, to talk with and gather stories and information from family members, from their language, and also from the internet – basically, from wherever they can — to research and bring whatever knowledge they can access in to the studio. And then, she has them explore it through their body and has them bring it forward, so that the dancers can feel the power of, connect to, access, put forward and share that knowledge. So it’s strengthening to them in that sense. And it’s kind of a nice side effect that it also reverberates to the audience. It might not be the primary goal but it has that effect also, for those witnessing. Colonization is a process of wiping out, of trying to wipe out, and this dance making counters that by locating and strengthening and creatively engaging with Indigenous knowledge that is there. I think that part of why Indigenous contemporary dance is so exciting in this process is because it is a practice that values experimentation and bodily exploration into what one finds. It is a creative, alive, process.

MT: Some non-native contemporary choreographers perform rituals and include community within the making of land-based work. I am thinking of Anna Halprin’s planetary dance as an example. Would you say that the difference between these choreographers and Indigenous choreographers is that the latters’ work is tapping into a specific body of memory, history and lineage?

JSM: This is interesting because this is a question that is really frequent. What makes this different from that? A lot of contemporary choreographers are working with experimentation, land-based work, and stories. Once, I came from Rulan Tangen’s workshops at Riverside, landed at the airport in Oakland, and went to Anna Halprin’s planetary dance– which in a lot of ways felt similar, because the language that she is using felt similar. But it also felt so different. When Indigenous peoples engage with these practices, they are addressing specific political histories that almost invariably involve how specific family, tribal, genocide and dislocation have impacted their lives in ways that are really different from the way they have impacted non-Indigenous dance makers. The dance making that they are doing is infused with understandings that are specific to their political histories, and it reverberates into the dance making. The knowledges that centuries of survival have brought, that have sustained indigenous practices through these years of colonization, come into it too. It’s not so much that the ritual is different as that the experience and history and embodied knowledge are different. Maybe the intention is different too. There’s a different intention when there is someone who is tapping into their lived experiences of colonization and accessing tools that have sustained their people in order to survive through that.

MT: In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, author and scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about the way some Native elders spoke about European settlers’ relationship to the colonized land: “The problem with these new people is that they don’t have both feet on the shore. One is still on the boat. They don’t seem to know whether they are staying or not.” Can you talk about how Indigenous dance relates to land and location?

Emily Johnson's "SHORE" Photo by Erin Westover

Emily Johnson’s “SHORE”
Photo by Erin Westover

JSM: It’s interesting because there are two ways of thinking about that quote. Many, if not all, of the choreographers whose work I’ve followed make the work in attention to where they are from. For Emily, it is the land of Alaska, for Rosy the Seneca land, for Rulan a disconnection from land that is part of this colonizing history. At the same time, there is attention to landing where you are and connecting to that land there, both perceptually—noticing and appreciating how it looks, sounds, smells on the ground where you are now — and politically. There are protocols and practices for doing that. You acknowledge the people of the land. When you arrive somewhere you acknowledge whose land it is and recognize that you are a visitor to that land and you connect to it through that relationship of visitor/host. This is something that happens at many Native events, including performances – a speaker will open by thanking the people of that land for welcoming those who are there, for permitting our presence on the land. It’s a practice that is intertwined within a political relationship that recognizes the relationship that one has with other people who have been there before you. Calling out and insisting that these host/visitor protocols be practiced is something that Jack Gray, a Maori choreographer from Aotearoa [New Zealand], works directly with in bringing his work to places like the U.S. It can be challenging sometimes, in places where there are long histories where Native peoples have been disempowered-but also really transformational –to insist that these relationships be enacted. And then, in addition to connecting to the Indigenous people of the land where you are, you study and connect with your own ancestry, your own people. My family has ancestry from Wales. What can this study of Indigenous dance here make me understand about the indigeneity of my Welsh background? I think that in some ways what Indigenous dance does is twofold: one, it makes you aware of the land that you are on and perhaps if you are not an Indigenous person, how you are not really of that land or how your relationship to that land is one with a very deep political history. Two, it prods you to become curious, interested, and wanting to deepen and strengthen your own connection to your own ancestry.

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