Month: August 2002

“We are still Alive”: NMAI staff works to present vibrant realities of Native Life

An interview with Gerald McMasterson, Deputy Director for Cultural Resources at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.

Gerald McMasterson: I’m a Plains Cree from Saskatchewan. I’m imported…first round draft choice…”

TNV: Really…How long have you been at the Smithsonian?

GMcM: I’ve been here two years. Before that I spent almost 20 years at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. I ran the Contemporary Art program and was the Lead Curator of the First People’s Hall.

TNV: That’s a very prestigious museum. What have you been “drafted” to do at the Smithsonian?

GMcM: I was hired to be the Deputy Director for Cultural Resources. The Cultural Resources Center is our second building, located in Maryland. This is where a lot of the staff is located, and also the collections are going to be stored that are moving from New York. It includes ancient, “archeological” works, historical works, contemporary art, film and video, paper and photographic archives. That’s why it’s referred to as the “Cultural Resources Center.” In addition to that site in New York, the Gustave Heye Center, the Mall will be our third building, which we’re building right now on the Washington Mall. It’s on the South side of the Mall, just opposite the National Gallery, at the foot of the Capitol Hill, right next door to the National Air and Space Museum.

TNV: How is this museum going to be different?

GMcM: A lot of museums are devoted to the visiting public, so their programs are oriented to the public, which is extremely important. Our museum does that; but in addition, what this museum does is work with the Native communities across the Americas. So not only do the scholars, researchers and our various programs go into the field, they go into various Native communities. We approach the indigenous communities with the government to government relationship. As we are the Smithsonian Institution, we are US Federal government. We treat them as families and friends, as colleagues, as living peoples with a strong voice, with a strong tradition, with a vibrant contemporary life and in many cases, promising future.

There are lots of negative things, mind you. We know that. We’ve known that for a long time, but I think we have to celebrate our contributions. This museum is attempting to do that.

This is the only national museum devoted to the Native Americas. This is a distinct difference. Our museum director is Native American, a lot of our staff are Native American, our Board is a least 50% Native American. We have principles to follow in order to be able to sustain relationships and reach our goals.

TNV: How does that translate into every day action.

GMcM: A lot of museums position Native peoples in the past without any sense that we are still here. We’re alive, we have survived, we’re a living and dynamic and vital community. And, we’re diverse. We work with Native people speaking their own experiences, we try to be unfiltered. “Voice” is not just people speaking. It’s people’s attitudes, perspectives and views of the world. It’s about responsibility. Voice is authority. For too long, Native peoples haven’t been involved in these museums. They may be used in an advisory role, but there’s been very little authority. We are representing Native people, and Native peoples are representing themselves – telling the stories of who they are and how their histories and world views give them identity.

It is also important to us to represent that we are contemporary, we have inherited our past and we are passing it on to our children. These are ways that we try to aspire to present the Native “Voice.”

TNV: Are the collections going to be presented in a any unique way that you can reveal?

GMcM: When we started out, we set out a group of principles, for example: community. We are working with indigenous communities from across th Americas. We understand that their locality is important to their identity. Where they live, their land base-in some case some indigenous peoples live in urban areas, some have immigrated. Nonetheless, locality continues to be important to aboriginality. Vitality is another one that we try to instill in the exhibits – that our cultures are still alive and well – are strong and in some cases are tenuous. Modern day realities are part of it. But we have to celebrate that, so a powwow like the one we are going to be hosting next month will be an example of the vitality. And “Voices” are important as we mentioned, presenting first peoples in the first person. Although a museum view-point has to frame the presentations, we have to allow Native peoples to present themselves from their own perspectives, so we can see how they look at the world. This is how our museum will be different.

TNV: Is each tribe designing their own exhibition?

GMcM: All the communities and all our researchers and curators have worked together to develop the content. They gave the tribes a framework, an idea-for example, that we want to deal with philosophy or history or identity. Then we approached various Native peoples and said that we would like to work with you to help you present yourselves in this context. So, they set the agenda and the content and we helped facility that because of our knowledge of working in museums – How to create the exhibit, to work with the space, to achieve the desired visitor experience. The designs, content, and scripts are all seen for final approval by the Tribes.

