Dozens of people gathered around the trio of First Nations artists and scholars facilitating the second of three KIN Conversations at the Performance Space New York in the East Village. Sittings on folded quilt blankets, participants occasionally left the crowded circle for food and beverages. Incense was burned, and the crowd eventually settled into an evening of discussion about the weight of trauma.
Emily Johnson, a lead organizer with First Nations Dialogues Lenapehoking New York, told Hyperallergic that this year’s performance series is only the first step in a three-year pilot program for what she hopes will become the Global First Nations Performance Network. Beginning with 15 partnering institutions from Canada, Australia, and the United States, the network will be “a consortium of presenters committed to the decolonization process in the very DNA of their organizations,” the Alaskan choreographer of Yup’ik descent said.
The worst thing for an institution to do in the fight against colonial thinking is to plead ignorance. For Johnson, this is tantamount to “persisting colonized structures.”
What better way for First Nations Dialogues to disrupt conventional structures than by inserting itself into January’s crowded lineup of performance festivals across New York City? “We have deliberately curated and placed this work amongst these partners and festivals because we wanted Indigenous artists to be seen in as many places as possible,” she explained.
The theme of Johnson’s second KIN Conversation was “uqamaltaciq,” a Yup’ik word roughly translated to “the weight of something.” Accordingly, the evening’s discussion centered on the burden of trauma, and how Indigenous people need to shift that struggle from a solo experience to a communal one.
“We are here to process our own grief, and the land’s,” clarified Paola Balla, one of Johnson’s co-facilitators from Australia. “Changing terms for Indigenous people given by the government are busy work, but community is what’s most important.”
Balla and Johnson, alongside the Melbourne-based artist and educator Genevieve Grieves, sparked a group discussion about grief by talking about their own, and how their Indigenous identities had attuned them to discussions of generational trauma and the need for visibility. On that note, the three women opened discussion to the audience, asking participants to come into the center of the circle to share their own experiences when desired.
One woman who stepped forward hailed from Australia’s southern island of Tasmania, where she had founded a company of Aborigine female dancers to recuperate her people’s lost practices. She described how, for many years, she felt the immense responsibility of representing her entire culture; it was a weight that prevented her from expressing herself as an individual. She had to prevent herself from dying her hair blonde or wearing certain clothing styles that might break from tradition. She also felt “the weight of not breaking with tradition.” But since she began her project, three other groups of traditional dancers have sprung up on the island state; now, there’s even a youth group.
Outside of KIN Conversations, an important goal of First Nations Dialogues is to convey the infinite scope of Indigenous-inflected practices. “We want to change the nature of performance on a large-scale so that it no longer ignores Indigenous artists in all genres, from dance to theatre, experimental to drag,” Johnson said.
And what can viewers expect from the performance series? “Expect everything,” she hinted. “From celebrations to grief rituals, from performative walks to conversations, fires, raps, and drag queens — there is no one word to describe what audiences will see” at famous downtown theater locations like La MaMa, Abrons Art Center, and Danspace Project.
Rather than express Indigenous art as its own sequestered genre, the point of this initiative is to bring an underrepresented demographic of artists to the fore. Johnson believes First Nations Dialogues is a step in that direction.
“We are starting to shift consciousness more broadly in the world.”
First Nations Dialogues Lenapehoking New York is a week-long series of Indigenous-led events, running from January 5 through 12. Programming takes place across the city with organizations like The Lenape Center, Amerinda, American Indian Community House, Abrons Arts Center, American Realness, Danspace Project, Gibney Dance, La MaMA, Performance Space New York, Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective, Under the Radar, the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), and the International Society for the Performing Arts (ISPA).