Saturday, August 01, 2015


Beyond the genocide, beyond the trauma, the catharsis of theater


This book is essential because it enables people who have not had the opportunity to see what groups like the Spiderwoman Theater are doing to finally get an idea of it. You won’t see much since the DVD is in fact one slide show and a few excerpts from the performance of “Persistence of Memory” given at Miami University in February 2007. Unluckily nothing complete. You will just get a sprinkle of the art of these women.

But these women performers, these women authors and these women storytellers are a lot more important than they look and they are dealing with very serious issues and nothing funny at all, even if the audience laughs. But laughing is so easy and so multifarious in meaning. No two people laugh for the same reason, even together.

Let’s pick a few fundamental ideas that emerge from the book.

First Ric Knowles introduces an attitude that is crucial for Indians in Northern America who want to recapture themselves. As he says “before the healing can take place, the poison must first be exposed.” And that is by far not enough. A first step, maybe even nothing but half a step. At once you have to take a stance that will enable the healing mixture to be introduced and to work. “It is not naïve optimism, but it is suspension of disbelief.” And Monique Mojica adds “from deep within the body’s memory.” Because the healing comes from the body itself because the body has the memory of what may heal you. At once we know that is in the past. You have to “envision a world were the indigenous is not synonymous with victim, not with the hoop of a nation that has been broken.” Obviously you are going back to the mythologies and the culture of all Indians before they were colonized, genocidally exterminated and then parked in reservations by the white Europeans arriving along with and after Christopher Columbus. And Monique Mojica specifies that “we need to seize the courage to empower ourselves as the reflections of these things from our cosmologies that are whole and intact.” That’s the secret. To go back collectively to the past and recapture its positive cultural, social, mythological or religious dimensions, and then to share that knowledge, experience, memory with au audience thanks to the cathartic medium that theater is.

This evocation has essentially two dimensions according to Monique Mojica “through the power of the word as invocation, through naming” they have to “honor the living and the dead who came before us,” on one hand and then they have to “bring our deities and cultural heroes to the stage, be inhabited by them, and become their reflections and manifestations.” And that is supposed to develop in the audience what Monique Mojica calls “response-ability.”

You just have to add to this project of liberation, reconstruction and development that will bring the Indians out of colonialization, I mean the colonization of the minds, the feminine dimension that is very strong in the Spiderwoman Theater tradition. They want to leave HIS-tory behind and reconstruct and discover HER-story, meaning the history of Indians from the feminine point of view. In that perspective Paula Allen Gunn is an essential researcher because she systematically studied the position of women in the history of Indians and particularly she has reexamined and revaluated Pocahontas, not as a simple abused, abducted, forcefully converted and opportunistically married woman, but as a very intelligent woman who tried to save her people and to invest their blood into the new comers who were supposed to be integrated but misunderstood the rituals, and anyway they did not want to be integrated. They wanted to conquer and control. Pocahontas becomes then the entrance door of Indian blood into this Virginian colony and tobacco will be offered to them in exchange of a marriage and a son who will create a real dynasty of tobacco growers. A son whose descent will bring the Seventh Generation, the time of regeneration at the end of the 20th century, according to Indian mythology.

A Seventh Generation that is getting some momentum right now under our own eyes.

The originality of these storytellers, actors and authors, and we should add directors to the the three roles Monique Mojica considers, is that they center their work on women. “The women are the medicine” and these women are “word warriors” who are trying to bring the future into existence with the sole weapons of their words. Monique Mojica becomes then the healer of her people, but also the healer of HIS-tory as well as of HER-story: “As we stand up and pick ourselves up, we know we are the medicine. We get to say which songs we sing; we get to say how we are embodied; we get to say the way the story goes, and not get stuck in that story book.”

In fact we can recognize here the positive procedure to step beyond the Post Colonial Traumatic Stress Syndrome that some invoke which is slightly more than just that because the Indians in English and American colonized northern America suffered a genocide in the past, including a cultural genocide in the recent past, and they suffer now of a Post Genocide Traumatic Stress Syndrome. They have their land under their feet, but have been dispossessed, they have their culture and traditions at the tip of their fingers and of their minds, but they have been deculturated. By their collective cathartic effort they can recapture their culture, reconstruct their traditions and arts and they can thus heal and redevelop a new and yet traditional individuality and existence.