TNV: Is there any special program for the Native person coming to the museum?

GMcM: Often I’ve heard it said that 99% of viewers to the museum will be non-Indian. What we find is that a majority of the Native people who come to the cultural center come to look at their ancestors through the objects that they made. So often we greet them in a very different way at the cultural resources center. This past week we had a group from the jungles of Brazil, the Tapirape Tribe. I believe the Cultural Resources Center will be sensed as an Indian place, a Native place, because that’s where that objects are, that’s where Indian people are really interested in coming-to see the objects, to see the archives, to talk about repatriation, to talk about various issues.

TNV: This seems like a ground breaking opportunity for the rest of the world to have exposure to Native America that’s reality. I think everyone is hoping that the museum can live up to those tenets it’s set forth – that it can realize the dreams and achieve the intended visitor experience.

GMcM: If we follow the principles that we have set out, I think we’ll be fine.

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Native American Diva Arigon Starr

TNV: Can you give us a little background about who you are?

ARIGON STARR: I’m one of those people who’s from everywhere because my father was from the military, from the Navy. He was born in Shawnee, OK, a member of the Kickapoo tribe, and my mother is from Tulsa, OK. She’s Creek, Cherokee and Seneca, and they met each other while they were in college.

As soon as my dad joined the service we were on the road. I was born in Pensacola, FL.

It’s been a whole entire life of traveling and I think that’s probably where I lost all my shyness that a lot of Indian people have. My mother and father always had that in and yang thing going, since I was a kid. I can definitely see both of them in me because there are times when I just can’t be bothered with anybody, but at the same time I like to be around people and I enjoy listening to their stories. I think my upbringing has brought me where I am today.

TNV: So how did you end up in Los Angeles, of all places?

STARR: It was one of those choices where you have to go where the music business is, either LA, New York City or Nashville, and I didn’t really fancy moving to NYC. It seemed like too far, and my mom and dad lived down in San Diego, so I thought, “Heck, I’ll just kinda of move up the road.” I’ve always liked Los Angeles. I first came here when I was a little kid and we did the Disneyland thing.

TNV: So have you always been a performer? It seems like with your personality, I imagine you performing musicals when you were, like, 12.

STARR: Yeah, you’ve got me pegged. I started doing theater when I was in school. I would write my own radio plays. I loved Monty Python’s Flying Circus–it was one of my favorite programs. I wanted to be one of them SO bad–and then I realized, “I can’t do that because I’m not male, and I’m not English!”

When I was in high school I was in an improv group, and people would say I should be on Saturday Night Live. But that sort of thing just didn’t make me as happy as music made me because music has always been there, always been a part of my family. It brought people together. That’s how I decided it’s what I wanted to do.

TNV: So you moved to LA to do music?

STARR: Yes. I was in bands in high school. I played guitar and bass, I sang and played piano. Moving up here, I would do coffeehouses while I was doing my regular day job.

TNV: What was your day job?

STARR: I did publicity for a while and took extension courses at UCLA. I learned a lot on my job.

TNV: Most people know you for your last two albums, for Windup and Backflip.

STARR: The first CD I did was called Meet the Diva. I called it that because I was a big Beatles fan and their first record in the U.S. was called Meet the Beatles. And everybody said I was a big `ole diva because I had this personality and stage presence, and a big voice kinda like an opera singer. So I thought, “Well, heck, I’ll just be a diva.” That was back in 1997, also the year I decided to leave my corporate job and do music full time.

TNV: I think your notoriety has come from your understanding of the business side of making music you clearly work at both parts of the picture. How have you worked to have your art side and your corporate side together?

STARR: When I was a kid I read every music mag on the stands, I couldn’t get enough of it. I think I was the only kid who had a subscription to Rolling Stone. I was bad, I used to read it in science class `cause Pete Townsend was way more important than biology! I learned a lot from those “behind the scenes” stories. When I moved up to LA and actually was `behind the scenes’ I asked a lot of questions and incorporated those things into my marketing and how I promoted myself. Another key thing to working behind the scenes was seeing how different stars acted – toward their public, and also with their support staff. Some really set a good example. Like Tom Hanks, who treats people with respect, and Garth Brooks who took time for everybody. I learned a lot from people like that.

