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Indigenous Theater and Performance of North America
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Indigenous Theater and Performance of North America Resource Guide

Lilian Mengesha
PhD Candidate, Theater and Performance Studies
Brown University

This resource guide offers a primer for theater educators, instructors, and academics interested in indigenous theater and performance of North and Central America. The materials are largely culled from Native authors based in the United States and Canada, with some inclusion of indigenous artists in Central America. The term “performance” here ranges from embodied acts in museums, commemorative history projects, plays performed on and off stage, and public performances. The guide is divided into five modules: Indigenous histories and settler colonialism; Legacies of the Stage and Museum; Gender and Sexuality in Performance; Indigenous Theater; and Indigenous Dramaturgies. Keywords, readings, films and suggested exercises are also listed. Please consider adding your own resources on Native performance from your local area, college or art institution.

Lilian Mengesha researches creative resistance to legacies of colonial violence. She is a PhD Candidate in Theater and Performance Studies at Brown University, and during AY 2016-2017 she was a visiting fellow at MIT's Literature department. Through meditations on case studies of works by, for and about indigenous and mixed raced artists throughout North America, her dissertation examines the circulation of difficult affects within contemporary performance.

Critical Anthologies:

Performing Worlds into Being: Native American Women’s Theater Ed. by Armstrong, Johnson and Wortman

Indigenous North American Drama: A Multivocal Perspective Ed. Birgit Dawes

Seventh Generation: An Anthology of Native American Plays Ed. Mimi D’Ponte

American Indian Performing Arts: Critical Directions Ed. Darby and Geiogamah

Stages of Conflict: A Critical Anthology of Latin American Theater and Performance Ed. Diana Taylor and Sarah J. Townsend
See specifically: Rabinal Achi and Demon’s Nun


Marie Clements and Rita Leistner's The Edward Curtis Project


Indigenous Histories and Settler Colonialism

Keywords: Sovereignty, Settler, Colonialism

As a collection, these texts trace the history of fifteenth-century performative colonial encounters into present forms of indigenous sovereignty and resistance as shown in theater, film and performance. Historian Patricia Seed’s Ceremonies of Possession, for example, details how each colonial power performed a particular act, ceremony or ritual that signified ownership. For example, the building of fences and enclosures in English settlements signified boundaries of property, while French settlers participated in choreographed processions and ritually planted a cross. Based on your geographic location and the settler histories of where you are teaching, reading chapters affiliated with either the French, English, Portuguese or Spanish forms of performing their dominance on indigenous land will help contextualize contemporary behaviors and practices. Saldaña-Portillo and Cortera build upon this history with the unique and double colonization of the US southwest, first by the Spanish and then by the United States, to complicate the inclusion of Chicana/os identity within the category of “indigenous.” The plays and films that follow offer specific stories from these particular histories, such as the role of indigenous women during colonization (Sacagawea, Matoaka (Pocahontas) and Malitzin) in Mojica’s Princess Pocahontas. Readers will find the history and contexts of the American Indian Movement in Nolan’s Annie Mae’s Movement, the history of Canadian Residential Schools in the documentary We Were the Children, and the false representations of 19th century Natives in Clement’s revision of the famous portrait photographer Edward Curtis. These are all critical historical contexts for understanding past and present forms of indigenous performance and representation, topics discussed in subsequent units.


Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native by Patrick Wolfe

Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640,by Patricia Seed

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Indigenous But Not Indian? Chicana/os and the Politics of Indigeneity by Maria Josefina Saldaña-Portillo and Maria Cotera in The World of Indigenous North America

The Enduring Pocahontas Myth by Native America Calling Podcast

A Glossary of Haunting by Eve Tuck and C. Ree

Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots, by Monique Mojica

Manahatta by Mary Kathryn Nagle

The Edward Curtis Project by Marie Clements

Annie Mae’s Movement by Yvette Nolan

Films: (These films are available with an institutional subscription to Kanopy Film Streaming)

Earth Speaks: Native Americans Speak about the Earth

Mayan Renaissance

We Were the Children: The Traumatic Legacy of Residential Schools


Exercise: (Credit to the peerless George Emilio Sanchez)

Invite students to look at a US 1 dollar bill. Discuss the imagery on that dollar: the eagle, the olive branches, and the stars, the pyramid, etc. Each of these symbols is tied to indigenous histories: the arrows in the claw of the eagle represented the seven Iroquois nations, and was made into 13 branches for the new colonies; the eagle is a representative figure of protection and remains a sacred animal for many indigenous communities and was appropriated into the symbolism of “American freedom.” With students, examine each part of the symbols on the dollar bill and detail their origin with various indigenous spaces: why the eagle? Why the arrows and olive branches? The goal of this exercise is to see how indigenous symbolism and important iconography was stolen in service to US capital and American ideals yet we erase these as original belonging to this land’s first stewards. This exercise can be adapted for the Canadian dollar as well.


