Reflections on participating in the Regeneration Project “ethnographic pop-up theatre” at the 2016 annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association
By Tamar V.S. McKee, Ph.D.
Located on the unceded territory of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh First Nation, my current home of Squamish, British Columbia (where I serve as a professor in anthropology at Quest University Canada) is a far cry from the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. While social media brought the #NoDAPL protest into my everyday consciousness since August 2016, I often felt this physical distance acutely when adamant postings and strident conversations across social media platforms like Facebook only felt like I was screaming into the wind. I felt the action of solidary, but did anyone else receive it? As we watched people flock to Sacred Stone Camp and affiliated camps, my husband and I so wanted to jump into our van and head east, but life with a young family and the oncoming winter told us this was not wise or feasible.
That is why when I attended the 2016 AAA meetings in Minneapolis and heard of the planned Standing Rock / #NoDAPL rally, I found myself outside the convention center where the meetings were being held, joining the circle of other attendees holding banners, signs, and flyers to show their solidarity with the Water Protectors. Occurring just a week after the election of Donald Trump, being able to finally join my solidarity in-person with others felt doubly critical and healing – if only for a cold but solemn moment in the Minneapolis chill.
So when Deb stepped up to the megaphone and announced her ethnographic pop-up theatre initiative and its intention to raise consciousness and donations for Standing Rock, I knew immediately that I was in. By Deb’s invitation, we were being called to not only further stand in solidarity with the Water Protectors but to literally act for them – and in the process raise some much-needed funds. Finally, I did not feel like I needed to scream into the wind anymore.
Deb’s session began early the next morning, and I arrived to join a number of anthropologists already in the room. Contrary to the many sessions I attended at the meetings, this group felt and (quite frankly) looked different than my usual AAA cohort or my colleagues back in Squamish. It would take more rigorous research and reflection than this piece allows to look into why that was, but all I knew at the time and remains with me still, was that it was refreshing and – again, this word comes up for me – healing to join such diverse company for the cause of Standing Rock.
As we all formed a circle and moved into the warm-up exercises guided by Deb, another sense of distance slowly emerged for me, reminding me of a childhood when I acted in local theater groups back in my home state of Colorado. My longing to become a performer had long since been eclipsed by the academic path, but in that convergence of the AAAs, Standing Rock, and Deb’s Re-Generation Initiative, the two identities and desires could at last coexist. In audionotes I took after the experience, I shared: “Felt really good to be able to express towards something I felt so personally, spiritually, and politically passionate about. Such a good, revitalizing combination.”
Warm-ups complete, Deb then led us into the heart of what the Ethnographic Theatre of the Contemporary would be for our specific performance. “WATER IS LIFE!” was the slogan we were to effervescently manifest by performing together. What did such a performance look like? First, a selection of the attendees were called upon by Deb to read pieces both written by themselves and others. They were a combination of spoken word poetry about Standing Rock and attendant, timely co-struggles in the U.S. (such as #blacklivesmatter), or excerpts from fieldwork interviews indexing Australian Aboriginal resistance movements to natural resource extraction and political oppression. Then Deb read an excerpt from a conversation she had while at Standing Rock with Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Iroquois Confederacy. “We know those dogs, they fed us to those dogs,” Lyons told her, in tandem reference to the mercenary dogs who were sicked on Water Protectors in North Dakota in September 2016, as well as the violence wrought by Columbus’ first encounters with indigenous resistance in the now-U.S.
After these pieces were read, Deb gave us our first “scene” to act out: that of repeating a phrase we heard in, or was inspired by, one of the pieces just read. We were to walk around each other while repeating a phrase, encouraged to change direction when the moment felt right, and even change the phrase we were saying if we heard something from someone else that bore repeating or reinterpreting. With that, on Deb’s cue we were sent into frenetic motion, “scurrying” as I recalled it in my audio notes. What did I end up repeating? It actually was not anything I heard in the pieces or the phrases my fellow performers were saying. What “bubbled up” for me as if it “had a life of its own,” however, was still in reaction to everything we were doing:
“It’s too painful, it’s too painful, it’s too painful…”
After chanting this around the room for a bit, it came to me to hold my hands up to the sides of my face like I had blinders, as if to say, “it’s too painful [I don’t want to see].” I do not know if anyone else said the same thing over and over again, or had a repetative, performative signature action; I just stayed in my tunnel vision and mantra. Every now and then, if what I overhead from someone came across loud and clear, I’d shift my mantra to: “stop saying that, it’s too painful…”
Why did these discursive and performative gestures become my form of embodied expression and, ultimately, my contribution to our official performance? As I reflected upon this in my audionotes:
[…]the whole point was to act like someone who was too afraid, too cowardly, too emotionally-incapable to see beyond herself, to be able to bear witness, much less do anything, for the surrounding suffering and rage. Afflicted from afar, called into seeing via Facebook and the distance, the privilege bubble (and then some) – but could also hide behind, disconnect from it with the swipe of a screen or the click of a button. “It calls upon me in ways that I say are too painful… Would require a painful extraction from my everyday apathy, compliance with the structures that enable me but constrain the others… It’s too painful to confront, to change, to engage, to agree with your side, to acknowledge beyond the active silence and response in my head…”
In addition to acting out someone who was scared of confrontation (to say the least), I also felt as though my performance could be read in a radically juxtaposing way:
My performance could also be doubly read as speaking for the victims of the problems (Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, Trump, violent hegemony and oppression, etc) we were entangling as a performative group: “it’s too painful” could also be read as someone feeling so hurt, so victimized, so threatened, so disempowered as to feel crippled by the pain. Traumatized into inaction.
