The last time I had seen Muriel Miguel was in September 2019 in Ottawa. She was sitting on a stage at the Canadian National Arts Center, in their newly opened Indigenous wing, solely dedicated to the production of and presentation of performing arts by Canada’s First Nations. Beside her were playwrights Tomson Highway and Marie Clements; as usual, I was both starstruck and in awe of the vibrancy of First Nations theatre. I knew that back in the U.S., most theatre folks wouldn’t recognize the name Muriel Miguel or Spiderwoman Theater, nor would they know the work this continental treasure has been making, seeding, and growing in the performing arts globally, nor about the offerings she and Spiderwoman have made to the American theatre for the last 45 years.
I walked into that conversation wondering: If critics and other gatekeepers had not misunderstood and circumscribed Spiderwoman Theater for so many years, would she have been given the resources to make the kind of impact that Canada allowed? A production of Misdemeanor Dream at New York City’s La MaMa in March of this year gave me the opportunity to ask her. After a proper reintroduction of myself—settling questions of how we may or may not be related, and a gift of tobacco in the form of a 20 pack of American Spirits, organic—I finally sat one on one with arguably the most influential figure in Native and First Nations theatre now working on U.S. soil.
We sat in the La MaMa lobby just before a Friday night performance of Misdemeanor Dream, the latest play in Spiderwoman’s experimental, often agitprop, but always distinctly Indigenous canon (the troupe plans to tour the show through the U.S. and Canada in 2023). We had a lot to talk about: We spoke for five hours, first starting out in the lobby, where she shared her pre-show dinner with me (a protein-packed salad), then spilling over to a phone call once I got back to Minnesota.
RHIANA YAZZIE: Can you tell me about how this play came about?
MURIEL MIGUEL: A couple of years ago, I was thinking it would be so great to have a whole cast of Native people doing Midsummer’s. Stratford [Festival] got excited. They thought it was a great idea. But they didn’t realize [when] I say I want to use Midsummer Night’s Dream, it doesn’t mean I’m going to *use* Midsummer Night’s Dream. Stratford is a hierarchy, it’s a big establishment. There were reactions, like…
RHIANA: Where’s the Shakespeare?
MURIEL: [Laughs] I realized I didn’t want to do that. I really wanted to do my own thing, my own way. So I didn’t do it there. But I still wanted to do it. So we just played with it at Dixon Place here in New York, and with a grant I did a very small show…but it was a cast of thousands!
RHIANA: Can you tell me about the title?
MURIEL: What’s a misdemeanor? You’re breaking a law, but it’s just a little thing, right? That’s what people did with our lives: moving us, putting us somewhere else, laughing at us. They don’t think anything bad about that, or big about that. It’s a “misdemeanor,” what are you so upset about? That’s where I got that thought, of Misdemeanor Dream.
RHIANA: And the dreams we have as Native people are outlawed and illegal. It’s been illegal for us to dream, to be in our own way. Even in a theatre context, it’s like, sorry, you’re committing misdemeanors against “theatre.”
MURIEL: Then the pandemic came. I lost a lot of the company. They couldn’t come from Canada. Two people passed away. It was heavy. We lost Kevin Tarrant, who did the land acknowledgement and the song before the show. And one of the actors, Tyree Giroux, passed away. The pandemic was like a noise coming from someplace down below, then all of a sudden, there’s this thing roaring into your house. When Kevin passed, I only could see my daughter from outside the house. I brought sage, an eagle feather, but I couldn’t hug her. It was awful. Navajo had it hard too?
RHIANA: I lost my grandmother. In Minneapolis we’ve lost people in my theatre company, and many lost family members. It was devastating.
MURIEL: I had to get myself down from the ceiling. It felt like I had no center at all. We were stuck in the house in Brooklyn. I couldn’t sleep. Everything on TV was all about the pandemic, except maybe Murder, She Wrote. [Laughter] So one day I looked out the window, and I have two huge oak trees, 100 years old.
RHIANA: This was the home you grew up in in Brooklyn?
MURIEL: Yeah. I remember that my father and my uncles all prayed to trees. So—I’m sorry, now, I’m getting emotional.