The play “Persistence of Memory” that is given in the book along with some excerpts on the DVD, is demonstrating how this memory is not nostalgic but constructive. This holds in the contradictory two sentences two lines apart: “It’s so easy to remember” and “it’s so hard to forget.” If you want to recapture your past you have to remember, remember everything and correct the official versions of the past given by the white Americans and their textbooks. But if you want to reconcile with yourself, with your people and with Americans at large, if not America itself, you also have to forget, that is to say to remove any power in the negative sides of that past, hence to forgive which implies the evil of the past does not bring you down any more but you are still remembering it because you must remember what you are forgiving for that forgiveness to have any value.

Then the play can reveal the traumas of the past and the traumas of the present, or the consequences of the traumas of the past onto the present. “Once these children grow up with fear, rage, danger and grief as the norm . . . the normal developmental tasks of growing up were mutilated beyond recognition by the traumas of loss and grief, danger and fear, hatred and chaos.” We then understand the dramatic dimension of the project of healing all these traumas. To do so the play proposes to go back to a core, a center, a heart and it is the Botanical Gardens in the Bronx where “our ancestors moved among the rocks and springs, gathering plants and herbs.” Sitting there the actress can regenerate, rejuvenate and reenergize her very Indian essence. “Here, here this is the place where our sources and resources rest. Deep, deep down in time and memory. Available, connected within strength and power amidst calm and quiet.”

In this short excerpt you have the art and the power of these words, of this word warrior. It is the balancing use of couples of words: (A1) sources (A2) resources; (B1) deep (B2) deep down; (C1) time (C2) memory; (D1) available (D2) connected; (E1) within [(F1) strength (F2) power] (E2) amidst [(G1) calm (G2) quiet]. Of course we have seven pairs since we are in the seventh generation, the generation of the renascence of Indian culture and peoples. That’s something you are not really conscious of but you feel the balancing act because your body has a memory of such groupings and number patterns. The other number pattern they use and even over use is the trinity of Lisa-Gloria-Muriel. And this is all the more present when the three of them sing together Becky Thunderbird’s song “Persistence of memory.”

“Hey Yah Na Hey
Hey Yah Na Hey
Hey Yah Na Hey Hey
Wey Ho Hey
Yah Wey Oh Hey”

Then the three lines in English are all powerful:

“My family, my nation
My Creator, my life
I sing for the next generation”

And that next generation is the seventh generation.

It is difficult to judge of the influence of the Laban movement theory they use in performing since we do not have any complete performance, but we can see the great power of their storytelling and words. A last example is given later on in the book:

“(A1) We are descendents from the river and the stars
(A2) We are the people of the eternal Turtle Clan
(A3) We are the next rememberers
(B1) We carry the songs in our hearts
(B2) We carry the stories in our blood
(B3) the hope in our souls
We are (C1) the past, (C2) the present, (C3) the future
[D1] [(E1) Take this story and (E2) hear the hope.]
[D2] [(F1) Take this story and (F2a) hear (F2b) our voices of (F2c) our nations]”

And this structure comes back again four lines later:

“(A1) This to my aunts,
(A2) This is to my mother
(A3) This is to my great-grandmother
(B1) This is to those who will come after us
(B2) This is to my grandchildren
(B3) This to my great-grandchildren
This is (C1) to Gloria Miguel, (C2) to Lisa Mayo, and (C3) to Muriel Miguel”

So far this book is essential to show this cathartic dramatic art of these Indian women, of these Indian acting and performing companies who are trying to heal their past and re-conquer their future in their own land.

The third section is less powerful as a whole, first of all because we are given excerpts of plays and excerpts do not enable us to really understand and capture the plays. That’s the case with “Weaving the Rain.” The few excerpts make the argument extremely demonstrative and we do not feel how the completely exploded family of the beginning can find some unity again thanks to the death of the father who is able to join his efforts to his own father, the grandfather then, and to his dead son to reunite the family he leaves behind. The fact that he dies of his alcoholism sort of disqualifies him from being the reuniter since when he was alive he never was the one who built unity, because he escaped his responsibility all the time into alcoholism. Excerpts betray the play in this case.

Monique Mojica’s explanation about her project “Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way” is interesting because the amnesia obsession of the author appears with strength here but in full contradiction with what was said on the subject in “Persistence of Memory” The double declaration “It’s so easy to remember” and “it’s so hard to forget” becomes “I forgot to remember.” The first two declarations were ambiguous because “easy” and “hard” had double meanings. It is easy to remember because memory is always there and because memory brings ease and tranquility. You just let yourself go into the cool nostalgic memory of what life used to be. But at the same time It is hard to forget because to erase your memory is nearly impossible and when you forget something you get into some hard time, not remembering it in spite of trying. But now if you forget to remember, if you do what’s hard, to forget, to reach what’s easy, to remember, you are in a real fix. And that’s exactly the stake of this approach that culminates in “The Scrubbing Project” which is the attempt to build some vision of the past and of reality by collecting horrible facts, atrocious data about the fate – and fate is too positive to be the real word we should need here, rather the curse – of Indians in this life.

