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Process Talk: Celebrating Native Artists

By Emma Miller, Literary Office Coordinator

There is a large community of Native artists making work here in New York City, but The Thanksgiving Play marks the first time Playwrights Horizons has produced a play by an Indigenous author. We are working with Larissa to surround this production with the work of other Indigenous artists. Here — by no means an exhaustive list — we are excited to spotlight just a few companies and individuals whose work you can see and support in New York. We are looking forward to establishing ways to connect with these communities, so visit our website for more information, and look for emails from us detailing events and other ways to engage.   

Lisa Mayo, Gloria Miguel, and Murial Miguel.

Spiderwoman Theater, a Brooklyn-based Indigenous women’s theater ensemble, was founded in 1975 by Artistic Director Muriel Miguel. Miguel and her sisters Lisa and Gloria (also founding members) are elders from the Kuna and Rappahannock Nations. The trio, known for their bold humor and down-to-earth accessibility, were lauded by The New York Times for “engaging and confounding audiences for decades.” Using storyweaving in the development of their work, Spiderwoman creates theater steeped in Indigenous tradition and centered around hot-button issues. Their work, detailing who they are and where they come from, often takes the audience on an intricately woven personal ride. 

Photo by Troy Paul (Maliseet) 2010

American Indian Artists Inc, or Amerinda, is still the only organization of its kind in the New York City area: The non-profit works to bolster Indigenous voices through public policy advocacy, fiscal sponsorship, and advising. Amerinda is home to the Native Shakespeare Ensemble, which produces classic theater through a new lens, and provides a home for new works by Indigenous writers. The website also hosts the Native American Artists Roster, an online database meant to help empower Native artists to connect with each other and find work in the New York theater community at large.

The First Nations Theater Guild, founded in 2018, is a new organization by and for First Nations artists. The Guild, whose mantra is “Nothing About Us Without Us,” was formed by artists who came together to support each other’s work and to discuss what was on their minds, from blood quantum laws to cultural appropriation in art. Initial gatherings revealed the Guild’s guiding principles, including their belief that “theater/art moves each of us to make a difference, to pass on ancestral knowledge, and to simply extend a hand of generosity.” In June, FNTG hosted “Come To The Fire,” an evening focused on lifting up the voices and perspectives of Indigenous people at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. 

Vickie Ramirez is a Tuscarora playwright and an alumna of The Public’s Emerging Writers Group. She has said her work, which has been developed across the country, concerns “intersectionality, colonialism, and the chaos it keeps conflicting on our ever changing society.” Her recent play Standoff At Hwy#37, about a land-claim protest, represented just that. Ramirez “has a way of turning traditional ‘American’ assumptions on their head by asserting elements of Native culture,” said LA Weekly in a review of Standoff’s world premiere. A vital voice, she tells stories that explore “who has the right to feel oppressed.”  

The Eagle Project, founded in 2012 by Ryan Victor Pierce, aims to use the arts — specifically, Native-centric storytelling — to investigate what it means to be American. Dedicated to incubating new work, The Eagle Project is writer-focused and runs Hatch, a new play development programming arm. Recently, the company produced a reimagined adaptation of Uncle Vanya and presented Lost Voices, an evening of short plays about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. At the core of The Eagle Project’s work is the belief that the theater they produce can present “a true recollection of our past, a better understanding of our present, for a just and more inclusive vision for our future.” 

Madeline Sayet by Bret Hartman for National Endowment for the Arts

Madeline Sayet is a Mohegan director and writer whose reimagined Shakespeare productions earned her the White House Champion of Change Award. Sayet’s spellbinding and intersectional work often brings both an Indigenous and feminist perspective to a classic text. She’s also a published writer, whose articles on the importance of Indigenous narratives have appeared in The Huffington Post. On drawing inspiration from her heritage, Sayet said in an interview with The Day, “My beliefs came from the ground I was living on. I know my ancestors are still all around me, looking out for me, and their stories carve my path.” 

Ty Defoe by John Edmonds for The Fader Magazine

Ty Defoe is a Two-Spirit, interdisciplinary artist and educator from the Ojibwe and Onieda Nations. Defoe travels the country leading workshops and sharing Hoop Dancing, a “saving grace in terms of passing culture on to the future.” Along with Larissa FastHorse, Defoe is a co-founder of Indigenous Direction, through which they bring an Indigenous point of view to art-making. Defoe, who is also a librettist, won a Grammy Award in 2008 for Come to Me Great Mystery, an album of Native American healing songs. Cultural Society Magazine praises Defoe, whose work seeks “to manifest as well as facilitate individual expression of uniqueness.” Currently, Defoe appears on Broadway in Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, appearing alongside Kate Bornstein, Armie Hammer, and others.