RHIANA: It’s okay.
MURIEL: My wife and I went downstairs and we started to rake the whole backyard. I found plants I forgot about. Digging into the soil was really something that started to get me going. I took out the shell and I took out the sage and I went to the trees and I put my answer on the trees and I prayed. And I prayed to Kevin and people that I knew that passed away. I realized that this space I was standing in was where my mother used to grow her little plants for little people. There’s one that had a funny little leaf, and she would grow it because the fairies would sit on it. I looked at the house and I feel, “I’m amongst a safe group of people. I’m amongst all my ancestors here.” I have everything I really need to keep me strong. I started to settle down. That’s all in the show.
RHIANA: What are all of the languages that are spoken in the play?
MURIEL: Anishinaabe, Salish, Kuna…
RHIANA: I loved the story that was partly in Innu and English.
MURIEL: That was so funny last night. Marjolaine McKenzie’s family was so excited.
RHIANA: Yes! And calling back to her from the audience, but in their language, right?
MURIEL: They came down from Quebec City. They’re from Schefferville, which is way, way up north.
RHIANA: Is the Indigenous theatre company Aanmitaagzi, that you’re working with, from there too?
MURIEL: No, North Bay, that’s pretty far up too, Nipissing reserve. Penny Couchie, who plays Lynx Woman in the show, made a studio called Big Medicine. Material Witness was the first piece we did together. Then we came to La MaMa.
RHIANA: The thing that I really can’t get over is that here in the U.S. they don’t know much about Muriel Miguel or Spiderwoman Theater. The last time I saw you, you were getting a Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Arts Center in Canada. You’re a national treasure!
MURIEL: I don’t feel… [Laughs] I don’t jump up and down and say, “That person knows me!” [Laughter] It’s not important that you know me, as much as it’s important to know what I want to do and the subjects I look at.
RHIANA: Can you talk about how Spiderwoman began?
MURIEL: When I was working at Open Theatre, I started to feel not only the pressure of the maleness of the day, but started to feel the pressure of other people not understanding Native people. Then I started to realize that I really wanted to work with women. The first show was ’76.
RHIANA: That first show was about domestic violence.
MURIEL: It was called Women in Violence. We talked about anger. Joe Chaikin from the Open Theater talked about personal stories. Sam Shepard was in and out, and sometimes would write something, or Gerry Ragni. Joe started talking about personal stories and it really intrigued me. And, boy, did I know personal stories.
RHIANA: We produced The Rez Sisters in 2019 at my theatre company, New Native Theatre. There was a night some older Native ladies sat up front, they were just, “Oohhh!” The actress who was playing Philomena—it was her first time onstage—almost lost her composure and started laughing too. There’s nothing like telling a Native story to a Native audience, and you are vibing on that same wave. It’s such a beautiful feeling.
MURIEL: When we did Winnetou’s Snake Oil Show from Wigwam City, there was this feeling of, “Oh, no, they’re not going there!” I love that.
RHIANA: So the Snake Oil Show came after Women in Violence?
MURIEL: Way after. First we did one called Lysistrata Numbah! That was about sex, power and control—the next step from Women in Violence.
RHIANA: What was it like working with a mixed group of women? At this point, you weren’t all always Native, right?
MURIEL: Yeah. We manufactured our own characters. Lois Weaver from Split Britches was “Tammy Why-Not.” She wrote a song called “Stand Behind Your Man,” with the lyrics, “And give him all the blood you can.” A lot of us were taking big chances, showing ourselves, who we are and what we want to do. Gloria Miguel, my sister, wanted to play Juliet, and I thought it would be interesting, because she would never be picked to do Romeo and Juliet. I played a guy. I don’t know why that it didn’t hit me that I was gay.
RHIANA: Over the years you must have had conversations about the structure of your plays, because they don’t follow Aristotelian unities, right?
MURIEL: Did you read the reviews?
