Systemic oppression of Indigenous people is not a story unique to Hawai‘i. Though every Indigenous culture’s narrative is unique in its own right, the arc of colonialism remains the same. But through oppression comes expression, and rather than remain oppressed, Indigenous people have always used art to educate and perpetuate cultural practices. Passed down from mother to child, grandfather to grandchild, in homes and schools, through dances and language – the diversity of Indigenous peoples’ history and its modern expression remains alive, growing, and thriving in communities around the world.
This summer, the Maui Arts & Cultural Center is hosting a confluence of three very different Indigenous art installments and performances that compliment our own Indigenous art scene.
First up is Rosy Simas, a Native American choreographer who – along with Sam Michell from the Texas Band of the Yaqui Indians – will host a dance workshop and audition on July 17 in preparation for a November 14 show entitled WEAVE.
The next day, July 18, the Dancers of Damelahamid, a dance troupe from the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, will host a movement workshop for all levels of experience ahead of their July 19 performance at the Castle Theater at 7:30pm.
At the same time, serendipitously, an exhibit of the First Nations Art of British Columbia is on display in the Schaefer Gallery until August 11.
I caught up with both Rosy Simas and Margaret Grenier of the Dancers of Damelahamid to talk story about the role and purpose of Indigenous art, its connection to the past, and Native artists’ way forward in this new era of Indigenous renaissance.
Rosy Simas and Sam Mitchell Present WEAVE
Rosy Simas is a Native American choreographer and dancer who will be offering a workshop July 17 in preparation for a November performance of WEAVE at the Castle Theater. From the workshop, which will also be an audition, Simas will invite five Maui residents to be a paid part of the November show. She also has other ideas swirling for working with the community in an outdoor performance, and plans to host more workshops around the November show.
Simas is Seneca, of the Heron clan. Her family is from New York, and she is based in Minneapolis. She also works in film and digital media. This will be her second show at the MACC. Simas also has some roots in Hawai‘i: Her mother grew up in Honolulu in the ’40s and early ’50s, and Simas has cousins who are Native Hawaiian and Seneca. “It’s a very rich and deep experience for me to be there,” she told me. “We’re excited about coming back. I taught a workshop last time I was there that was very well attended, and I look forward to engaging with the community again. When we do the piece in November, we’re going to be working with some performers from the Maui community.”
Simas teaches a unique dance aesthetic and movement. “When I’m teaching workshops, it’s structured to be an experience for the participants based on the movement and themes that we’re working on in whatever the current production is on. WEAVE is very much about listening, and moving from a place of listening. The movement quality varies depending on who is doing the movement, but it’s an improvisational-based work.”
“The movement is very deliberate, very concentrated. It is usually fairly slow in its pacing, but it’s movement that engages the whole body. It’s very expressive in the sense that it ends up being gestural.” Simas employs quadraphonic surround sound to encompass and engage the audience in the piece. “Listening is such a big part of the content of the work and building a relationship to each other and also to the audience.”
A quote from her website explains that her “choreographic work investigates how culture, history and identity are stored in the body and expressed in movement.”
Is that a part of the listening? I asked. Listening to cultural stories?
“Yes,” she answered. “My practice is listening. It’s only through listening that we can tap into those parts of culture and history that are stored in the body. Through listening, we can start to understand that story in an abstract way.”
We talked about Hawai‘i’s own history of oppression, and it’s subsequent cultural revival, much of which is expressed in dance and music. But Sima’s approach to weaving her cultural heritage with her dance expressions is unique.
“What’s different about what I do is that I don’t do any kind of native-contemporary fusion dance. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. I have good friends who do that. In our culture – I’m Haudenosaunee, which is the Six Nations, and one of the Six Nations is Seneca – the dances, except for the social dances, and our cultural practices, are not for public consumption. As I’ve always understood it, creating a fusion between that and some kind of Western European-based dance form actually goes against our own cultural beliefs. We follow The Great Law of Peace, and there are very specific rules about what you can do and what you can’t do. What I’m interested in, in my own body, is using this act of listening to generate movement. I believe that the kind of movement that I am generating is stored in my body from my ancestors. So it may not look like a social dance, but the movement is from that same place, that origin from the stories of my ancestors. It’s just going to be expressed differently.
