Reclaiming Cultural Extractions: Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective’s Don't Feed the IndiansA Divine Comedy Pageant!by Adam R. Burnett
Over the past decade I’ve spent an increasing amount of time in New Mexico, particularly Albuquerque, where indigenous culture is woven intrinsically into the city which is within a two-hour drive, or less, to seventeen pueblos. The growth of Albuquerque is contained by the surrounding pueblos and sere geological landscape; to the south Isleta (Tue-I) pueblo, to the north Sandia (Na-Fiat) Pueblo, to the west the dormant volcanoes, and to the east the bulking Sandia Mountains. Due to proximity, I’ve had the privilege to visit a number of pueblos, including my partner’s family’s home in Jemez (Walatowa) for feast days. The Native perspective, and particularly Indigenous rights, are at the conscious forefront in this community and especially in daily conversations between me and my partner. Whenever I return to New York City I miss these conversations, the proximity, and the consideration of those whose land we continue to disrespect and whose rights we’ve historically ignored.
According to the 2010 census, New York City has one of the largest cumulative Native populations of any location in the United States, with nearly 112,000 individuals identifying as “American Indian” or “Alaskan Native.” However, in NYC and elsewhere, the First Nation experience is rarely presented to non-Native audiences, and often when it is, it is through the gaze of Hollywood white fantasies. I’ve been eager to see more representation of the Native experience in New York theater, particularly in the off-off-Broadway community which continues to be dominated by whitewashed stages. This is why the upcoming production of Don’t Feed the Indians—A Divine Comedy Pageant! and its creators, the Safe Harbor Indigenous Collective, feel so especially necessary.
Creator/director/performer Murielle Borst-Tarrant (Kuna/Rappahannock Nations), musical director/performer Kevin Tarrant (Hopi/Ho-Chunk Nations), and their daughter, performer Henu Josephine Tarrant (Hopi/Ho-Chunk/Kuna/Rappahannock Nations) are part of a lineage of First Nation performers that goes back nearly a century. Murielle’s mother, Muriel Miguel, is co-founder of the theater company Spiderwoman, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this past September. Performance is the spiritual narrative that tracks their history as both native New Yorkers and Native Americans who have spent their lives on and off the stage advocating for Indigenous stories and artists.
Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective’s mission is as much local as it is national: to support and present the works of Indigenous artists, and to integrate their voices into the American canon. Safe Harbors began out of a conversation between the artists and LaMaMa’s artistic director Mia Yoo. “Conversations,” Murielle says, “that were about how we are seen, how do we get programming together, and [have] space in NYC for hosting events and performances.”
From November 2 – 19, the collective will premiere their new work Don’t Feed the Indians at LaMaMa. The piece represents the culmination of six years of writing, devising, and creating a piece for and about the Native experience on and off the stage.
Over the course of my two-hour dialogue with Safe Harbors, a ceaseless flow of stories spread across the table, equally heart-wrenching and hilarious; the adage “laughing to keep from crying” as a centerpiece to the collective trauma First Nations have experienced in this country. Growing up, Murielle and Kevin performed together with their families. Yet the majority of their adult theatrical career, they have portrayed the Native experience from a white/colonialist perspective. Their first gig together, without their parents, was performing “Indian dances” for the Belmont Horse Fair where they shared a dressing room with a dancing horse. These are the kind of stories that prompt both laughter and painful reminders of appropriation and extraction throughout Indigenous American history.
“Another gig we had was dancing at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center on Thanksgiving day,” Murielle recollected.
“It was a great gig,” says Kevin.
Murielle laughs, “It was not a great gig!”
“We did twenty shows over the course of a 12-hour day, four of us dancing on a stage the size of a table. It was crazy,” Kevin says.
“These experiences,” their daughter, Henu, chimes in, “are so much of what the show is about.”
