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Mid-Summer 2005

It's July, 2005 -- half way through the year. We at Project HOOP are smack in the middle of our national performing arts needs assessment survey for tribal communities across Indian Country. It's a formidable undertaking, but the replies we have received thus far contain data and information that are very, very encouraging. We are excited!

I share with you, at this mid-term point in the year, the following exchange that I shared late last year with a young Native woman who is majoring in theater at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence , Kansas . Hopefully, you will read it as a kind of respectful pep talk, an encouragement, as we move ahead with the good work of creating Native American theater and performing arts. Aho, and have a wonderful summer.

Best, Hanay Geiogamah, Principal Investigator, Project HOOP

Dear Ms. Pushetonequa: Here are some brief responses to your list of questions:

1. How is Native theatre important in mainstream society?

I think most of mainstream American society is not aware that we have and are developing a theater movement in our tribal communities. But, really, how could they know? We don't have any playwrights who have made it to Broadway with an Indian drama. We don't have a large contingent of recognizable Indian actors -- stars, if you will. I think the first thing that needs to happen, before a larger presence and importance in the mainstream, is that we have to make Native theater very important in our communities, very important, very needed, very functional and synergistic, and very, very active. lt is possible to gain respect in the national American theater community for Native theater. I believe that there is a basic supportive attitude for all ethnic theaters in the theater community, but this support has to be directed toward something more tangible than what we Indians have now. We have to focus our efforts on the tangible, the real, however first or early stage it might be, and keep adding to the larger body with each step taken. There is no question that we have the creative ability, the creative energy required to do this. We must move forward sensibly and with confidence.

2. Can Native American theatre help change stereotypes? How?

Absolutely, our theatre can help us change stereotypes. A wonderful play which unravels a lot of Indian stereotypes is EVENING AT THE WARBONNET, by the leading Native playwright Bruce King. These are stereotypes which Indians have employed against one another. When a Native playwright succeeds in creating an original, honest, and dramatically effective character, he or she is helping to create new images of Indian people, new role models, new performances of life, and this kind of creativity is definitely anti-stereotypes. I think we have a lot of work to do to start the process of renewing our storytelling traditions and identifying and eliminating a massive collection of stereotypes, not just images but attitudes, beliefs, and misconceptions. This is a challenge for all Native playwrights, novelists, poets, essayists, journalists, all of our creative writers.

3. Similarities and differences between Native theatre and feminist theatre?

The work of many of the playwrights in ethnic theater communities centers quite a bit on issues of identity, the sources and validity of identity, on the rights and privileges and special characteristics of members of these communities, on the struggle to achieve and maintain acceptance and understanding in the larger mainstream community. There are numerous crossover issues and characteristics of style and performance in many of these diverse theaters, and this applies as well to the Native theater and the feminist theater: many common goals, many shared experiences, many of the same needs and conflicts.

4. Could Native theater be financially beneficial to their communities, and in what ways?

Definitely, no question about it. Example: In 1996, when we started Project HOOP, we conferred with Lionel Bordeaux, President of Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota . Lionel said that it had been a dream of his for some years for the Lakota people of South Dakota to create, stage and present an annual outdoor drama about the journey, struggles and triumphs of the Lakota people in the Black Hills region, a production similar to UNTO THESE HILLS in Cherokee, N.C., and THE TRAIL OF TEARS at Tsa-La-Gi in Tahlequah, Oklahoma . Hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world visit the Black Hills every year, especially in the summer, and thousands of them attend the annual Passion Play production which is presented there. A Lakota-themed production on this scale could be a fantastic undertaking and could employ several hundred people, all Lakota, for as long as three months a year, which is a lot of performance time. And a lot of money could be made, a lot. There is really nothing to stop this from happening, somebody simply needs to organize planning, get it underway, get some funding, and move on from there.

On a smaller scale, a tribal community with a small theater facility could attract a lot of interested non-Indians with an exciting Indian theater production. This is not to say that a lot of money could be made here, but certainly some revenue could be generated, maybe if the performing arts production is connected to a nice tribal restaurant, gift shop/crafts center.

And many tribes have the talent to organize and present their own tribal dance theaters and to present the show in their performance venue and charge admission.

5. What's important to running a successful theater long-term?

A vision, of what the theater gives to the community, what it does to help the community live, grow, evolve, improve, and the upgrading and revising of that vision as it grows and matures.

A governing plan that will keep all selfish individuals, despots, self-seekers, egotists, unstables away from the decision-making process, including liars, swindlers, deluded dreamers, and phonies.

Faith in the creative artists who make the product, trust in their visions, support for their views, and a willingness to try new things, to be creatively adventurous, and not tied down to the strictly traditional and iron-clad adherence to the "old ways."

Keeping a constant, healthy, and responsible flow of financial support, ideally first and foremost from the tribe itself, available to the enterprise.

6. Where would a community theater receive its funding?

The tribes themselves much start supporting their creative artists. We have some financial resources now, especially the casino tribes. It really is galling to read that a gaming tribe in Southern California gives money to the San Diego Symphony Orchestra and not one penny to a Native American artistic project. This is not happening now, but we should unite and make sure that it will be happening real soon. The tribes have gotten away with not supporting their creative artists for long enough. An incredibly important resource is in need of support--now!

And there is always the NEA, though with not as much funding available as it once had, as well as state, county, city arts councils, various foundations, corporations that are willing to support something genuinely innovative and fresh.

7. Where does one hope Native theater will be in the future?

In every tribal community in the United States , and right now we are counting 540 tribes. All of them, regardless of how small, should have a tribal theater. One's imagination runs away here: There could be a circuit of hundreds of fabulous, funky Indian theater buildings/complexes/centers all over Indian Country. I think of the time in the early '70s when I walked all over New York looking for dozens of off-off Broadway theaters, all over the city. It was so cool, theaters in some of the most unexpected places, in converted storefronts and parking garages, lofts, many of them housing "hits".

I knew right then that this could and had to be duplicated in Indian Country. And, each one of these theaters will have a name. This can absolutely happen over the next 10 years, and if it doesn't, we Indian people will be failing ourselves.

9. Additional comments?

We all must keep the faith, and we all have to work very closely to make progress. We have to support one another, share, help out, volunteer, work for no pay, keep our imaginations in high gear, be thankful for our creative gifts, learn, acquire, study, rehearse, practice, be patient, and then add even more patience to that. The rewards will be fabulous: all kinds of shows, all over Indian Country, with Indians on those stages.

Aho, Hanay Geiogamah
Project HOOP Principal Investigator