THE IAIA THEATER DEPARTMENT’S PLACE IN NATIVE AMERICAN THEATER HISTORY
“I am hopeful that American Indian theatre in this country will branch out in many different directions, will be as different and varied as pictures on canvas. We have to try and explain to Indians and non-Indians the turning points in their coexistent lives, where things happen and why, to try and make the communication between the two cultures more bearable. I will soon return to my tribe in New Mexico. I’m looking forward to working with people who have a library of untapped experience and wisdom, unknown to the Anglo audience.” Robert Shorty.(1)
The Institute of American Indian Arts Performing Arts Department under the oversight of Lloyd Kiva New, the Directorship of Native American composer Louis Ballard (Cherokee/Quapaw) and leadership of Rolland Meinholtz and Rosalie Jones played a seminal role in the spread of Indigenous drama in the late sixties and early seventies. Not only did the IAIA produce an original theory of contemporary theater in Meinholtz’s “Notes on Indian Theater and Theater Practice” (1968) including his architectural program for the first building designed for and dedicated to Indigenous contemporary performance, it also incubated some of the first Native actors to appear in the emerging contemporary Indian stage performances. Ms. Jones, in her article “Inventing Native Modern Dance” shows the lineage clearly; “The performing arts program as it was being developed in the 1960’s at the Institute of American Indian Arts, was the beginning of theater and dance training for native peoples, in North America.”
In 1972, Ms. Jones writes, Kiowa playwright Hanay Geiogamah, with the support of Ellen Stewart of LaMAMA in New York, founded the Native American Theater Ensemble, the first organized group of contemporary Indigenous players in America. Seven of sixteen original NATE members were IAIA ex-students who had worked with Ms. Jones:
Timothy Clashin (Navajo)
Joy Harjo (Creek/Cherokee). Musician, poet, playwright.
Geraldine Keams (Navajo). Actress and educator.
Bruce King (Oneida). Playwright, actor, educator, artist
Jane Lind (Aleut). Actress
Robert Shorty (Navajo). Playwright (Na Haaz Zan), Sculptor.
Bernadette Track (Taos). Theater artist, potter.
Subsequently Frieda Kirk formed Red Earth Performing Arts in Seattle in 1974. Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas the same year established their Thunderbird Theater with which IAIA alumnus Bruce King has been associated. In 1976, Muriel Miguel founded Spiderwoman Theater which continues to thrive in Brooklyn, New York. Like Ms. Jones, who studied at the University of Utah’s dance department and Julliard, Ms. Miguel worked with major dance programs, including the companies of Alwin Nickolais, Erick Hawkins and Jean Eardman. Geiogamah’s UCLA Project HOOP and the Autry Museum’s Native Voices continue to anchor Indigenous theater academically on America’s West Coast.
On the timeline of Native drama since the mid-sixties, the IAIA theater program holds a claim to the origin.
1. Kent R. Brown. Opening on the American Scene: A Native American Theater Ensemble. Journal of American Indian Education. Vol. 13. Number 1. October 1973