Jancita Warrington: Tracing Indigenous knowledge through the stars (Column)

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Indigenous dance and storytelling through contemporary performance and media is coming to the Lied Center of Kansas on Friday, April 8

Embodying a whole movement to transform our understanding of Indigenous contributions to the artistic and cultural vibrancy of the world, Red Sky Performance has established itself as a leader in contemporary performance with its unique and particularly Indigenous productions since its beginning in 2000. Its latest, “Trace,” is a transformative experience that is not to be missed. 

Honoring the collective spirit deeply rooted in Indigenous cultures, “Trace” is an inspiring performance exemplifying the relationship between synchronous movement, live music, the artistry of Indigenous storytelling and imagery. Its unique elements are collectively drawn from collaborations with dancers, musicians, composers, choreographers, visual artists, actors, writers, designers, researchers and culture keepers.

To tell stories is human, and it is paramount to any form of Indigenous art and dance. From the inception of “Trace,” Red Sky’s Founder and Artistic Director Sandra Laronde draws inspiration from the foundational star stories that have embodied the collective voice, culture and philosophy of Anishinaabe peoples. A citizen of the Teme-Augama-Anishinaabe from Ontario, Canada, Laronde’s production expands and elevates the Indigenous/Anishinaabe origin stories, worldview and culture. Seven contemporary dancers, accompanied by live music, take audiences on a distinct journey only contemporary performance can navigate. 

This highly kinetic production illuminates the stage with powerful and intriguing visual imagery — such as beadwork, stars and sky, environmental elements that surround us — that transform the cultural experience into an exhilarating live performance. The vibrant and captivating scenes provide a glimpse into the complexities and depth of Anishinaabe origin, reaffirms the resiliency of Indigenous peoples and further piquing interest by exploring future evolution in a way that leaves audiences wanting to experience more. 

One scene resonates for the Lawrence audience in particular. A floor-to-ceiling black screen is projected at the back of the stage as white text illuminates the words of a memorandum from 1921 authored by the Department of Indian Affairs addressing U.S. Indian agents nationwide. This department oversees Haskell Indian Nations University, then known as Haskell Institute. It reads, in part: “It is observed with alarm that the holding of dances by the Indians on their reserves is on the increase … I have, therefore, to direct you to use your utmost endeavors to dissuade the Indians from excessive indulgence in the practice of dancing. You should suppress any dances which cause waste of time.”  

With this visual in the background, five dancers lift another, evoking the strength of Indigenous people and their cultures to persist despite intentional suppression. Individual letters from that 1921 Indian Affairs directive start to tumble one by one like falling stars then dissolve into nothing. This directive, despite all efforts by the federal government, could not extinguish Indigenous art, dance and expressions of their identities. 

Art experiences such as “Trace” create powerful engagements that foster greater understanding, respect and appreciation for Indigenous, in fact all, cultures worldwide. 

“Trace” reaffirms that Indigenous peoples’ arts and cultures are not nostalgic remnants of the past but are alive and thriving in various forms across North America. It awakens the soul and nourishes the spirit, enhancing humanity’s connection to the natural environment we all depend on, while allowing us to explore all things traceable in our lives and those with whom we share it. 

— Jancita Warrington (she/her) is Menominee, Potawatomi, and Ho Chunk. She is an artist, dancer, singer, and historian. She also provides Indigenous consulting services to schools, businesses, and other organizations.

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