Contemporary Native Performers, On Their Own Terms
Read how Indigenous Performance Productions supports native artists and brings rich new stories to Olympia.
Welcome to Indian Country premiered in downtown Olympia on a warm late spring evening. The Washington Center for the Performing Arts had just reopened three weeks earlier, after more than a year of pandemic closure. The vulnerability of the artists who had invested so much of themselves into giving life to this brand new show was about to be met with the vulnerability of people gathering in community again after months of isolation.
The theater itself almost seemed to hold its breath as the long-empty seats began to fill. People who had not ventured out in months sat in knots of two and four, spread out to accommodate COVID restrictions. Those restrictions limited the audience to 190 people, yet among those, over 80 members of the Native community turned out. Above all else, this night was for them.
Before the artists took the stage, Joe Seymour was welcomed to the stage to begin the evening with an opening prayer. Seymour is a local Squaxin artist known by many as the creator of the light-up salmon installation in downtown Olympia that reminds onlookers to honor the yearly salmon migration. He is also the Drum Leader of the Squaxin Island Tribe and a respected culture bearer.
As the blessing rained down in song and drumbeat, the posture of people throughout the theater shifted. Some sat quietly, heads bowed. Many stood and raised their hands. Even those who could not understand the prayer’s words, spoken in Lushootseed, could feel its meaning on a deeper level. In a time of so much loss and collective trauma, there was something sacred and healing in how the night began.
This powerful moment introduced not only a powerful evening of song and story but the values behind the organization that produced this debut work: Indigenous Performance Productions (IPP).
Our communities benefit from the emergence of this Olympia-based nonprofit, and the Community Foundation is grateful to be working alongside them. Founded in 2019, IPP creates opportunities for Indigenous performing artists and elevates Native voices through live performances.
Welcome to Indian Country’s debut was a “celebration of life and resilience” that beautifully encapsulated IPP’s purpose. Structured around seven songs and seven stories—and bringing together a cast of composers, instrumentalists, vocalists, and storytellers from across the country—the show reflected on “life, love, connecting to culture, survival, and resilience.” The production wove stories with original compositions that were played by a world-class five-piece musical ensemble.
Luminaries of story and song made up the cast. Rena Priest, a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation and Washington’s poet laureate, and Julia Keefe (Nez Pearce), a New York-based Native American jazz vocalist, shared the stage with composer-instrumentalists Delbert Anderson (Navajo), Nokosee Fields (Osage), and Mali Obobsawin (Odanak W8banaki First Nation).
A Holistic Approach
Andre Bouchard (of Kootenai/Ojibwe/Pend d'Oreille/Salish descent), who founded Indigenous Performance Production, shares that their programming aims to remove barriers for Native performing artists and to create cross-cultural dialogue and educational opportunities for communities. We find the mix of education, innovation, culture, and equity—plus Bouchard’s vision of Olympia and the South Sound as a hub for contemporary Indigenous performing arts and culture—to be truly visionary and exciting.
Their holistic, multi-faceted approach helps support and prepare the way for Native performers. Different ways they carry out this work, include:
The Indigenous Story Incubator Program
The only program in the United States dedicated to creating new works by Native people for the stage. Partnering with the Washington Center for the Performing Arts, they create, plan, and produce original performances. Their newest shows are slated for this spring (see below).
Tour Management and Booking Program
Working with partners in higher education, performing arts centers, public library systems, festivals, and historic theaters, the group provides Native artists with management and booking services to help them perform at venues across the country, secure residencies, and engage with and educate the whole community.
Native Performing Artist Career Counseling
IPP offers free consultations for emerging and mid-career Native performing artists. Through resources, including information, connection, mentorship, and funding. They help artists create a path to economic sustainability through their art.
Connecting to Native Arts, Culture, and Community
Through specially designed programs and educational workshops, the group educates people in the performing arts industry at higher education institutions, funding organizations, and state and regional arts organizations to help them create opportunities for Native artists and communities.
The ripples of this work can bring much needed healing, both now and for generations. IPP recognizes how important it is for our young people to see people who look like them tell their stories from stage.
“In Indigenous communities our stories give us hope and connection, guidance and wisdom,” says Bouchard. "There is an epidemic in Native communities that pre-dates COVID. Our young people are dying at an alarming rate—succumbing to despair through substance abuse, suicide and simply disappearing. We hope that the stories that emerge from this program will give a light in the darkness to our young people, create connection where there was despair, and give them a voice.”
A 2021 Focus Grant Recipient
Because of their commitment to uplifting Native performers and advancing equity, enriching our communities, and promoting education, Indigenous Performance Productions was one of five 2021 Community Foundation Focus Grant recipients. The Community Foundation established the Focus Grants in 2020 to concentrate funding on specific community goals in order to create a greater impact. All of last year’s recipients strive to expand learning opportunities and impact South Sound communities in the areas of equity and inclusion.
Bouchard's strong background as an agent, producer and consultant and his local connections and partnerships inform the group's unique work—work that isn't happening anywhere else.
“The performing arts field is still learning how to welcome Native artists—artists whose work frequently does not look like what people think Native performing art 'should' look like,” says Bouchard. “This is where an organization like IPP is needed.”
The Focus Grant, along with the support of multiple organizations in our region, will help bring more productions like Welcome to Indian Country to the stage. But Bouchard has a vision for our region that goes beyond any single production. In addition to creating live, tourable productions, the organization is working with the Washington Center for the Performing Arts and others to eventually bring a large festival to the area.
“The vibrant and engaged Native community of the South Puget Sound/South Salish Sea area has created the elements where a project like this, a project that can serve as an example for the rest of the US, can thrive,” says Bouchard.
Keep an eye out for more exciting news from Indigenous Performance Productions in 2022 as they return to the Washington Center stage with more original productions, including Julie Keefe’s Indigenous Big Band and The Aunties.
Julia Keefe’s Indigenous Big Band premieres on May 19
From time immemorial, songs have been the vessels of stories and lessons for the Indigenous people of the Americas. Indigenous jazz musicians, ensembles, and big bands carried on that sacred tradition. There were small ensembles and big bands on reservations across the US in the first half of the Twentieth Century and several Indigenous musicians ascended to celebrity in jazz, shaping musical history in their wake. The Julia Keefe Indigenous Big Band celebrates this legacy and continues the tradition of Indigenous big band jazz forward into the future.
The Aunties premieres on November 19
The Aunties will be the a collection of stories told by local matriarch storytellers, women and non-binary people who have spent their lives dedicated to connecting their communities through the art of live performance and storytelling. Storytelling by matriarchs in Native and Indigenous communities plays a crucial role in tribal and Indigenous society; it provides the group as space to come together and collectively reflect on their past, their identity as a community and create a conscious path towards a better future. The Aunties are the Keepers of The Community Consciousness. This is especially timely after Native and Indigenous communities bear the disappearance of wisdom, leadership, guidance and family due to the loss of so many elders from Covid-19. Some of the Aunties include legends Muriel Miguel, Margo Kane, and Elia Arce, three people who stand out as proud hallmarks of Indigenous Aunty storytelling tradition.
All Stars of Native American Comedy premieres on November 5
“I know a lot of you white people have never seen an Indian do stand-up comedy before,” joked Charlie Hill (Oneida) on “The Richard Pryor Show” in 1977. “Like, for so long you probably thought that Indians never had a sense of humor. We never thought you were too funny either.” Native comedy has been on the rise recently with the TV shows “Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls”. Join a lineup of veteran Native standup comedians for a night of humor that transcends stereotypes.