“I work with a lot of people who are not Native. In fact in this upcoming production there is only one Native person [Sam Mitchell]. He is Yaqui and will be coming to teach the workshop with me. I wanted to be able to create something in which anyone could utilize the message to be able to tap into movement this way. And that’s very clear in WEAVE, because the performers are from such different backgrounds and cultural experiences. Whether the cultural experience is being LGBT, or something identified as cultural ethnicity, or being African American, or being in America now – all of those things play into who we are, and using listening as a way to generate material that comes to us from our families and ancestors, and then bringing all of that material together to create a whole piece or story within a larger story. That’s really what WEAVE is.”
I asked Simas what she thinks is the role of art and dance in modern indiginous cultures. “That’s a great question,” she mused. “There are lots of different kinds of artists.” She described a cousin, who teaches social dances to not only Haudenosaunee young people, but also performances and workshops to teach the Haudenosaunee culture to the public. “That kind of artistry is very important. Especially in New York, it’s really important for people who are not Native to really understand the people whose land they are living on. That’s very important. I’m much more of an abstract artist. My work is metaphorical, it’s literal, and it’s abstract all at once. I think the contemporary expression – this other way of expressing culture and history – is very important too. There’s this idea that as Native people, we’re somehow caught in a time capsule, which is defined by Edward Curtis paintings or the movie Hawaii. We’re all stuck, in the eyes of the larger population. But we’ve always been contemporary people. We’ve always taken what was given to us or traded with us and created art with it. That doesn’t have to start at what is considered ‘traditional’ costumes for Powwow. We can use any tools and any materials that are at our disposal to be able to create work that is in the here and now.”
Simas’ approach to her work is also influenced by the concept of audience, or who a performance or art is created for.
“I make my work for other Indigenous people,” Simas told me. “The reason that I do that is that just like an author, when you’re writing or creating something, you’re thinking about who is going to see that. If I always keep a Native audience in mind, then I’m not going to accidentally play into educating, or explaining in a Western-Euro way to non-Native people. There are lots of people who do that, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But what it ends up being for me is something that is much more authentic to who I am, and then that can be shared with anybody. We read authors and see films, books, and art that is created for white audiences all the time. We as Native people are already over-exposed to these [Western] voices, and we really need to hear Native voices talking to each other. But what a great experience for non-Native people to experience the art of Native people talking to other Native people.” In this way, Simas’ work avoids the pitfalls of the gaze. “I’m sure that conversation comes up in hula.”
It does. As culture continually evolves, there are healthy debates about contemporary expressions of Indigenous art, including hula. The question of whether hula should be performed at hotels for commercial purposes, for example, is one traditionalists ponder. What is hula is meant to be, and who is the audience? In contemporary Hawai‘i, cultural representations at hotels and in films are examined critically. The question of who creates, consumes, and perpetuates cultural practices, as well as issues of representation and audience, are all issues we tangle with on a daily basis in Hawai‘i.
Immediately following Simas’ workshop, a First Nations dance troupe with a complementary yet contrasting form will host another workshop and performance. Though both groups are contemporary, the execution is vastly different, and shows the range in how culture can be manifested in modern dance forms.
Dancers of Damelahamid
Ahead of speaking to Margaret Grenier, the director, choreographer, and a performer of the Dancers of Damelahamid, I watched clips of the company’s performances. Even this small insight showed the beauty and power of the expression of their culture. There were elaborate traditional costumes with carved masks, intricate movements with themes ranging from war to nature to community, and a deep beat accompanied by resonant singing that raised the hairs on my neck. In person, the show is clearly as much an experience as a performance.
I spoke with Grenier from her home in Vancouver. “This is something I had the opportunity to grow up with,” she told me. “I’ve been dancing since I was very young. I was the first generation to do that.” Grenier spoke to another grim parallel between her Nation’s experience and the experience of Native Hawaiians: “Here on the west coast of Canada, there was a law that was implemented called the Potlatch Ban, and it made our dances illegal. That lasted up until 1951, and then at that time my parents, Ken and Margaret Harris, worked to revitalize dance. Then my generation was the first generation to again have dance.”