But that brings Monique Mojica to a questioning that is tragically pessimistic:

“1) What are the consequences of creating art out of atrocity? 2) Is there such a thing as internalized genocide?”

At this moment we know she is on the verge of understanding the curse of four or five centuries of genocide. It could and should be called Post Genocide Traumatic Stress Syndrome and that genocide that was a trauma for all Indians has been so deeply internalized that it is a heroic enterprise to try and alleviate it at first and then heal it.  She is then justly speaking of “the holocaust of the Americas” because the ordeal the Indians were forced to submit to was just that: a holocaust since it was intended to make as many Indians die as possible and then to park the survivors in some unfriendly and nearly bare and wasted desert-like reservations. The ordeal was to pack them hands and feet tied up with tons of lead attached to their waist on a fully frozen Mississippi river and then to blow up the ice with dynamite and count how many could and should survive without any help and then park these survivors in some kind of infernal lethal environment.

The not so surprising axiom of Monique Mojica is as follows:

“1) Once Native women have put down the bundles of grief and multi-generational trauma that we collectively carry – then what? And 2) How do we get from victim to victory?”

Healing is long and difficult. As for the term of victory I am not sure that’s the proper word because the stake is not to be victorious, over whom anyway? The stake is to get over the trauma of that genocidal holocaust and to regain some positive creativity, and by regaining some positive creativity in line with older traditions. But beyond this word, Monique Mojioca is right about the theatrical project she defends and advocates. Theater can be cathartic and if it goes back to tradition, both social and ritual, in one word cultural, and brings that tradition to modern times through a process of healing, elaboration, self-reflection, reconstruction, not plain copy and paste, there is some hope. It is what she calls “saber sabiendo” which designates the knowledge we have unconsciously rooted in our deeper mind and unconscious conscience, if not yet consciousness. This deeper knowledge has to be brought to the surface and given some real life back, and she adds it has to be performed intuitively not intellectually. There is no abstract explanation or even ‘exploration. There is only one way to bring it back to life: let it come out of your mind and trust what is coming from that dark past of yours, though you have to look for the light that shines in the night of lost dreams, the fire that burns in the winter of lost memory, of forgotten remembrance. And through confrontation with what other fellow storytellers, actors and authors that will bring you to Native Performance Culture, a culture that is like some Molas sewn and sown by Kuna women, one layer on top of the other and tiny stitches between the layers and each one of these layers visible here and there, intermittently in the others and through the others.

That leads her to a fascinating conclusion: “I, too, am a granddaughter fallen from the stars.” And as such she can embody and impersonate the morning star and the evening star, the moon and the sun, all of them in one multilayer crisscrossing knitted Mola of forgotten past and remembered future.

We justly end this section with Diane Glancy’s evocation of the Cherokee Trail of Tears of October 1838 to February 1839. A poignant description of the Holocaust of Indians in that systematic and sadistic genocide which did not target killing them all, but targeted killing as many as possible in as much suffering as possible.  And this frightful invocation can conclude with “Maybe someday love would come.”

The last section is interesting since it collects interviews and experiences of people who worked for Native American drama. The main question here is why isn’t Native American drama part of mainstream drama in America? The question is worth asking but the situation is changing very fast with the first mainstream production “Te Ata” entirely produced and financed by the Chickasaw nation. The answer is probably there: Indian nations have not yet entirely understood that theater can be an extremely effective medium to make Indians visible, to be a mirror for Indians themselves who could discover in these productions some visions about themselves, their history and their dreams, but maybe above all it is a perfect cathartic medium to heal the traumas and wounds inflicted onto Indians by history in America. But what is essential is that it must come from the Indian nations themselves. They cannot expect white America to finance and support such a project. For them Indians are nothing but folkloric entertainment and cannot be in any way part of American culture and history.

I will regret slightly the fact that I don’t seem to have seen Crazy Horse and his Memorial in South Dakota mentioned. It is the perfect example of an Indian nation financing and managing its own reemergence from the wasteland of the genocide.


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