Te Ata Fisher, Chickasaw actor and performer, 1895-1995


Legacies of the Stage and the Museum

Keywords: “Show Indians,” Human Exhibition, Spectatorship, Storytelling

Building on the advent of these settler colonial structures, this section focuses specifically on nineteenth and twentieth century forms of Native representation in museum spaces and the traveling stage. In the late nineteenth century, mixed race Mohawk performer E. Pauline Johnson circulated within Native and non-Native spaces using her costumes, poetry and plays to negotiate relations between the British and First Nation’s people. Later on, in the early twentieth century, Chickasaw performer Te Ata traveled throughout the world as an actress and story-teller, and like Johnson, moved along the Chautauqua circuit that brought cultural works to rural America. These two performers offer comparative examples of how their Native identities shaped their political and performance practices. As demonstrated in The Couple in the Cage documentary, the turn of the century erupted in the display of human exhibitions of Native people at Worlds Fairs and circuses, a history that will later be critiqued in the performances of Fusco and Gomez-Pena in 1992. Similarly, contemporary performance artist James Luna also critiques the legacy of human exhibition in his 1988 performance Artifact Piece, where he lay in a raised bed with museum placards labeling his body and attendant accessories. Together, these performances contextualize and challenge the fraught history of Native representation on stage and in the museum, critically informing our insights about how Native artists have negotiated, or not, their relationship with cultural institutions and mass spectatorship.


Pauline Johnson and the Chatauqua Circuit

“Show Indians” in Buffalo Bills Wild West Shows


Te Ata, Chickasaw storyteller and performer


Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Coco Fusco, The Couple in the Cage documentary by Paula Heredia

James Luna, Artifact Piece

Erica Lorde, Artifact Piece Revisited

“The Pose as Interventionist Gesture: Erica Lorde and Decolonizing the Proper Subject of Memory” by Colleen Daniher

“Ambivalent Entertainments: James Luna, Performance, and the Archive” by Jane Blocker in Grey Room 37, (2009)


Create a “living museum.” Divide a class into two groups, artists and raw materials. With consent, artists will sculpt the “raw materials” (other people) into a work of art based on a chosen theme for the living museum. Gomez-Pena’s guide suggests “sacred monsters, horror cinema, cultural contradictions” etc. This could be an opportunity to create a living museum theme based on the materials read in this guide. Artists can decide where to place their sculpture in or outside the space. Make room for discussion about spectatorship, exhibition spaces, being sculpted, etc. See further details in Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s Exercises for Rebel Artists: Radical Performance Pedagogy (113-115).


"The Daddies" by Kent Monkman, 2016


Gender and Sexuality in Performance

Key Words: Two-Spirit, Indigenous Feminisms, Storyweaving

Transitioning into the twentieth and twenty-first century, this collection of performances, poetry, paintings and writings shifts the perspective through which we view Native history to center feminist and two-spirit/queer voices. Each work contends with the experiences of Native women and queer identified artists. The term two-spirit is a pan-indigenous term used to describe a person who embodies both masculine and feminine spirits. Zuni lhamana We’Wha is one of the most well known historical examples of a spiritual figure who embodied and performed both masculine and feminine roles in her community. Two-spirit people have historically held critical social and spiritual positions in their communities and accordingly, each tribe uses specific terminology. Expanding a queer lens into the visual, Cree painter and performer Kent Monkman re-envisions colonial landscape paintings by incorporating inversions of sex acts or relationships between “Indians and cowboys.” The longest running Native women’s theater company, Spiderwoman Theater, utilizes humor and storyweaving—the laying of contemporary and traditional stories into a present narrative—in their performances which often challenge Native stereotypes by centering the experiences of urban Native women. The Maya women’s performance group, FOMMA (The Strength of Maya Women) write, direct and perform in plays, as well as adaptations, about the treatment of indigenous women in their communities. In Canada, First Nation’s artists like Rebecca Belmore and Christi Belcourt use performance and traditional art practices, like beading, to remember and honor the many lives of missing and murdered indigenous women. The diversity of works in this module live in the space that the “and” offers—two-spirit and indigenous and woman—offering a necessary intersectional framework to the history of Native performance.


Sun, Moon and Feather, Spiderwoman Theater

Two-Spirit Acts, Edited by Jean O’Hara

  • Hot N’ Soft by Muriel Miguel
  • Miss Chief Justice of the Piece by Kent Monkman


Adrian Stimson’s performance of “Buffalo Boy”

Causalities of Modernity, Kent Monkman


“Demon’s Nun” by Fortuleza de Mujer Maya, (FOMMA)

The Coatlicue Theater Company's 'A Traditional Kind of Woman: Too Much, Not 'Nuff,'

“La Prieta” by Gloria Anzaldua in This Bridge Called my Back (1981 Edition)

“Queer Xicana Indigena cultural production: Remembering through oral and visual storytelling” by Susy J. Zepeda, in Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 3.1 (2014)

“A Red Face in the Crowd: Identities of a Native American Two-Spirit Writer” by Ty Defoe