TNV: If you can market yourself, you have a much better chance of marrying your talent with the skills you need to actually put the whole package together.

STARR: That’s right, it’s a step by step process, including taking responsibility for your own actions and following through. When people give you an opportunity, you have to be willing to take it. That, for me, was the key. I wasn’t always ready. I’ve learned from my mistakes.

The music business is not fun, it’s like any other business. You’ve got to get yourself on a schedule and get your stuff done to get the project together, otherwise those groupies aren’t going to come and hangout.

TNV: What does it feel like to be doing what you love?

STARR: Working in a corporate situation was really stifling. I felt like my soul was being sucked out of me. I had to be kind of creative to get the financing together for this project (Backflip). I tried so hard to move up the corporate ladder and nothing had worked out for me. There’s definitely a glass ceiling for people who are of color and women. When I decided to work on my own, there weren’t any limits. Suddenly, the sky was the limit and the only person that I had to answer to was myself. I’m a pretty hard taskmaster!

TNV: The drive is what makes you who you are, too.

STARR: That’s true. I’ve always wanted to be a success and I’ve always wanted to do what I love because it’s what brings me and the people around me the most joy. There were times when only two people were in the audience, but I learned through those kind of experiences that those two people count, they matter. It’s not really about having 50,000 screaming fans. It’s about pleasing yourself, being resilient and happy.

TNV: How would you describe your music, your musical journey?

STARR: Backflip is 16 tracks in an homage to all of the music I grew up listening to. That’s why I called it Backflip. Doing a backflip into my own past and enjoying it.

TNV: Like, “Yee haw, life is great!”?

STARR: Exactly. I just wanted to share my stories and stories I’ve heard on the road. There’s a lot of good stuff in there, and tragedy. I wanted to present it so that people would understand that Indian people are a diverse lot. They’re not all the same, but there are some universal truths in humanity and Indian people. We like to laugh, we love, we lose, we cry, we live, we die `country’, ha ha. Some of the songs on Backflip are about the Trail of Tears, or about Wilma Mankiller, about some of my relatives, about my daddy. I’ve never really opened my life up on a record before. I thought it was time.

TNV: So you consider yourself more of a storyteller, but through your music?

STARR: Yes, I’m definitely a storytellin’ fool. I really enjoy hearing people tell stories.

TNV: There are several tracks on here that actually have a Broadway musical kind of a flair. Where does that come from? Was that intentional?

STARR: Oh, I’ve always done that. One of the people who first listened to my music said, “These sound like cabaret songs!” I am a fan, and always will be, of the great American stage musical. Richard Rogers, Oscar Hammerstein, Rogers and Hart, all of those guys! I love that stuff. Give me a Bob Fosse movie, like All That Jazz any day! I love country music, rock and roll, I love it all.

TNV: I had a great time with your music! It’s really fun. My friend and I were singing along.

STARR: That’s totally the intention behind it. At South by Southwest, two years ago, Ray Davies from the Kinks was the keynote speaker and he had this very interesting story about how the Kinks used to make their records. He said, “I would write a song on Wednesday, record it on Thursday. By Sunday the record was out. (Note: Arigon is speaking in a totally believable British accent here). And I thought, “Omigod, that is so cool!”

Basically they didn’t think of albums back then. That was before Sergeant Pepper and all that. They would just write singles. That was my concept for Backflip, that all of the songs were singles. So, they were all different.

TNV: That’s why there’s so much diversity on the CD.

STARR: Yeah.

TNV: Last year when you won the NAMMY for Junior Frybread, I heard the comment that you really deserved it because you were the “hardest working woman in the Native music industry.” My impression is that you are more than a singer/songwriter, that you are a `personality.’

