First Peoples First

First Peoples First

National Institute for Directing and Ensemble Creation- 2019

By Carolyn Dunn



“This is what I like to think of as ‘tribalography’...American Indian playwrights, actors, and storytellers create stories from the experiences of our people, and ourselves. In that sense, our work belongs to the ancestors, ourselves, and the next seven generations.”

- LeAnne Howe, Director, WagonBurner Theater Troop



In her essay “Tribalography: The Power of Native Stories,” Choctaw novelist/playwright LeAnne Howe argues that America was built by the power of Native American stories. Using the power of story and what Howe calls tribalography, that is the story that connects Native peoples to our ancestors, our descendants, and our landscape, America was created out of a story that was rooted in the Haudenasonne, or Iroquois, condolence ceremony. Part of the ceremony incorporates the Great Law of Peace, or, what Howe calls “the oral drama that is recited by seven elders” and is “designed to heal the community as a whole” (Howe, “Tribalography: The Power of Native Stories,” p 119). The Law of Peace was brought to the Iroquois by Deganawidah, the peacemaker, and spoken for him by Ayawanta (Hiawatha), who was mourning the loss of his family. Not only was the Law of Peace brought to the Iroquois by Deganawidah, Howe argues, but it was brought to Ayawantah to heal his losses by reciting the words of great comfort of the condolence ceremony. To speak those words, to give them power and breath, Ayawantah’s spirit was healed. His loss was not forgotten but his spirit was soothed. Together, this ceremony and the two men forged a confederacy that would serve as the basis for the inspiration behind forming the United States. By retelling this story in her interview, Howe asserts that tribalography not only connects Native peoples to our own histories, but that we created the history of the United States, warts and all. The good news for Native peoples is that this story is not over yet: it serves the function of tribalography, the living, breathing story, including the sense of place and connection to the world around us, that native peoples have exhibited in storymaking, storyweaving, and creation since time immemorial. “Stories have no endings,” Leslie Marmon Silko wrote in her part memoir, part poetry, part prose collection Storyteller. “Old stories and new stories are essential—they tell us who we are, they teach us how to survive” (Storyteller, intro, xxvi, 2nd edition, 2012).

The communal experience of the tribal reality is at the core of what comprises an essential connection to the tribal world view. Storytellers reference the tribal aesthetic and modern literary writers, tapping into the traditional story, are referencing ages of experience and indigenous epistemologies. Indigenous knowledges, or ways of learning and knowing, are replicated in the story over and over, in performance, in practice, and now, in theory. In native epistemologies, in native realities, the practice comes first before the theory.

The cultural aesthetic follows logical assumptions, and in studying national literatures one must look to the culture from which these literatures arises. Cultural touchstones, for example, are imperative in understanding the great canonical works of western literature. Do theater critics and scholars assume knowledge of western thought and practice when it comes to understanding the great canonical works? The assumption is that western epistemology is a given in this context, but to study native literatures using a non-native aesthetic makes no sense in examining the works of native peoples. Yet the practice of employing western assumptions and a western aesthetic to native knowledges is a colonial practice that Linda Tuhiwai Smith argues must be acknowledged and addressed if scholars are to decolonize the study of native peoples and bring cultural context into the study of native cultures.

American Indian history and culture remain a footnote in history to many resident aliens of this country, who are of European, non–American Indian descent. “Resident aliens,” a term favored by the majority regarding persons who have immigrated here from elsewhere, is a phrase that should be used self-reflexively by the powers that be in this country. But, sadly, it is not, since the descendants of the original resident aliens have seized power here from its original inhabitants, and continue to misappropriate history, culture, and political power from the continent’s aboriginal inhabitants. Given the current political climate and divisiveness in this part of the world, this notion is especially profound, especially given the current president’s tendency to dismiss native identity (“I think I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up the reservations,” he said to Don Imus in 1993) as well as his views on immigration. In literary, artistic and scholarly circles, this misappropriation continues.


. . .

"The hoop dancer dances within what encircles him, demonstrating how the people live in motion within the circling spirals of time and space. They are no more limited than water and sky. At green corn dance time, water and sky come together, in Indian time, to make rain."

– Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop (second edition)


The native view of the world has historically been viewed through non-native lenses; perhaps in looking to some of these stories we, as Native peoples, can form our own aesthetic, our own canon that informs and signifies that which is truly unique about our cultures. Perhaps, in forming our own theater companies (Spiderwoman Theater, Safe Harbors Collective at La Mama, Native Voices at the Autry), our own anthropological studies, our own religious institutes, we can heal the vast schisms that seek to threaten our families, our communities, our tribes, our nations. Perhaps works such as this are the first steps to define ourselves on our own terms, and those of us struggling in academia, and in theatre (and academics who write plays and playwrights who moonlight as academics, like me) can create a methodology for contextualizing our aesthetic.