RHIANA: Oh my God, I was so angry at the New York Times review. To say that the set looks like a Christmas tree? I mean, what planet? Oh, right: the white-Western-European-patriarchy-Cartesian planet. Yes. But it doesn’t take much research to know that’s coming from Woodlands-style visual art. You have so many different references and symbols that come from the cosmology of many Nations here. When critics review something at a predominantly white institution, if the play makes a reference to some classical Western art form, and if that reviewer doesn’t get that reference, that’s unheard of, right? But then they send a reviewer to see a Spiderwoman play who has absolutely no reference to Native history or arts movements, and doesn’t understand the reason you put together community and actors and why that is so important. It’s about process to create community. And you’ve been doing this for more than 45 years. That you’re still doing this shows how successful and important community building is. And you were doing devised work before there was a name for devised work. Right?
MURIEL: I hate that name. [Laughter]
RHIANA: So many non-Native artists saw your work and built on it and created their own versions. I think it’s important to re-insert you into the visual of the history of theatre; you are a building block for so much work that is happening now.
MURIEL: Penny, Imelda Villalon, and myself, we’ve worked together for over 10 years. Working as three, coming in with ideas and then really talking and talking and talking.
RHIANA: It’s not surprising to me to hear that conversation is centered. What that ultimately is, is relationship. You’re going deep into relationship to create these shows. That’s the thing that I respect so much about when I see Spiderwoman work: Everything has been intentionally chosen. People outside of the community don’t understand how deeply cultural these choices are.
RHIANA: We had to learn Impressionism and Picasso and things like that, we can recognize a Vivaldi tune in something, you know? That same respect is not reciprocated. But this is our land. We are the originating community. So yes, they should know about it 100 percent. To call the set a Christmas tree—it’s irresponsible.
MURIEL: If you’re a critic and you come, you’re expecting to see cute little Indians doing their cute little dances.
RHIANA: You’re expecting to be educated, you’re expecting to be centered.
MURIEL: So here we are now and they’re saying the same things again.
RHIANA: You were saying it feels like this crude, cruel circle. I like the expression on your face…
MURIEL: I’m trying to think, because we always work together, my sisters and I. The criticism came from us talking to each other. “Well, this makes you feel this way.” “How about if we did this and this?” And that really worked. Where the criticism came from in the beginning was mostly men who were very upset. Very upset. And some women who are upset with how, what’s the word? “Pornographic.” How raw. And this was in Women in Violence. We were talking about men on subways masturbating in front of us. We made up a song, “Da, da, dee, dee da…” And it got louder, “Da, DA, DEE, DEE, DA…!”[She pantomimes masturbation until the penis grows to the ceiling. Laughter]
RHIANA: So the criticism was coming from…
MURIEL: White men.
RHIANA: They couldn’t take seeing themselves reflected back from Native women’s perspective.
MURIEL: And Native men, they were scared too. Luis Valdez from Teatro Campesino, he was amazing. He was so on the same heart level that we were. We met him in Baltimore. He came in and he had a big sombrero on and had a cigar. He said, “Hey, sisters!” He always liked to talk and it was really wonderful. What Luis did was push us into Europe: “If you don’t take Spiderwoman, don’t take anybody. They’re the most important.” And so we were the first feminist group that ever went to the Nancy Festival.
RHIANA: What did you perform there?
MURIEL: Women in Violence. Women loved it, but a lot of the snooty theatre people were saying, “Is it really theatre?” The reporters at Nancy had such a ball when they saw my sister, Gloria. She kept on looking at them like, “Why are you taking pictures of me?” They took pictures from her head all the way down to her shoes.
RHIANA: Were they exoticizing her?
MURIEL: Yes, it was exotic. Then a woman at a press conference got up and said, “Are you a woman that’s an actress or an actress that’s a woman?” I was getting really tired of it. I said, “I’m a woman with eyeglasses.”
RHIANA: Sounds like a Beatles press conference.
MURIEL: Yes, it was, it was! In New York, we were used to maybe, oh, 10 people in the audience. One time we had three. In Nancy, we heard all this noise in the halls outside the dressing rooms, and I asked, “What’s that?” “That’s your audience.” It scared the shit out of us.[Laughter]
Then a young woman after one of the shows said, “I have to tell you a story.” She was coming home one night and came across this drunk man on the street and he beat her up. She went to the police and they said, “Were you drunk?” This is the French police. She went into work the next day and told her boss, an American man who went to the police station. So the police finally looked for the culprit and put him in jail. But it wouldn’t have happened without that male boss. She had a black eye, a loose tooth, and bruises because he wanted to rape her and she fought back. She said, “The police can’t continue to do this,” and I agreed.