But during one point in rehearsal, when Deb then called out to “stop!” and address the person we ended up facing, another, more trouble juxtaposition showed itself to me:
At one point in our scurrying rehearsal, Deb asked us to “stop!” and turn to whomever we were closest to and repeat our sayings. I ended up next to an African-American woman who, during our name introduction exercises, said her name (it now eludes me) and then “fight!” with a fisticuffs gesture. She repeated her [rehearsal] phrase, “I can’t breathe!” and I countered with “its too painful.” As we kept repeating our phrases, so much came out for me. It was like she was telling me there was a problem – I CAN’T BREATHE – and I was copping out on her: “It is too painful to help you. I cannot help you because it is too painful.” Our skin color suddenly became symbolic vehicles, and we were performing representations of how different racial populations approached and experienced social discord [when “white” and “black” were placed in apartheid-like hierarchical value to each other]. African-American communities and individuals in the US [are] crying out for air to breathe both in symbolic and visceral ways. “Come bear witness! Come climb out of that bubble!” Euro-American communities and individuals, seeing this pain and suffering, both acknowledge it but ultimately privilege their own pain over any action or lasting solidarity. Reaffirmation of these blinders.
We were acting, but with every repetition of the words I felt the meaning of them shift and grow. I did start feeling like I was a white person who would truly say “It’s too painful, I can’t deal with this.” I live and know this history a lot more closely than an African-American one; I felt indicted for the 500 year old privilege my skin color has conferred onto people appearing as I do. I cannot represent beyond this, but I can help represent beyond this. What is that fine line between acting a position and being that position…?
Such radical, and revealing, reflexivity about our situatedness as performers and symbolism as characters was but one aspect of what made our performances “ethnographic.” Our performances were also “interpretations of interpretations,” as Geertz always reminds us, for at key moments in our rehearsal there were other pauses to consider what we were doing – but this time as a group when we were imagining and constructing group “tableaus.”
After our individual mantric scurrying, Deb then coached us on how to make “tableaus” and why. Collectively, we decided on isolating out four phrases from our scurry session to illustrate in groups of 4-6 fellow participants. I ended up helping illustrate – “Our voices take flight, with Dakota we fight!” – with the author of the spoken word piece from which this saying came from, a woman who I had done eye-contact exercises with in the warm-ups, and the woman with whom I had previously exchanged the eye-opening (no pun intended) phrases with. What serendipity to be in this group! Our tableau came together so effortlessly (as I think everyone’s did), even though intrinsic to the exercise is that no one plans together ahead of time what they are going to do. Instead, Deb just counted to “three” and we all struck a pose that we felt best illustrated our group’s phrase. Each group performed our tableau poses for each other, and the groups who were not performing analyzed the performing group’s tableau for how it gestured to the chosen phrase in what was evidently an embodied, symbolic, and discursive entanglement.
Finally it came time to perform this first in “public,” which became whomever passed by our performance space in the lobby of the Minneapolis Convention Centre. Deb designated this space with a line of “Water is Life” flyers and nondescript bag in which people could offer donations, as we were essentially busking for money. “Water is life!” she called out to commence the performance, and we began our mantras and scurrying about. “It’s too painful….” “I can’t breathe!” “We know those dogs…” murmured across our performative mass until Deb called out the signifying “WATER IS LIFE!” and we all gestured towards the reading of the spoken word poem about Standing Rock, including our tableau phrase, “our voices take flight, with Dakota we fight!” After the spoken pieces were read, we then performed our tableaus in pre-determined succession, ending with “the struggle ends in our beloved country!” which I took to be inspired by the piece about Australian Aboriginal struggles over political sovereignty and respect.
And what of our tableau, “our voices take flight, with Dakota we fight!”? What did our serendipitously-configured group come up with? In the final performance, our tableaus ended up coming together in three counts instead of just the instantaneous freeze we started with. For our first count, we all started low to the ground, as if we were fighting off boots and batons that wanted to crush us. On count “two,” we started to rise, emerging from our abuse, ready to take action. On count “three” we hit our final and cumulating poses. Some of us stayed low, still fighting off assault. Others started literally reaching out as if to allies standing right next to them or as witnesses just a few steps away. For my part, I paradoxically did what could be interpreted as the exact opposite of my “It’s too painful…” blinders walk. I shot up to stand tall, arms extended to the sky with hands wide open, every muscle in my body taught with purpose. My face was cast skyward and my mouth was wide open, screaming to… To whom? Was it the wind I felt I’d been yelling into all the months before as I watched dogs attack Water Protectors? Or was I screaming at “the eyes of the world” like in the song “Biko,” written by Peter Gabriel, to really SEE the mercenary-style corporate violence being met with prayer and peaceful resistance? Or was I pleading to the heavens, to the Creator, to look out for us in our precarious times, to save us from each other, to instill the wisdom in us to help each other…
In the actual performance, I ended up holding this position for many, many minutes (I did not count) in a row. My mouth grew dry from the silent screaming. My eyes burned with holding them so open, like a fierce tantric diety. My muscles ached to be released from their taughtness, especially my neck as it held my face skyward for so long. But it was the least I could do, this offering of body, time, and energy. It challenged myoptic thinking and reacting. It confronted and appropriated the once-stultifying pain. And this offering – at least for me, but I also hope for others – healed the distance between silent screams and standing in solidarity. At least, if only for a moment.