The Dancers of Damelahamid are of the Gitxsan Nation, and the name of the troupe is taken from the Gitxsan’s origin story, when the Nation established itself in the city of Damelahamid, which translates to “paradise,” in the Ice Age, on what is today the Skeena river.
Grenier’s parents were instrumental in reviving the Gitxsan cultural dances, and this year they were recognized in the Dance Hall of Fame for their work in revitalizing the dance form. Her mother, close to 90, is an elder to the troupe, and her father has passed away.
There are eight performers in the company. “We continue to work as a family,” Grenier told me. The dancers include her two adult children, her son’s wife and two young children, and other extended family. “It’s now moved on to the next generation.”
The Dancers of Damelahamid are rooted in their traditional culture. “The work that we’re sharing is very much based within our traditional form,” Grenier explained. “Our company is unique here in Canada [because] we really are grounded and have a foundation within our traditional dance form. For many communities, their Indigenous practices were lost, so I always consider us fortunate that we had the opportunity to be able to continue this practice.” In addition to the ancient forms, the company also composes and choreographs new works grounded in traditional dance forms, with elements of contemporary expression and videography.
The day before the show, the Dancers will host a workshop open to all ages. “Our workshops are movement-based workshops; they’re intended to introduce participants to our movement and how we express story through movement. What’s very unique and important to what we do is the cultural foundation that we work within, so part of the workshop will be background and context given to our culture and where the dance form comes from as well.”
Grenier and I also discussed the similarities between Native Hawaiian and Gitxsan culture. “I think there are certain parallels within the colonial history. People who are practicing dance today are very much aware of how easily these practices can be lost. There is an immense amount of value in the opportunity to not only do your own practices, but to have the opportunity to share and witness in the art of other Indigenous peoples. Through those connections, we have the opportunity to be inspired and strengthened in our own practices.”
Grenier also sees a more specific connection between the Gitxsan and Pacific Nations. “I think there is a strong connection with Hawai‘i and other Indigenous people of the Pacific because we are all canoe people. There is a strong connection that I see in our cultural history and stories. I feel so much more enriched when I have the opportunity to hear the stories and histories from other places.”
Another similarity to Hawaiian culture is the Grenier and her company’s focus on the enrichment of youth and the importance of passing on knowledge. “For me, the importance of what we’re doing is really how this will be carried forward to the next generation,” said Grenier. “We’re coming with young dancers as well who are practicing. That to me is why we do it. That’s how I feel when I see the success of our company. Maintaining that from one generation to the next, to me, is my main goal, inspiration, and drive.”
With the insights from Grenier and Simas swirling in my head, I dropped by the MACC on a sunny day to check out the First Nations Art of British Columbia to view another contemporary expression of Indigenous art from eight diverse artists. The exhibit displays works from “artists who have a deep respect for traditional practice yet are keenly aware of their relationship to history and their place in contemporary First Nations culture.” These artists, though using different media, are also diving into the complexity of combining tradition and modernity, perpetuating ancient values through modern expressions, and weaving the experiences of the past into the lives of those living in the here and now.
The art on display speaks to those ideas: Traditional masks, striking in their use of color and powerful in their expression, combining traditional horsehair and the contemporary material of acrylic. There are what looks like ancient artifacts on display alongside skateboards and snowboards decorated with traditional, softly geometric forms. There is a strange and wonderful painting that speaks to corporate greed and the “new world order,” abstracts and carvings, sculptural drums and boxes. The works are all so different in texture, shape and form, but they are also similar: Organic and alive, complex and beautiful.
There are common threads woven through the experiences and expressions of the Seneca and the Gitxsan, and the arts of the First Nations on display in the Schaefer Gallery. These threads are also visible in the patterns of modern Hawaiian art, from Manaola’s clothing designs to films like Kuleana and endeavors like the Hokule‘a. Art’s purpose here is to salve cultural wounds, to explain or express difficult concepts, to perpetuate ancient human experiences, and to highlight the need to connect and experience the past while living solidly in the here and now. These purposes can connect us all.
Cover design by Darris Hurst.
Images courtesy MACC