Native theater artists—storytellers, dancers, writers, actors, artists—came together in March of 2015 at a Gathering sponsored by the National Institute for Directing and Ensemble Creation in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Institute has long been committed to “increasing cultural and gender equity in the theater field” (letter from Art2Action director and Institute co-organizer Andrea Assaf), and in planning future institutes, “...it was glaringly obvious that many of the existing theater networks did not include any Native-identified, First Peoples, or indigenous artists working in theater or original/contemporary forms, to gather.” Art2Action and Pangea World Theater, along with the First Peoples Fund and the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA), sponsored the initial Gathering in 2015. Out of this Gathering, we formed and reformed connections with and to one another that continued into pre-conferences and two additional iterations of the National Institute for Directing and Ensemble Creation. The influence of Pangea World Theater directors, Meena Natarjan and Dipankar Muterjee and their board member, Sharon Day (Ojibwe), throughout this entire process was absolutely invaluable. The commitment of Meena and Dipankar, as valuable allies, friends, hosts, sounding boards, thinkers and co-dreamers, was powerful in that they, as immigrants to the U.S., recognize the cultural protocols that indigenous folx have been practicing for years: First Peoples First.

First Peoples First is a term that is the embodiment of social and cultural capital, not only in native communities, but in theater practice within and outside of these communities. The awareness of whose land we visit, the acknowledgement of that land and its original inhabitants, and the respect for the elders and leaders of those communities is imperative in understanding native cultural practices in North, South and Central America; as well as in indigenous communities around the world. Pangea World Theater works with Sharon Day, not only as a Board member, but as an elder from the Ojibwe communities that now call Minneapolis home. An elder, activist, community leader, singer and artist, Sharon has welcomed natives and non-natives to the community for years. She acts as a peacemaker between factions of native and indigenous communities (such as American Indian and Somali), through ceremony and ritual—themselves the act of performance: the embodiment of LeAnne Howe’s tribalography. Sharon’s work in theater is continued in the next generation by her grandson, Kirby Curtis. With Sharon’s guidance, several of the indigenous artists in attendance of the 2016 and 2017 Institutes developed guidelines to indigenize theater practices, grounded in the protocols and practices of traditional communities, and the connectivity to our communities that have, like our stories, our songs, our ceremonies, survived colonization and conquest.

The artists that came together to participate in the First Peoples Pre-Conferences are by no means a comprehensive list of Native artists and theater practitioners in the U.S and Canada, but a representative sampling of those of us doing this work in our communities. The artists included Murielle Borst-Tarrant, Fern Naomi Renville, Marcie Rendon, Ed Bourgeois, Moses Goods, myself, Joseph Osawabine, Audrey Ozawabineshi, Arigon Starr, Henu Josephine Tarrant, Caleb Bourgeious, Kirby Curtis, Ajuawak Kapashesit, and Peyton Counts. We were joined by our Zulu sister Ntokozo Madlala, the second year, and the organizers of the Institute (Pangea World Theater and Art2Action) respectfully stepped out of the room to allow our voices to be the only voices in the room. Utilizing the native world views that permeated the room, represented by our shared as well as our specific tribal indigeneities, we developed a list of core values, guidelines, and a definition of native and indigenous aesthetics that spring out of our communities, our stories, our worlds. This is by no means a comprehensive list or definition of Native and indigenous values within performance spaces, but it’s a start. We acknowledged and continue to acknowledge our family of native and indigenous theater practitioners who were not in the room, and thank them for their work. We hope that this will be the start of decolonizing theater practices through an indigenous lens, recognizing the creation of these spaces imagined through tribalography.


Indigenous Values


The list of indigenous values and their application to indigenous performance spaces was imperative in understanding the navigation of these spaces. These values include First Peoples First, Humility, Respect of Territory and Sacred Space, Acknowledgement of Native lands and first inhabitants, and accountability. Each of these values reflect again the communities we represented, as well as a larger, decolonizing theater project, that we are dedicated to implementing in our creative work(s).

First Peoples First: This value represents that we acknowledge the land on which we set our feet, the land upon which we find ourselves. For example, when we meet in Minneapolis, we acknowledge verbally, as well as in our hearts, the original Dakota inhabitants of the land, and we acknowledge the Ojibwe who came after the Dakota. Along with place names, waterways, and other methods of indigenous placemaking, we recognize the ceremonies and rituals of those people. In that space, we begin our meetings and our discussions ceremonially, led by Sharon Day, who is recognized as a Midewin by her community, and by her training. This is acknowledging the tribes who come from this land (Day always recognizes, in ceremony, that the Dakota came before the Ojibwe), and who exist still upon it. First Peoples First recognizes that this is a land that was formed into being, what Howe would call tribalography, by its indigenous inhabitants. First Peoples First is a sign of respect, of reciprocity, and of reverence; acknowledging the indigeneity of and decolonizing the space at the same time. Although we all come from different native traditions, we respect the traditions of the Dakota and Ojibwe in Minneapolis, the Kickapoo, Shawnee, Iowa, Creek and Chickasaw in Oklahoma City, the Tongva in Los Angeles, the Choctaw in New Orleans, and the Muwekma in San Francisco. We respect the First Peoples of the land, and respect their ceremonial and ritual traditions; if not, we further practice lateral colonization by telling them how to pray, how to speak their language, how to practice their traditions by insisting they practice mine.

