The ICR is a recurring gathering of dance artists and scholars who work in the area of Indigenous dance. We gather on the current and ancestral land of the Cahuilla, Tongva, Serrano, Luiseño (Payómkawichum), Cupeño and Kumeyaay Peoples, where the University of California, Riverside is located. Once a year (sometimes every 18 months) Indigenous dance artists and Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars come together for a day, or a few days, or sometimes a couple of weeks, to share dances, ideas, and teachings with each other and with the UC Riverside and surrounding community. What happens in each ICR depends on what is needed, who is coming, what funding is available. Each year we are doing something we have never done before- building something that has not yet been built – and so we don’t know quite what it will be until we are here together, doing it, though we have a focus, and an intention. Often, beautiful things happen, moments of joy and clarity and excitement and connection. We study, we share, we move and play. We talk and listen (and listen more). We stay curious, and critical, and kind. Sometimes we stumble and misstep, and things are difficult. And then we pause, build our stamina to regroup, reconsider, and clear a better path for the next time. Sometimes our stamina waivers, and we swear there won’t be a next time. And then people start to ask – when is the next time? – and so we start to wonder again. “We” includes whoever shows up, but at the center are those Indigenous dance artists specifically invited—which depends on our focus and resources – and those who hear about the gathering, and come to be part. Everyone is welcome, and all public events are free, though sometimes our space is limited. Sometimes we have an “outcome” (in 2015, we shared writing for a special issue of DRJ on “Indigenous Dance Today.” LINK; this year we are sharing writing for a proposed anthology). Usually the gatherings are themselves the outcome, with ongoing reverberations in many of our lives and careers.
I am a 3rd to 7th generation settler to this continent, born in Brooklyn (Lenapehoking), raised in rural New England (mostly Abenaki and Pequot territory), on colonized land steeped in an Indigenous ‘erasism’ pronounced then and continuing still in much of the continent. My great-grandparents came there from Ireland and Wales and French Canada. Stories go, my maternal great grandfather spoke the language (Welch) and was a delightful and beloved fixture in his community, pockets full of candy and trails of kids behind him, always singing. Other ancestors had been on that territory longer, for generations, mostly in what we called the Lake Champlain region of New York State and Vermont–some as active part of battles to colonize there–and before that from England, France, and what is now Germany. My connection to Indigenous studies came through frustrations with the understandings of storytelling, and of the world, presented to me in graduate schools. It continued when I was newly arrived on the UCR campus and working to learn more about what Indigenous dance artists were doing, and why they seemed largely absented from the Critical Dance Studies field I had joined. As I began noticing the erasure of Indigenous contributions in modern dance histories — which I would come to address in my published scholarship – I also sought to address this erasure by opening up possibilities for Indigenous choreographers to represent themselves and their work within academic settings.
In 2000, I began inviting Indigenous dance artists to give workshops, lectures, and showings to UCR students. Compelled by their work and by dance as a powerful site of Indigenous articulation and enactment, in 2004 I co-organized, together with UCR English professor Michelle Raheja, “Red Rhythms: Contemporary Methodologies in American Indian Dance,” which brought together dozens of participants for several days of performances and dialogue. This groundbreaking event sparked further connections, and what had been periodic artist visits started to become — out of need and excitement — magnet gatherings, drawing multiple dance artists and scholars together at the same time. Since 2011, annual “Indigenous Choreographer at Riverside” gatherings have ranged from two-week residencies, to one-day showings and discussions, to multi-day symposia and workshops with a half-dozen dance artists, as well as professors, students, visiting scholars, Native community members, dance presenters, curators, and organizers. ICR gatherings include performances, opportunities for formal and informal dialogue, classes and workshops, and partnerships with Sherman Indian High School, and Noli Indian School. Some dance artists have been able to come every year, building community, and enabling ongoing connection and discussion. Each year new artists and scholars join, and then (often) return. As this has happened the project, and its infrastructure, have grown.
