This week in New York City, a high-profile, entirely Indigenous theater festival—the first of its kind in the United States—takes off. The First Nations Dialogues New York/Lenapehoking goes down in Manhattan through Jan. 12, and the artists involved are jazzed to show New York (and, in turn, the world) what Indigeneity in performing arts looks like.
"It's contemporary art, it's live, it's experimental, it's multidisciplinary, it's cabaret, it's queer, it's drag, it's theater," series organizer Merindah Donnelly told the New York Times. "The people making it are Indigenous, but Indigenous is not a genre."
Our city is about to get its own potent dose of that idea: The Institute of American Indian Arts has become the first tribal arts college in the country to host an accredited degree program in performing arts, and students can start taking those classes next week.
Since its beginnings as a secondary school, IAIA long offered performing arts classes. But due to budget cuts in the '90s, the program was axed in favor of studio arts and film. Now, it's back—and with faculty members Sheila Rocha (Tarasco/Pure'pecha) and Jonah Winn-Lenetsky at the helm, it's poised to be one of the most important Indigenous arts programs in America.
The program, like all at IAIA, features everything a student can expect from a more Western-oriented curriculum, yet with a particular focus on Indigenous history and a Native worldview, and informed by the nuances of decolonized thought.
"We're still going to teach Stanislavski's acting practice, we'll still teach Anne Bogart's viewpoints; what a student would get at any theater program," Winn-Lenetsky, whose doctoral dissertation explored protest performance art in the UK and Palestine, tells SFR. But, he adds: "Both Sheila and I come from a background of community-based performance and theater for social change … and it could certainly be argued that there's a decolonizing practice to that, because it's about performance that comes from the community and is focused on specific relevant issues. … That [Indigenous sensibility] is one thing that we really want to hold space for and make clear as we develop this program … because there's no other art school out there that is doing this. … You're going to get a great arts education, but you're also going to learn about and celebrate Indigenous work."
Classes include the expected subjects like acting, improv, playwriting, a performance practicum and interdisciplinary classes that overlap with writing and film; but Rocha and Winn-Lenetsky are particularly animated about subjects like storytelling, a survey of Indigenous and POC dramatic literature, Indigenous influences on American culture and queer and two-spirit performance. As the program grows and evolves, the dance and music offerings will blossom as well.
"The history of IAIA is really about empowering and creating a space for Native Indigenous arts," Winn-Lenetsky says, "and I think something that IAIA does very well is it blends both traditional Western forms and arts and what's cutting-edge within the art scene."
Rocha, who holds a doctorate in American Indian studies and has taught all over the American West in Indigenous-oriented higher education institutions and departments, emphasizes the long history of performing arts in tribal communities, and how art is inextricable from everyday life. IAIA's program will look closely at "the transmission of story, which is a way of maintaining history; and what does that look like?" she tells SFR. "Well, it's been done for thousands of years on Turtle Island and around the world. Indigenous societies have performed stories, history, language, and have used performance to actualize ceremony and rituals. That's all integral."
And that integration raises the stakes. "The Cheyenne used to have a ceremony, a four-day performance, so to speak; an acting out of the creation of life in order to sustain life," Rocha continues. "It had parts, it had roles, it had lines, it had songs, it had movement. The Ho-Chunks, they had a play of life and death. … It's a ceremony, but it was a story, but it was a play, but it was music, it was movement and dance, for the purpose of actually bringing an individual back to life."
When considering the need for theater and performing arts in everyday Indigenous life, Rocha says, "It's a different epistemology. It's a different thought process and knowledge system that you enter into."
While non-Native people can and do attend IAIA, there's a special draw to this program for Indigenous students from around the world; and that pull may attract performers to Santa Fe that we have lost since the closing of Santa Fe University of Art and Design. "So many of our Native and Indigenous students have had to go elsewhere to study theater or dance—reluctantly, to a degree," Rocha says. "It's like, 'Ehh, I have to go into this Western paradigm. Which one is going to give me the most flexibility in terms of my creative voice?'" To be able to stay in Santa Fe and study these arts will help plug up that brain drain.
In addition to offering a unique program, Rocha emphasizes that the IAIA department will also hold space for incredible performers who may not fit into the colonized box of what is considered a "performer." She references a former student whose Lakota upbringing encouraged a soft speaking voice and discouraged eye contact; he wasn't accepted into higher learning performance programs, despite being one of the her best students.
"So this may open the doors for people who have a different sensibility about how to work in public, how to interact in a community," Rocha says, no small amount of hope and excitement in her voice. "If your community doesn't do things the same way, does that mean that community is any less articulate? Not at all! The world is a big place. And I think we'll honor those differences."