That night, at the top of the show, I told the story of this young woman, and said, “If you want to do something about this, meet us after.” These women wanted a demonstration outside the police station. And that’s what we did. Women came out from everywhere. Older women came out banging on pots and pans, and women from the next town over. There was a little line in the European paper. It said something like, “Feminist theatre has demonstration in front of police station.”
It showed us that these things are really important. We could not stop, we could not ignore anymore, and neither could these women. This wasn’t our country, but it gave them the impetus to go on.
RHIANA: The impact of your shows is not just to be onstage and to entertain, or even to make messages about what it is to be Native or to be a woman. It has bigger repercussions in the real world. And that’s your intent.
RHIANA: When you’re setting out to make a play, it’s about setting out to change the world and to change the environment in which the play actually lives.
MURIEL: Yeah. It’s also talking to women. We were touring and we were in Toronto, at the Harbourfront Theatre. We did Sun, Moon, and Feather, which is the story of our lives growing up. One night these three little girls came in and one went up to Lisa, my oldest sister, and said, “Hello, my name is Lisa.” Then one came up to Gloria and said, “Hello, my name is Gloria.” Another one said, “Hello, my name is Muriel.” The mother said, “They never saw women of their color onstage before, and they love you.” I was really taken aback. Then the mother said, “You’re role models to them.” And that kind of blew me away. So we had to have a real talk about this, my sisters and I, because I didn’t want to be a role model.
RHIANA: Too much responsibility?
MURIEL: You know, I drink, I go out dancing, and have rowdy times and everything. I don’t want to be a role model. But if you think about it, it says a lot of things; it means you are responsible to yourself.
RHIANA: Was that an important moment in terms of what it means to be three Native women onstage?
MURIEL: Yes. That’s a responsibility: I want to get this out, I want to shout out to the world. But when it comes to responsibility, you can’t just do it and walk away.
This was the beginning of the whole idea of listening; you have to listen. You don’t just get to say, “I’m a role model.” It doesn’t go like that, to speak and say everything but not listen. I had to listen to my students. I had to listen to the people that I worked with. It’s very hard to listen. Even this time, the ensemble not being able to work together for two years, I realized again: I had to listen.
RHIANA: Coming out of this pandemic, we haven’t been with each other and our communication has been on Zoom—not a reliable way of understanding another person. When I think about you and your work, being so tactile in the room, making a lot of physical, vocal, visual decisions, how did you handle coming back?
MURIEL: What I think is really important, Rhiana, is the listening, right? With that, thoughts come; you start to think of what that person is saying to you. And you get the feel, you get the vibe of what’s going on in them. I had an interview for a paper, years ago. This young woman said, “Do you have anything else you want to say?”
“Yes, I do. And it’s listen, listen, listen.”
And she said to me, “No, I mean, important words.”[Laughter]
She sure wasn’t listening.
RHIANA: That sums up the entire history of communication between Native and white people.
MURIEL: I try not to think of how I feel about myself. I think of myself as being one of the people that have to say things. Because a lot of times I feel that I’m not saying enough. I’m not humble, Rhiana. When I got called to do this play in Canada, and I asked them, “Why do you want me to direct it?” And he said, “Because you’re a genius.” Oh, ho, ho—I really puffed up on that. Genius? So I tell people: If anyone calls you a genius, run. Because I got caught.[Laughter]
RHIANA: That’s the trap. It’s one of the ways that white supremacy functions in the theatre: stroking ego in such a way it makes that person acquiesce to all of the powers that be…
RHIANA: And it’s incredibly dangerous when it comes to people in communities that come from oppressed peoples, right?