Until 2017, I’ve been coordinating the ICR in collaborative consultation with previous Indigenous ICR dancer-scholar participants, among them Rulan Tangen and Jack Gray, who have served as generous, ongoing, advisors. Starting with the 2018 ICR, María Regina Firmino-Castillo, who has been a past ICR participant and is now also a professor in UCR’s Critical Dance Studies Program, comes on board officially as ICR co-director, bringing her expertise, energy, acumen, warmth and insights into shaping the gathering. Delightful things are happening.
ICR is an integral fixture that positions the practice based methodologies of global dance makers who variously inhabit multiple worlds, realms and spaces and seek to recentre Indigenous knowing, primarily expressed through the physical, emotional, spiritual and historical body. One of the main considerations for me as a Maori contemporary dance maker from Aotearoa (New Zealand) has always been in conceptualising how to ground my cultural and ancestral rituals within the context of the United States. I have found three main experiences to be particularly resonant. There is the feeling of being a sole representative of a peoples, values and ideologies that give us a sense of existence and relativity. This culture ambassadorship as a process means that communicating becomes a medium of negotiation for presenting how we think and see the world, maintaining intrinsic connection to one’s self whilst acknowledging other peoples’ identity and experiences simultaneously. The second feeling is a welling up of empathy, in recognition of historical injustices still being fought today by Native American people and communities. The fight centres on a need to claim presence and authority (which Maori call Mana) as Indigenous custodians, knowledge keepers and bearers since time immemorial. The third feeling is a sense of unease with how institutions enact a type of colonising in the present, through systematic bias and prejudice that are connected to larger issues of reconciliation that have not been acknowledged, and desperately need to, for everyone’s liberation. Over the years of my participation, we have performed various bodies of both resurgence, resilience and revitalisation. More to the point, with all movements at the heart lay the people. In my cultural proverb, he aha te mea nui o te Ao (what is the most important thing in the world?) he tangata, he tangata, he tangata (tis the people, the people, the people). The triplicate of ‘he tangata’ is a past, present and future statement of people being the ongoing conduit reflecting our human experience of the planet. I am a great advocate of the evolution and maturing of the work being done all around the world, and thank Jacqueline Shea Murphy for keeping the home fires burning and always providing a space for practitioners like me to have, albeit temporarily, a home.
Look at the night sky, the longer you look the more layers of light you see. Our Indigenous world are those layers into infinite universe reflecting past present and future, while this renaissance of Indigenous dancemakers are a small bright constellation that you can see clearly . Beacons, pathfinders, lighting the way for others. There are not so many of us, yet ( there will be, with the concentrated actions of each leader, and the academics who write about them, and the students and audiences who witness and are forever transformed ), and we work in a spreadout global diaspora, separated and working on the issues of our time: identity affirmation, relocation, reclamation of language, fighting to be recognized as modern people, as carriers of ancient knowledge, and in the case of Dancing Earth, dancing for cultural rooted ecological re-balancing of the planet. To be welcomed to a space, repeatedly, altogether not separated, even without full resources of time and space, is so rare and so powerful. It becomes an oasis, to be welcomed to gather together to smudge, speak, share, engage, to soak up eachothers’ good medicine, cheer each others’ victories and strategize together against challenges. The desert of our California relatives has long been a place to invite dreaming , and from the first gathering 7 years ago, we have seen unimaginable blossoming of the participants. And this year we step up, while in the past we have been bitingly aware of how much more support there is for Indigenous dance in Canada, Australia, Aotearoa, this year we re-examine our privilege to stand in support and celebration of the resilient Grupo Sot’zil, who represent peoples’ surviving continued attempts at cultural genocide,and who make their art from the true source of ritual, grounding us all in their reality and uplifting us with the power of imagination. I am so grateful to anticipate the powerful medicine of this convergence, and like a foraging deer, I return annually, with much to give and receive. This will be my first professional engagement after receiving the historic Kennedy Center Citizen Artist award, and I am happy and humbled to share this with my peers, and consider our collective legacy, a legacy that ICR alone in the US gives us a chance to gather and envision.
Photo credit: Indigenous Choreographers at Riverside 2015/Jonathan Godoy