Native inclusion in performance art discussed during Indigenous Peoples’ Day event
EDMOND, Oklahoma — A fair amount of discussion has been held about the way Native Americans have been represented in movies throughout the years.
However, Carolyn Dunn has been working on a book about how tribal people have been included in another visual performance medium, theater.
‘…on how native theater practices can serve to decolonize American theater practices,’ she stated in an email. ‘That is, American theater really hasn’t been a friend to American Indian playwrights and performers until very recently.’
She said the work of Native theater companies has helped make the craft more accessible to Indian people.
‘We want to get not only more plays written and performed by American Indian and indigenous peoples in the U.S. but get our people out to experience how fun live theater can be,’ Dunn stated.
Dunn is a playwright, director, performer, poet and musician and her heritage includes Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Choctaw Freedmen, Tunica Choctaw Biloxi, Cree, Micmaq and Metis.
She presented on Native values and aesthetics, and how tribal people see themselves in theater during an Oct. 8 Indigenous Peoples’ Day presentation at the University of Central Oklahoma where she is artist in residence.
‘Plays by Arigon Starr (Kickapoo/Creek), Mary Kathryn Nagle (Cherokee) and Delanna Studi (Cherokee), as well as many other Oklahoma Indigenous writers, are being recognized by theater companies across the U.S.,’ Dunn stated.
Dunn stated there needs to be more playwrights and performers as well as a presentation of Native work to a broader base.
‘Oklahoma also has had good representation of tribal citizens in American theater, with Lynn Riggs (Cherokee), TeAta (Chickasaw); and later Hanay Geiogamah (Kiowa), but there really hasn’t been native voices in mainstream theater,’ she stated.
She believes theater is naturally inherit in Native customs stating, ‘we ARE American theater!’
‘We’ve been performing not only on stage, but our dances and ceremonies and songs are performances,’ Dunn stated.
Beyond her book and presentation, she has used her time at UCO to develop a base for the future of Native theater by teaching playwriting and storytelling.
Dunn’s own path started through the Indian Teacher and Educational Personnel Program at Humboldt State University in North California, which was one of the first American Indian teacher education programs in the country.
‘ITEPP started in 1969 to recruit and train Indians to become teachers, mostly at the elementary and junior high and high school levels, but I ended up deciding to teach college,’ she stated.
After HSU, Dunn started out working for public television, with experience gathered in radio and TV journalism while in college, but went on to graduate school at the University of California Los Angeles to pursue teaching college.
‘UCLA had and still has a great program for people in American Indian Studies, and I was able to study with Paula Gunn Allen when she was there. Dr. Gunn Allen was one of the first American Indian literary scholars, and also a poet, so it made sense for me to work with her,’ she stated.
She taught for a while, got married and started a family, and decided to get her doctorate at the University of Southern California where she mostly studied theater and literature.
Beyond the arts, she also started the consulting firm Diversity Education Partners with one of her colleagues where they, ‘do training on diversity, inclusion and civil rights in higher education from a social justice perspective.’
In regards to IPD and it sharing the same date with Columbus Day, Dunn believes this day in October is a new way to come to terms with the ‘Columbus legacy.’
‘I grew up in a community that had a very strong Italian American presence, and Christopher Columbus was always seen as a folk hero who created a new world for European settlement,’ she stated. ‘Some indigenous people see it as a celebration of genocide.’
Dunn stated allowing a shift towards viewing the day through an indigenous perspective allows a conversation about Columbus as well as the survival and resilience of Indian people.
‘…while recognizing that for most Americans, Columbus helped create American culture and values. It gives room for everyone to recognize the day for what it is,’ she stated.
Dunn is from Los Angeles and stated it was one of the largest cities to recognize IPD, and also has a large population of American Indian and indigenous people.
‘Not only does it include the Indian and indigenous perspectives, but it grounds the day in those perspectives and is a way to create space to recognize Indian people for our contributions to the American culture, and for the government to recognize its complicity in our genocide,’ she stated.
Dunn stated her parents were also born in Los Angeles, with her mother carrying the Creek name Brunner, and their families moved to California from Okemah, Louisiana and Mississippi in the 1930s looking for work.
‘I grew up in California with California Indians — Chumash and Tongva, and later spending a lot of time on Yurok tribal lands — but our family wasn’t involved with many pow wows or Indian church events when I was growing up,’ she stated.
Dunn stated she was always excited to meet other Creeks, Cherokees or Choctaws having not known many in California.
‘I always refer to myself as an Indian from California, but not a Californian Indian,’ she stated.
While her encounter with tribal functions may have been limited growing up, Dunn was immersed in part of what would become her career later in life.
‘I grew up in a family of storytellers and artists. Unfortunately the art gene skipped me, so writing became my art! I also love we can use English, a language that was taught to us to destroy us, can be manipulated in ways to show how natives view the world,’ she stated.