MURIEL: Yes, yes. And that’s the thing that makes you lose your breath. So we really want to be out there telling our stories. The only problem is that they won’t let you tell your story. I think that’s what I do. But I’m not telling it for the grand public; I’m telling it to the Native communities. I want them to see their stories and hear their stories. I have an exercise like that, where someone gets up and tells a story.
RHIANA: Story weaving.
MURIEL: When they tell the story, I asked them to do it with a lot of sound and movement. A way of getting the story to not be a talking head, but to be the whole story and what you’re seeing and how do you see it.
For instance, if you’re going downstairs, I don’t want you to make believe in going downstairs—or if you’re drinking tea, to mime drinking tea. I want that feeling of what the atmosphere is. For instance, it’s raining, and it rained all day. I could hear the rain on the tin roof. And there I was waiting in this room, and hearing the rain. That kind of a feeling of how to take a story and give it everything.
Then I ask someone to get up and tell the same story back to the person that told him, with all the sound and movement that you can remember. I ask people to just give me a sound and a movement that you saw in both stories. Then I get a bunch of people doing it at different times doing different sounds and movements. And then the second storyteller gets up and tells the story again. When you hear a place where you can put in your sound and movement, you try it. Finally, we get a whole story that has the sound and it has the movement, and it has a person telling the story. And we tell it back to the person that told the story originally.
What I found is that people are kind of overwhelmed, because they really see this story. It’s not a talking head anymore. It’s a whole story with a whole group. That’s the beginning of story weaving.
And Rhiana, I never said that to anybody. It’s gone and made me very tired, I have to go to sleep! [Laughter]
RHIANA: One of the things I’ve heard people say is how influential your story weaving technique is. But the way that so many things are taken or stolen or borrowed from Native people, a lot of thought leadership that is Spiderwoman isn’t recognized.
MURIEL: But it’s recognized by the Native community. That’s what’s important. And what’s important, Rhiana, is taking it from me and flying with it, going with it, and finding your own way of telling the story, finding another way of story weaving. It’s that mixture.
RHIANA: I got to see your play twice. Whenever I go to a big city, I can see the erasure of Nativeness. Yet here I am sitting in this audience, and projected 20 feet high are Native women, men, and stories in Ojibwe language. So this play, this space, is like a reservoir for Nativeness. You can come and see people who look like yourself in New York. You can sit there and hear references to the Woman Who Falls from the Sky, and you know what that means. You see stories that don’t respect gender binary codes the rest of the world runs on. It’s a beautiful place to be surrounded by Native faces, bodies, images. There wasn’t one moment when I was confused or I felt like a story ended before it began, or didn’t finish. Everything felt complete. And the next cycle of stories added to its completeness. It felt like my nervous system as a Native woman, could just relax in this space and forget that anything else of this city that is non-Native was built around me, I just forgot that existed.
MURIEL: Wow. Rhiana, you made my day.
Rhiana Yazzie: You are so, so welcome.
MURIEL: Thank you. That is what I was thinking, all of that. I love the sound of Native languages. The other question was, Gloria tells that story at the end, “This is going to be hard, but we have to connect.” She talks about that and says a little bit in Kuna. And I think one of the critics said something like, “It was such a beautiful speech and it was spoiled by pop culture, a song, ‘Stayin’ Alive.’”
RHIANA: Do they not get why a Native woman, 95 years old, chose “Staying Alive”?
MURIEL: Gloria says all the time: “I haven’t stopped learning.”
RHIANA: What is that light that you have inside yourself that says, “It doesn’t matter what anybody else says about me, or about my work”? There is this relentlessness inside of you.
MURIEL: A lot of times I’m wrong. [Laughter] If you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you can drop it and try another thing. One of my husbands—who was it? I don’t remember—used to say, “You get so involved in the weirdest things.” I’m curious about different things. It’s the things around me that are interesting, that other people think are mundane.
There’s so many of us, Rhiana, that have that light. And what do we do with it? How do we use it? I think it’s mostly curiosity. And thinking and then talking about it. Talking made me understand and connect. I think there are a lot of Native people that are quirky. It’s just that I’m a little noisier than most people. I couldn’t help it.
Rhiana Yazzie (she/her) is a Navajo playwright, filmmaker, director, performer, and producer.