STARR: I’m not really sure how that happened. I think it’s probably having respect for each human being, and knowing that each person you meet is somebody’s mom, somebody’s brother, somebody’s aunt. That person is important to somebody and that you should treat them accordingly, with respect. Even if they’re serving you at a restaurant or a person in your band. That we all have hopes, dreams and desires. When you understand that, it takes away a lot of the fear of talking with people.

TNV: Talk to us about the web site, the `multimedia world of the Diva.’

STARR: It kind of all starts in the morning with that web site. (www.arigonstarr.com)

TNV: Every morning?

STARR: Every morning with that darn web site, ha ha ha. I try to update it every day. I feel that people that are fans of mine are information junkies like me, so I want to give them something.

TNV: It’s really fun.

STARR: It’s kinda like a little soap opera or somethin’.

TNV: I was really impressed with it. You have a talent for putting an experience in words. I’m sure it’s part of your whole storytellin’ thing. The way you write, it was like I could hear you. It drew me in and made me want to read more. Even in your non-singing words, you turned my ears on.

STARR: Yeah. I know where that came from. I developed that skill very young. It was part of that Navy thing. All of my relatives live in Oklahoma and we used to take the very long car trips across country to get home for the holidays. My Dad would never have enough leave, so we would do that marathon drive–30 hours at a stretch. And he would ask me, “Would you tell me a story to keep me awake?” And that’s what I did. And I learned a lot of that from my grandparents and my aunts an uncles; they’re all hilarious storytellin’ folks. They can spin a yarn, the Creeks and what not. They’re crazy people out there. I miss them greatly.

TNV: Is there anything you’d like people to know about you? You seem like a well-rounded tapestry of a person, much more than a `singer/songwriter with a new album.’

STARR: I just want to say a tribute to one of my mentors, a lady named Fern Mathias. Fern passed away in March. She was the director of Southern California AIM for a long time. She’s from Sissteon. She told me, “Everything you do is political. There’s no way you can get around it.” I hope that when Indian people do create their art they remember the people who came before them and the sacrifices that they made. Not to sell out. We’re part of a very grand tradition and I would want to do it in style for all of those elders and those who came before.

TNV: You do it well. You have a nice way of taking what you’ve learned and putting it in a way that’s totally you. Taking tradition and evolving it into something that’s a unique personal expression.

STARR: Yay.

Some people are bigger than life. They have an unexplainable quality that makes everyone notice them when they are on stage, and that’s what makes them a star — regardless of whether everyone knows their name or not. Arigon Starr is the self-proclaimed “Diva” of Native America, and the title is fitting. Not everyone knows her name — yet — but with her undeniable combination of talent, electric personality and unstoppable drive, it’s only a matter of time.

Starr is a well-rounded singer/songwriter/storyteller who has produced three albums to date: Meet The Diva (1997), Wind-Up (2000), and her current release, Rackflip (2002). She won the NAMMY award for the single “Here Comes Junior Frybread” off the Wind-Up CD, and the word about her music and now infamous character-filled personality is spreading like a prairie wild fire on a hot Summer day. She works constantly, often touring and making personal appearances. Starr keeps in touch with all of the folks she meets in her travels on her fabulous website http://www.arigonstarr.com

(it’s fun, check it out).

We are happy to announce that the Diva has become our new Arts and Entertainment Correspondent based in LA. She will be covering events for us all over the place, making it real for the rest of us with her own personal flair. We now invite you to “Meet the Diva”…

O Magazine Fulfills Reservation Dream: Erika Schneider Wins Oprah contest and Brings Community Theatre to Yankton Sioux

The O Big-Dream Contest original call for entries

Do you have an idea for a product, a store, a service, or a whole new way of doing things? Maybe you’ve invented a computer program or want to open a co-op in your neighborhood, but don’t know where to start. There’s a saying that it’s not what you know, but who–and that’s where O comes in. We want to help you make the connection, whether it’s to the state politician who can help you launch an afterschool program, or to a supplier of materials for that ingenious appliance you’ve invented, or an afternoon of advice from a world-class chef on how to open your first restaurant.