Humility: The value of humility is unfortunately, in today’s world, a value that seems to be lacking in certain communities. This value goes against the grain of core American leadership values, in which one remains humble regarding what can be viewed as their accomplishments. Nowhere else is this as evident as in Native storytelling traditions, which encompass literature, song, story, ritual, and theatre, as embodied praxis within Native cultures. This praxis, or ceremony, is expressed through communal values (ritual) that tie the people, the landscape, and the expression of culture (ceremony) together in native traditions.

Paula Gunn Allen wrote in 1976, “The purpose of Native American literature is never one of pure self-expression. The ‘private soul at any public wall’ is a concept that is so alien to native thought as to constitute an absurdity” (“The Sacred Hoop: An American Indian Perspective of Contemporary Literature,” CrossCurrents, Summer, 1976). . . . The value of humility is formed through community and family identification; that is, placing the needs of the community above the needs of the individual. Gunn Allen and Vine Deloria, Jr., amongst many native scholars, have argued that the relationship, and the value of that relationship, to community needs are often held above the needs of the individual.

Respect of Territory and Sacred Space: Respect of Territory and Sacred Space also comes out of that communally-held worldview for American Indians—that to acknowledge the land and its traditional inhabitants is a sign of respect, reverence, and responsibility to the land, its original inhabitants, and caretakers. Paula Gunn Allen discusses the relationship between the sacred landscape and the secular world through the oral tradition as follows: “The tribes seek, through song, ceremony, legend, sacred stories (myths), and tales to embody, articulate, and share reality, to bring the isolated private self into harmony and balance with this reality, to verbalize the sense of the majesty and reverent mystery of all things, and to actualize, in language, those truths of being and experience that give to humanity its greatest significance and dignity.” The relationship of land to people is expressed through ceremony—that is the ritual reenactment of the connection to language, culture, space, and place.

Land Acknowledgment: The practice of land acknowledgment was articulated in the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN, March 2008). This process also came out of the Truth and Reconciliation processes out of government to government relationships (between Canada and its First Nations, Australia and the Aboriginal Peoples, New Zealand and the Maori) to acknowledge past genocidal practices against indigenous peoples. Additionally, many scholars, including Suzan Shown Harjo, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, and Winona LaDuke, among many, many others, have expressed the concept of land acknowledgement in their writing. Land acknowledgment is the recognition of the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples whose historical presence was disrupted by colonization. The current inhabitants of said land acknowledge the original inhabitants by speaking their name and acknowledging both the historical and contemporary presence of the indigenous peoples of that land. For example, at a recent talk I gave at the University of Michigan, I opened my talk with a statement similar to the following: “First of all, I would like to thank the organizers for bringing me here, but foremost, I recognize and thank the People of the Three Fires, Odawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe who host us here on their ancestral landscape.” The U.S. Department of Arts and Cultures, a grassroots organization of artists, activists, cultural practitioners engaged in creating non-deficit models of equity, diversity and inclusive practice, in consultation with many indigenous artist/activist groups (including our colleagues at Indigenous Direction and the Native Arts and Culture Fund), have articulated guidelines for the process of land acknowledgement for institutions as a decolonizing practice as follows:


• Offer recognition and respect.

• Counter the “doctrine of discovery” with the true story of the people who were already here.

• Create a broader public awareness of the history that has led to this moment.

• Begin to repair relationships with Native communities and with the land.

• Support larger truth-telling and reconciliation efforts.

• Remind people that colonization is an ongoing process, with Native lands still occupied due to deceptive and broken treaties, practices of “eminent domain,” and other mechanisms intended to benefit government or corporate America.

• Take a cue from Indigenous protocols, opening up spaces with reverence and respect.

• Inspire ongoing action and relationships.


As a theatre practice, especially on colonized lands, it is imperative to acknowledge the first inhabitants and their descendants who still reside within the landscape of that space. Inherent in land acknowledgement is the concept that the land is the interconnectedness of people to landscape—what Hanay Geiogamah has called ceremonial performativity, LeAnne Howe has called tribalography—the practice of speaking story into being.


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