During early development of the work, when the company was devising around audition horror stories, Murielle recollects, “Someone said [...] that ‘being an Indian is hell.’ I thought, yeah, we should just do hell stories. Then I walked into The Strand and there was a pop-up book of Dante’s Inferno.[...] So I thought, let’s take this very Christian story and tell it from a Native American point of view.”
Don’t Feed the Indians takes the cabaret structure of a Wild West show and turns it on its head, dispersing a series of farcical and incendiary vignettes into cantos after Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The collective seems to be proposing: after so much appropriation of our culture, tradition, land, and resources—isn’t it time we get to appropriate on stage?
The play doesn’t parse with subtlety, instead favoring an aggressive, caustic humor paired with the harsh realities of what it means to be Native in this country. For example, after a bawdy exchange teaching the audience a “traditional Indian dance”—the wigwam wiggle—the troupe breaks for lunch and a startling confession arises:
I was the winner of the National Native American Youth Poetry Contest.
Me. A winner. I didn't have much courage to enter the contest. But, I
did. At school, the English teacher hands me a letter from the poetry
contest. I was so scared to open it. But, I did. It read: On behalf of the
National Native American Laureate Poets, we would like to congratulate
and give you the honor of being the winner of the National Native
American Youth Poetry Contest. Me! A winner! I was so nervous that
the other kids in school would be jealous of my simple achievement. He
says: Hey, Bro. Congratulations! How about you go with us to the Dairy
Bar after school to get a Coke float. To celebrate in your honor. We get
into his car. We drive away from the school and toward the Dairy Bar.
We drive past the Diary Bar and out of town down to the river. The car
stops and we get out. He says: We’ll show you what we do to you
GOOD Indians. Then he hit me. Then he hit me. He hit me. He hit me.
He hit me. I fell to the ground and he kicked me. Hard. They pull me up,
push me against the car, pull down my pants and my underwear. Then he
raped me. He raped me. He raped me. He raped me. He raped me. My
mind rose and floated above the car. I look down. I don’t want to see
what I am seeing. I want him to move but he can’t. Then I wake up. I
come back into my body and we are driving back toward town. Toward
the Dairy Bar. I don’t have a mark on my face and my shirt is only
slightly torn. He says: If you ever tell anyone, I know where you live
and I’ll kill you. We stop in front of the Dairy Bar. They let me out of
the car. He says: Goodbye, Indian! I walked home. Dad was asleep.
I cleaned myself up. I never told anyone. All because I was the winner
of the National Native American Youth Poetry contest.
Moments like this—a comedic interlude, to ferociously point out the racism of our pop cultural appropriations of the Native experience, followed by the gravity of the lived experience—occur throughout the script.
“There’s a history of extraction,” says Murielle, “Land extraction, water extraction, cultural extraction. Museums are full of our cultural extraction. You have this western framework of ballet and opera that we all studied, but we also have a culture of pow-wow singing and dance, which is just as important and where we get our centers from. It takes as much to be a champion pow-wow dancer as it does to be a ballerina.”
Like their precursor Spiderwoman, Safe Harbors intends on telling its own stories, stories that haven’t been seen or shared as a part of the “American canon.” The spiritual connection is undeniable for the collective, as is the rugged and profane—these disparities are ever present in Don’t Feed the Indians, and the contradictions harken to the individual and shared experiences of trauma.
Using the structure of The Divine Comedy led to a culminating discussion of where the play ultimately lands.
“At the end of the play we are in Paradise,” Henu says. “And we asked, what is Paradise for us? Paradise for us is a chance. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll succeed. We’ve talked about keeping it in a realistic place, right? We can’t end like—then we all get our land back—because that’s not going to make things perfect. Things will never be perfect.”
Kevin and Murielle nod in agreement.
Murielle quickly follows up, “We want to tell a story where we win. The job is not done. We have to convince people to tell these stories, to make them into the American canon.”
ContributorAdam R. Burnett
ADAM R. BURNETT is a playwright. In April, he will facilitate The Ecstatic Unknown, an environmental workshop for writers and performance-makers. adamrburnett.com