Hi Gloria! How are you feeling today?
Very busy. Not complaining though! I’m an actress, so today I had a Zoom for a group I belong to. The guy who’s the director from the Netherlands were discussing writing a short piece about the virus and how much it has affected me. In the zoom today we talked about the virus and the protests. I heard that US cases are going up again and people are dying, which is very scary. Everything happening with George Floyd and how it’s all connected. My reaction is, and I’m sure other native American born people agree, that all of our experiences are different. We need to acknowledge everyone’s experiences. I’m impressed with the line of white people standing in front of the black protesters, blocking them from the police. The protesters are wise. We need to be aware of that. The police look at people of color in such a different way, they need to be aware of it. When they see a white man or a white kid, their reaction is different. Years ago the police got away with so, so much. It’s very interesting. In terms of the virus, we’ve never gone through anything like this before. This is lethal, it’s affecting us so much. I’m lucky to be sleeping at night.
I understand you come from a family of performers, have you always known that you would become involved in theater as a profession?
I wasn’t aware of it, but I was always interested in theater as a child seeing as I was very creative and had a great imagination. My family attended a church that did little shows and I always participated in them. My father was a seaman, but was always interested in singing and dancing and he eventually formed a group of native performers who did pow wows. He performed with our family: we performed singing and dancing in places like Coney Island. Doing skits and people would always ask us to sing and dance. We were always involved in that [business] from the get go. When I was growing up in an Italian neighborhood, [we had] Canadian neighbors and other friends that would come over and sing and dance almost every night. We had hostile white folk neighbors, so [performing] saved us. At thirteen I could sing; someone at the church I went to gave me voice lessons. When I was about 17 or 18 I was singing in the choruses in high school, and I wanted to sing in weddings and such. From then on I went into theater, and become quite attached to it and went on from there studying at Henry Street Settlement. I got married and my husband was a professor, and I moved to Stanford, California. I took classes while raising two kids before moving to Oberlin, Ohio. There I took classes at Oberlin college, which was new seeing as I am a Native American woman; at that point I got very serious [about theater]. My sister Muriel decided she wanted to form a group in New York City. We got all the sisters together and started Spiderwoman theater in 1975, after I had gotten divorced. By 1977, we were performing our own shows and I guess we became rather busy with our theater work in France. People from all over Europe came and we got recognition and for years we performed all across that continent before coming back and getting more involved in the native world, theater workshops in Canada, as well as the United States. It is now the oldest, women-run native theater company in the world. We still do work today. Our last show was in January, but we’ve done a few things on zoom. It’s healing for not only me and the group, but the subjects that we’re dealing with is very healing for the audience watching. I believe it’s needed and helpful in the world today.
What do you think is the most important thing about your work?
I guess right now I feel the connection with dealing with what is going on in the world: the racism, the pandemic, and just surviving, is the most important thing. Native women are still being used as prostitutes, being sold, and murdered, they still have to fight though they’re disappearing. In 1973, the people of Minnesota and Minneapolis started the Native American Movement that fought police brutality, they were well known as fighters against the police and helping the protests even back then. Native people have been doing what’s going on today since 1492, fighting racism because you’re a “savage” – being killed and having their land stolen. It’s an old and long fight, it’s in our identity, our way of thinking, our DNA. We are always aware of it. I don’t know if things will get better, we’re still being killed all across the world. We’re still fighting for land and [the right] to live. There’s always something to fight for, always something going on. We have to put our heads together and help, we understand the hate that is present when you walk into a room or are in certain situations. It’s not new.
Is there a message or even an idea you want your audience to think about or keep with them at the end of your performances?
I guess all over the world, particularly in this country, I want when [people] talk about Native Americans it’s that they’re a strong group who work hard. [Native Americans] are no longer savages, we still have our music and our culture and stories. We have sad stories, and people don’t know about it because of history. Native people are still suffering and still fighting, maintaining our songs and culture. Native people are fighting in all fields. We’re the smallest minority. We have many problems, but we’re still existing. [We are] people living in this quaint American culture. There are many more messages in our work but that is what I believe to be our most important.
What inspired you to do the work you’ve done? Was there a certain person who has motivated you to do the work that you’ve done?
No, I think it was just my life. I wanted to tell our story. And there are so many different stories. I wanted to tell my story of growing up as a Native American woman in an Italian neighborhood. And talk about what life was like when I was a child, and what it’s like now. A story’s a story. I wanted to tell people that we are still here, we’re vital and we’re necessary, and we’re going to go on. The world should know about us, there’s so many different nations and tribes, it’s all so beautiful. There’s not much of us left, but we’re here.
What were some of the problems you encountered along the way?
I don’t know, we’ve never solved all of them. At our performances, people were expecting sweet flute music and didn’t want to hear the sad stories of Native American people fighting for land and just staying alive. Everybody has that problem, but it’s true how we’re last on the list most of the time, we’re often disregarded. Some people are just racist and don’t like us. It’s not easy being a Native American, it’s very political and it’s hard work. It’s necessary though, something always comes out of each situation. With everything that’s happening now, [people] forget the Native American people have a lot of experience with police brutality. We’re still involved in it. Now, we’ve had to think about how we’re keeping our theater open amidst everything that’s happening, using zoom, everything. We’re doing it. I’m going to be 94 on July 19th, and I’ve still got a lot to work on.
What about unexpected pleasures your work provided?
Oh, I love everything about my work. I work with elders, children, in many different kinds of theaters all over the world. I love every bit of it. Meeting people, not just natives, but everyone. Working in English, Italian, German, Danish theater, I love it all. Living in little cities across Europe, it was just fantastic to learn about everything going on in Europe. In Canada and central America we learned a lot too! I’m still learning today, this virus is teaching me something too. It hasn’t come out in piece yet, but it will. I love theater so much. Native theater especially. I heal, I learn, it’s wonderful.
What advice would you give the younger generation for becoming lifelong activists?
Just to be honest. Try to understand and identify when something is wrong, and fight for it. You do have to explain, and you do have to fight a lot if something means something to you. I think Spiderwoman theater’s biggest audience is the Native audience. We’ve always wondered how to use it to keep our traditions alive. There’s still so much more, I’m still learning! With this virus, we have to keep moving, even if it is quite new and it’s changing our way of thinking. Everything about it though, is good and interesting and necessary. It is something I never lost interest in, and I hope to keep going.