What’s your idea? And what support and resources–besides cash–do you need to make it a reality? Share your dream with us. Let us introduce you to the people who can help you make it come true. Filling out the form below could be the first step in changing your life.

Selections from Erika Schneider’s winning entry

“My husband is a tribal member, I am white, and we both have a background in the arts. We both want to start a non-profit community theatre here on the reservation….

The youth here have very few summer activities, and gangs, drugs and alcohol are the primary “fun” activites kids are turning to, we want so much to give a positive alternative, with culturally oriented shows and uplifting messages in the shows and the process of creating the show.

I had the idea that maybe somewhere there is a theatre or studio that upgraded its lighting and sound system and has something just laying around in a prop room? Here on the reservation, we are very isolated and there are not too many theatres or places we can turn to for help, so even a little bit of equipment would be great!”

Statement on the contest from O, The Oprah Magazine

We’d been thinking a lot about women who dream big. Editor in chief Amy Gross was struck with the idea that sometimes it’s not what you know, but who you know that can make the difference between a stalled idea and a lifechanging accomplishment. Our goal was simply to make some introductions for our readers. Erika’s contest entry was so eloquent and inspiring that we immediately wanted to put her in touch with people who could help realize her dream. Seeing the generous way that the League of Chicago Theaters reached out to Erika Schneider and the Morning Star Community Theater was tremendously rewarding, and we at 0 are delighted to have made the connection.

When we live on the reservation, challenges are all around us. We hope for the best, deal with the worst, and try to find ways to walk toward a better life. It can be hard, some days, to keep our spirits up when we see too much suffering and are hard pressed to see that light at the end of the tunnel. How do we cope? Oftentimes with dreams…day dreams and night dreams…where we find our hearts and minds imagining a better world. It is in these places that we allow ourselves the soothing peace of creative thinking and the hopeful spark of idea. The question is, how do we get from the dream or conscious thought to a new, imagined reality? The answer is in the believing in the possible and in mapping out the process of achieving the goal, and there are as many paths for this as there are people with dreams.

Erika Schneider, who lives on the Yankton Reservation in southeastern South Dakota with her husband, tribal-member Sherwin Zephier, spent a lot of time voicing her concerns about the young people in the community. With two small children at home and a third on the way, she had adopted not only the reservation as her home, but also the concerns for the youth that we all know very well.

Frustrated by the lack of performing arts available to the Native youth and the community as a whole, Erika and Sherwin began dreaming about starting a community theater on the Yankton Reservation about four years ago. The dream was not without foundation Erika has significant background in the theater, including being an award-winning playwright in her home town of Kansas City, Missouri, and Sherwin is the Director of the Arts Department at Marty Indian School where he teaches kindergarten through 12th grades.

“We had been working on [starting a theater] for a few years but kept running into a lot of obstacles as far as funding and performance space… just trying to get the momentum to get it going was very challenging,” explained Erika, “we couldn’t really make any progress so we put it away for a while.”

A few months ago there was an advertisement in a local paper challenging people to “stop complaining about what we don’t have in the community and start using our talents to try to create what we need,” said Erika, “and we really agreed with that.” The ad was run by John Provost, a community member, who was organizing “The Celebration of Life Festival: Honoring Our Youth” to raise money for a playground. This was just the spur that Erika needed, as she recounts, “We called John and just fully committed to doing whatever it took to get a community theater going here to be part of the Honoring of our Youth project…and as soon as we made that commitment, everything just kind of took off.”

At one of the first organizational meetings for the project, Erika was so impressed with the enthusiasm and ideas, including archery programs and sports tournaments and a carnival and a concert, that she said, “you know, this is really amazing. We should write Oprah because she really supports things like this that are for the youth, involving community unity and working together… I bet she would support this!” Nobody really said anything, and “people kinda laughed,” Erika recounts with a smile.