“Mujeres Creando Comunidad,” Julieta Paredes Interview

Walking with Our Sisters, A commemorative Art Installation

The Unnatural and Accidental Woman by Marie Clements

Vigil by Rebecca Belmore


Finding Dawn

Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things


Spiderwoman Theater Company


Indigenous Theatre

Keywords: Instead Of Redface, Self-Representation

Contemporary indigenous theater made, for and by indigenous people, is becoming increasingly popular on stages throughout Mexico, Canada and the United States. These selected Native playwrights, actors and scholars argue for the critical role of self-representation and telling one’s own story—a strong departure from the first two modules that detailed how Native people had little choice in how they were represented, from the photographs of Edward Curtis to living, human subjects in the space of the museum. The plays listed offer a wide-ranging sampling. For example, Highway’s Rez Sisters follows the dreams of a group of women winning “The Biggest Bingo in the World” while Taylor’s absurdist play Dead White Writer on the Floor collides Native archetypes with contemporary identity politics as the characters debate who killed the play’s eponymous subject.


“Introduction: A Talking Circle on Native Theater” by Jaye T. Darby in American Indian Theater In Performance: A Reader Ed. Darby and Geiogamah

“Native Voices On the American Stage: A Constitutional Crisis” by Mary Kathryn Nagle

Article 11, arts and activism theater company by Tara Beagan and Andy Moro


“A history of Native American Drama” by Christy Stanlake in Native American Drama: A critical Perspective

Interview with Native Hawaiian playwright Victoria Kneubuhl

Native Appropriations Blog by Dr. Adrienne Keene


Contemporary Theater in Mayan Mexico: Death Defying Acts by Tamara Underiner

Rez Sisters by Tomson Highway

Salvage by Diane Glancey

Reckoning by Tara Beagan

Body Indian by Hanay Geiogamah

Dead White Writer on the Floor by Drew Hayden Taylor


Invite students to create alternative scenes or re-write scenes from misrepresentations of Natives in theater, such as “Tiger Lily” from Peter Pan.

Invite students to perform (or present on) a scene by a Native playwright not mentioned on the syllabus. Perform a scene from the play and consider how time and space are framed. Compare and contrast this with Western forms of theater that ask for a unity of time, place and action.


Serpent Mound, Ohio


Indigenous Dramaturgies

Keywords: Land-Based Knowledge, Place-Thought, Tribalography

In this final unit, readers will find a departure from Euro-centric ways of doing, seeing and analyzing theater and performance, especially in regards to conceptualizes of the unity of time and space. The artists and writers compiled herein offer land-based ways of knowing the body, one’s history and the environment, and dramaturgically provide methods for how to structure this work within performance. For example, the research-to-performance method of collaborators Monique Mojica and LeAnne Howe turn to pre-contact earthwork sites, some of which are protected and unprotected effigies and burial sites, to gather knowledge about how their ancestors built structures meant to last for centuries. Mojica and Howe build performances with the same structure and logic in which the mounds were built: with compact layers, a deep sense of cosmology and astrology, and an awareness of place. The goal of this section is to illustrate how diverse indigenous ways of knowing, garnered through observation, experimentation, relationality and complex symbology, come to shape the structure of performance-making that re-orient how we consider traditional unities of time, space and action.


“Burning Texts: Indigenous Dramaturgy on the Continent of Life” Tamara Underiner, in Indigenous North American Drama, Ed. by Birgit Dawes

“Tribalography: The Power of Native Stories” by LeAnne Howe in Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism


“In Plain Sight: Inscripted Earth and Invisible Realities” by Monique Mojica in New Canadian Realisms

“Artists Strive to Decolonize Indigeneity,” Mojica, Howe and Mojeron artist residency at Brown University

“Eight Aboriginal Ways of Learning"

“The Ceremonial Motion of Indian Time: Long Ago, So far,” Paula Allen Gunn in American Indian Theater In Performance: A Reader. Ed. Jaye T. Darby and Hanay Geoigamah


Observe and account for references to abstract and real Native people in your area, including monuments, street names, local mascots, titles of stores, restaurants, buildings and sites. Investigate where these names come from: are they tied to actual Native history? What do the Native people in your area think of these forms of representation? Using the methods detailed by Mojica and Howe, and methods of Aboriginal ways of learning, what forms of embodied knowledge can you use to approach the land you live on?



Theater Companies and Indigenous Arts Initiatives

Indigenous Directions, Indigenous consulting firm led by Larissa Fasthorse and Ty Defoe working to create accurate representations of indigenous people

Fortuleza de La Mujer Maya, San Cristobal de Las Casa, Chiapas, Mexico

Spiderwoman Theater, New York

Native Voices at the Autry Theaters, Los Angeleles

New Native Theater, Twin Cities, Minnesota

Yale Indigenous Performance Arts Program, New Haven, Connecticut

Institute of American Indian Arts Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe

Red Earth Arts Center, Seattle, Washington

Project HOOP (Honoring Our Origins and People through Native Theatre, Education and Community Development), UCLA

Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics of the Americas, Digital Archive, New York

Native American Women Playwright’s Archive, Miami University, Ohio

Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance, (Including a “Living List” of First Nations playwrights in Canada)

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