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A very happy Native American Heritage Month to you, theatre-makers! Native Americans have contributed so much to the fabric of the arts in this country, and On The Stage aims to honor them this (and every) month! To celebrate, we offer you a few mavericks in the field – both from history and those working today.
Filmmaker from Holdenville, Oklahoma
A member of the Seminole and Muscogee tribes, Sterlin Harjo is arguably one of the most in-demand Native filmmakers working today. Originally from Oklahoma, Harjo made his directorial debut with Goodnight Irene, a short film that explores Native identity and intergenerational struggles Currently, Harjo is helming the popular Hulu series Reservation Dogs, set in his home state and depicting the lives of a handful of Indigenous teenagers gunning to get out of their small town.
Writer from Yankton Reservation, South Dakota
Zitkala-Ša, a Yankton Dakota, can be described as many things: a writer, musician, teacher/educator, activist, editor, and translator. Among her many accomplishments include written works that explore her struggle with her Native identity, alongside works that brought Native traditions into popular culture. Additionally, Zitkala-Ša collaborated with musician William F. Hanson to create The Sun Dance Opera, recognized as the first American Indian opera. If that’s not impressive enough, she was also the co-founder of the National Council of American Indians, which helps to advocate for Native rights in the U.S.
Playwright/choreographer from San Francisco, California
A Sicangu Lakota, Larissa FastHorse is an in-demand playwright and choreographer. She began her career in the dance industry on the stage, but retired due to injury. Upon her retirement, FastHorse became interested in film, becoming heavily involved in the Native film community and later writing/directing her own works. She later co-founded Indigenous Direction, a consulting firm that helps organizations and individuals who want to create accurate work by, for, and with Indigenous peoples.
Actor from Emet, Oklahoma
Better known as Te Ata, Mary Frances Thompson Fisher was a lauded actor and member of the Chickasaw Nation. Her acting chops garnered her national renown; she even performed at state dinners before President Franklin Roosevelt, and was inducted into the Oklahoma Fall of Fame in the 1950s. Several pieces of media have been created about her life, including a play – Te Ata – written by Chickasaw playwright JudyLee Oliva, as well as a film created by the Chickasaw Nation, also titled Te Ata, released in 2017. Fun fact: Fisher was named Oklahoma’s first ‘State Treasure’ in 1987.
Performer from Oologah, Oklahoma
Perhaps the most well-known creator on this list, Will Rogers – born William Penn Adair Rogers – did it all: he was a vaudeville performer, actor, social advocate, writer and musician. A member of the Cherokee Nation, Rogers was dubbed “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son,” likely due to his affable nature and ability to get along with anyone he encountered. Among Rogers’ many accomplishments include traveling the world three times over, creating 71 films – both silent and ‘talkies’ – and writing more than 4,000 newspaper columns.
Poet from Tulsa, Oklahoma
Joy Harjo is the first Native American Poet Laureate in U.S. history. A member of the Muscogee Nation, Harjo is only the second Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to have served three terms. Originally from Oklahoma, Harjo is most often commended for her work in the second wave of the literary Native American Renaissance. Alongside publishing several books, Harjo teaches at universities around the country and performs – both original poetry and music. She has also written two award-winning children’s books. Among her many accolades include a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and her election as the chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
These ingenious creators only scratch the surface of Native American contributions to theatre, art, music, and literature. If you’re interested in digging deeper, here’s a few links to get started:
Americans for Indian Opportunity: Americans for Indian Opportunity advances, from an Indigenous worldview, the cultural, political, and economic rights of Indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world.
The Redhawk Native American Arts Council: The Redhawk Native American Arts Council is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1994, maintained by Native American artists and educators who reside in and around New York City. It is dedicated to educating the general public and breaking stereotypes by presenting the traditions and societal contributions of Native Americans through song, dance, art, crafts, and other forms of expression.
Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations: Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations (WEWIN) exists to provide Native women with the knowledge, support, and resources necessary to achieve success in their personal and professional lives.
Institute of American Indian Arts: Through the concept of art as a traditional path of creativity, IAIA excels at skill building, provoking thought, and providing exceptional educational opportunities. IAIA is a place to embrace the past, enrich the present, and create the future, moving ahead to paths yet unexplored and undiscovered.
Again, we wish you a happy Native American Heritage Month. We highly encourage all theatremakers to continue to spend some time learning more about the myriad contributions Indigenous peoples have given to the world of theatre!