Advancing Indigenous Performance - The Journey Begins

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

By Ed Bourgeois

I lived in Alaska for over thirty years. Having grown up as an Army brat, it was the only place I’d ever lived longer than three years at a time. And everything in Alaska – her rivers, her land, all the animals and humans – in one way or another take part in and benefit from one of the world’s great natural wonders: the migration cycle of the Pacific salmon. Every year since time immemorial, runs of millions of salmon – king, pink, chum, silver – have returned to the rivers and streams of their birth to create the next generations, provide for their survival, and along the way feed the People, the human ones and the non-human ones.

Joining the WAA staff this week as the new Program Manager of Advancing Indigenous Performance (AIP) feels a lot like leaving the ocean and turning upriver to begin a similar epic journey. The current is strong and challenging, the water fresh and new, the bottom vaguely familiar, and I know there will be obstacles to jump along the way.  It will be an exciting and rewarding adventure, guided by a vision of our original home and driven by our responsibility to make a place for those coming up behind us, just our ancestors made a path for us.

By now you all have heard about WAA’s new program, Advancing Indigenous Performance, and I’m sure you’re anxious to learn more. Good. That’s why I’m here. Because I see our AIP mission as two-fold: one, to identify and avail Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian artists of the tools, networks and resources that enable all successful touring artists to make connections, book and give stellar performances; and two, to develop a thriving circuit for Native performers by giving presenters and agents what you want: top-notch acts, tour-ready packages, and an understanding of the values, goals and motivations of Native artists and their connections to the communities that make up your audiences. 

We’ve heard from colleagues that there is a dearth of Native performers on touring rosters and producers are actively working to increase the number of offerings available to book. We’ve been told that there are plenty of presenters interested in hosting Native artists but don’t feel they know enough about protocols, or about their local indigenous community and how to engage them. It seems complicated and no one wants to step on toes or inadvertently offend. That’s completely understandable. And appreciated. And a great place to start our conversation.

Because just like your work with any other artists, working with AIP artists is about first building relationships. And my job is to introduce you to and help nurture relationships with our artists – the AIP Launchpad artists, our AIP Fellows, and the galaxy of Native artists out there that should be part of your seasons to come. So let’s do that. I look forward to having you call or email me to get that dialogue going. I’m here to send you information – general info on Native cultures; maybe help you get to know who the original peoples of the land you live on are; or maybe you’d like to brainstorm about what Native artists might have a connection to your region. I plan to supply you with everything you could want to know about our artists, their backgrounds, practices and stories.

There’s another resource you can connect with as a WAA member – our AIP consulting partner, Indigenous Direction, “a consulting firm for companies and artists who want to create accurate work about, for and with Indigenous Peoples” (from their website, www.indigenousdirection.com). Founders of the agency, Larissa FastHorse (Sicangu Lakota) and Ty Defoe (Ojibwe/Oneida) are seasoned theatre artists – Larissa’s The Thanksgiving Play is currently running at Playwrights Horizons (NYC) and Ty recently completed his Broadway debut in Straight White Men at the Hayes Theatre. Indigenous Direction assist you in building bridges with Native artists and communities through staff and board education and training, facilitation of relations with your Native communities, and understanding of protocols. Let me know if your organization would like a quote for their consultation services; they can help you make a path for Indigenous artists in your community.

Or, just start out with a conversation. I’ll be waiting by the phone.  

I should introduce myself to you. My name is Ed. My family is French-Canadian and Mohawk, with roots in Montreal and Kahnawake. I am a theatre artist (actor/playwright/director) with over 20 years of arts administration experience with Anchorage Opera, the Alaska Native Heritage Center and PA’I Foundation (Honolulu, HI). Working with Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian organizations has given me the opportunity to build relationships across a wide spectrum of networks and I look forward to connecting them all with WAA and you. Having worked with an opera company means I own a tux.

My first direct experience with WAA came this Fall when I was invited to be an AIP Fellow in the inaugural cohort. I met some of you at the WAA Conference in Las Vegas, and connected with old friends from Alaska. Meeting all the AIP Native artists, I was immediately struck by the warm spirit of the group – I already knew by reputation of their considerable talents – and it wasn’t much of a leap to consider that managing a program like this would be a dream job. 

Thanks to Tim for bringing me on to the WAA staff. It is an honor to serve this group of artists, and all the new ones to come. The water is swift and cold (I have been living in Hawai’i, after all,) but I am surrounded by really strong swimmers on this team, we have a strong vision to guide us and a responsibility that will require all our stamina: building equity for all in this wonderful river we call home.

Ed Bourgeois (Mohawk descendant/hunka (adopted) Dakota) is Program Manager of Advancing Indigenous Performance at WAA. He can be reached at 503-274-4729 or ebourgeois@westarts.org.

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Ed Bourgeois

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