Sherwyn encouraged her to follow her dream, so she entered the O Magazine Big Dream Contest. “I sent them a letter telling them about the celebration and the community theater we were trying to start and how important the performing arts are for the youth and that we really, desperately need these positive cultural activites,” explained Erika, “The contest rules were that you couldn’t really ask for money, you could only ask for resources; for example, contacts that could help you find what you needed to create this dream. So I sent the letter and about a month later I got a phone call from the Associate Editor at Oprah magazine that I was the grand prize winner. She said that they had over 1600 entries and we were the grand prize winners! So, Oprah magazine is helping us get all of our lighting equipment and sound equipment and things like the curtains for the stage. They got some costumes donated from some professional theaters…they got us all kinds of stuff…they have been working with professional theaters in Chicago and in New York to help us find what we need and get everything put together so that we can have a year round community theater program for our community.” Erika and Sherwin have named it “The Morning Star Community Theater.”

Once the initial shock and rush of excitement of winning the contest quieted down, Erika realized what a huge challenge it would be to create a theater (which is part art and part business), find a suitable play to stage, and to do it all in time for the Celebration of Life Festival, which is scheduled to take place August 16-18 in Marty and Wagner, South Dakota.

Help came from an unexpected place…just before she found out she had won the contest, Erika had a dream where she was sitting in a theater watching a play… “I dreamed the script and the actors and lighting, I saw the whole thing. When I woke up, I told Sherwin what I had dreamed about and explained to him that it had these spiritual messages in it and he said, `write it down.’ Of course, I didn’t write it down right away, but then when I won the contest I was thinking, `what play should we do?’ and Sherwin reminded me that we should do the play that I dreamed…because I dreamed it and then we won the contest, and all of this incredible support started happening and we felt like that was connected somehow.”

The play that came from Erika’s dream is now called “Tunkansina, We Are All Related.” She collaborated with Sherwin “and a couple of other people” to get the dream written down and into a working script format.

As she explains it, the play is about a young Native American man involved in a gang on the reservation. “There are two main gangs on the rez and they get into a fight one night and the young man gets knocked out. His great, great grandfather takes him to this place in between the worlds where he starts to teach him by bringing in his grandmothers and the grandfathers…who show him how his past has shaped who he is today…that he has reacted to some of the abuse he has suffered by becoming angry, and his anger is leading him to chose some negative paths in his life today. Then, the grandmothers show him the future, and how the choices he is making today can effect his future and the future of humanity. They help him to find forgiveness in his heart. So, in the second part of the show he comes back and uses what he has learned and starts the process of healing in his community.”

The play has a cast of 25 people, including Miss South Dakota Vanessa Short Bull, who heard about the production and volunteered to appear in the play. She will be performing ballet in a cameo role as a the beauiful butterfly dancer.

This O Magazine Big Dream grand prize includes the help of theater professionals from Chicago. At press time, the director and actor brought into the project by Oprah’s magazine are in Marty, working with the cast and crew of the new theater company to get them prepared for opening night, which will be at The Celebration of Life Festival. The Festival includes a multitude of activities, including The Morning Star Theater production, live performances (including headliners Annie Humphrey, Darren Geffre, Tonemah, and Louis Running Wolf from EXIT, to name a few), golf, volleyball and basketball tournaments, a walk/run, an archery drive, a picnic, and a carnival.

“Tunkasina, We are All Related” will be performed several times throughout the Festival weekend (see sidebar at right for show times), and proceeds will benefit both the Honoring our Youth playground development fund, and The Morning Star Theater Company. Erika added, “We’ve got most of our expensive needs covered-we still need about $6500 for production needs like lumber and stage make up…We’re planning on doing another show, probably a one act in November, and then hopefully a Spring production. We want this theater company to be year round.”

Erika summed up the whirlwind of activity that has been taking place: “To see this all happen within a month is really overwhelming, and just the way it exploded right after the dream is a destiny kind of thing. We’re just kind of trying to hang on so we don’t get blown away from all of the support.”

There has been a tremendous response to the involvement of Oprah’s O Magazine. It seems as though her attention to the project has been just the “contact” they were hoping for, and more.

O Magazine will be sending a team down to the Celebration of Life Festival to document the unfolding of Erika and Sherwin’s dream, The Morning Star Theater Company. The story will appear in the September issue of O.A followup story will be featured in the January, 2003 issue as well.