Dancer Santee Smith is Onkwehon:we (meaning “Real People”) from the Kahnyen’kehàka (Mohawk) Nation, Turtle Clan, Six Nations of the Grand River. She’s performed around the world, and she’s now bringing her work NeoIndigenA to the Kia Mau Festival in Wellington.
Villainesse recently caught up with Smith ahead of her performance at Kia Mau, in a wide-roaming chat that encompassed indigenous values and rites, dance, colonisation, feminism, and her advice for young dancers.
You've trained in Canada and have extensive experience in native dance styles. What are some similarities between native dance styles in Canada and Aotearoa New Zealand?
It’s my passion to learn Indigenous song/dance/performance from around the world. I like to acknowledge that Turtle Island (North America) has over 1,000 Nations, each with their own distinctive culture and society. To avoid homogenising each Nation, I like to acknowledge the diversity within Indigenous peoples. Having learned so many different styles, I can say that some similarities tend to be the understanding that dance is integral to “way of life”. Dance is not separated out into its own discipline as in Euro-Western culture.
When speaking to the state of Indigenous dance/performance: I understand our performance to be integrated, interdisciplinary, multi-dimensional, multi-voiced, intergenerational, inter-cultural, transformative, abstracted and literal embodied narratives. It spans ancestral to futurity, holding past, present and future in one space, experience, and body. Indigenous performance transcends the binary debate between traditional vs contemporary and includes processes and outcomes that aren’t founded on Euro-Western ideologies.
You’re of First Nations descent. Do you see similarities in the experiences of First Nations people in Canada to those of Māori in Aotearoa? Differences?
I am Onkwehon:we (which means Real People) from the Kahnyen’kehàka (Mohawk) Nation, Turtle Clan, Six Nations of the Grand River. My Onkwehon:we name is Tekaronhiáhkhwa (Picking Up The Sky). My Nation has been displaced from our homelands from what is now called Upper State New York, Albany area and through the Haldimond Treaty with Britain were re-located to Six Nations along the Grand River in what is now called Canada.
First Nations across Turtle Island share many similarities and also differences with Aotearoa. We certainly share similar effects of colonialisation, cultural assimilation and appropriation and the atrocious statistical rates. What we also share is mana, resilience, activism, connection to our cosmology, respect for Ranginui and Papatūānuku and the natural universe. We retain and inherit rights to our lands, treaties and kinship relationships.
Villainesse: What can you tell us about your performance?
Santee Smith: NeoIndigenA is my human call for connection, transformation and healing. It’s a physical and spiritual ceremonial journey to re-alignment and revitalisation.
Imagery and symbols have been sourced through dreams, land-based exploration and Indigenous teachings. In this journey, I abandon myself to be unleashed, experiencing many deaths and re-births, asking: “Where is land in my body, what do my bones speak, what is flesh and blood, breath connection to earth and to sky?” I acknowledge my ancestors and give thanks for this body on my earth walk. I call out to my ancestors and guardians “make my path”.
What does your performance say about being a woman, and women in general?
NeoIndigenA is about awakening, reaffirming connection to Mother Earth, and re-aligning to my celestial origins.
Here is a poetic descriptor for NeoIndigenA:
“Kónhnhe…I am alive
Kèn:tho í:ke's…I am here
There is a presence greater than me and I am a part of it
The seed centre of creation that illuminates my womb at the axis of my being is timeless
Past, present, future…I exist
I am a pathfinder, I am an earthwalker listening to memories of land, body and spirit
Whispering over bones and antlers, animating the inanimate remains
My call vibrates through time/space, communing with plant, animal, and elemental
I am flesh and bone
I am sky, earth, water, fire
Weaving the strands of humanity
I am the huntress; I am the hunted
A call out to ancestors and guardians
Ta kha hon nien…make my path!
My transformation is sublime, ecstatic, painful
I make myself bare, exposed, wild
Fall into the dark recesses of mind and liminal underworld
Fractured, I let myself break
Broken bones, blinded searching
Disintegrating body; decomposing thoughts, opening space for a spiritual re-quickening
I am the creator; thought woman, spider woman, clay woman, earth woman and Skywoman
I am the portal of life and death
I let this and that part die
To become new again
Birthed through blood waters of mother…I am aligned with my celestial origins”
Can dance be empowering?
Dance in my community has always been and continues to be empowering. Song/dance/performance occurs at every ceremony, it marks births and deaths, naming, healing, and celebration to name a few. Our culture is performative and embodied, through dance we replicate the natural patterns of the world, tracing the movement of the cosmos, our kinship relation to the natural world, our Creation Story, etc. Dance grounds a person to place, song like language comes of the energetic properties of the land, both connect us in time/space to our ancestors to the present and to the next generations.
What are some messages you'd like audiences to take away from your performance?
NeoIndigenA is a transformational medicine dance filled with multi-layered symbolism. There is no literal narrative, audiences will need to draw their own understanding and contemplate their responses, thoughts and feelings that my performance may evoke. How do you describe the impact of ceremony? Like a ceremony, there are aspects that are indescribable, that hits you only the unconscious level, that you can come to understand later or when not using an analytical mind.
What, to you, is the importance of dance?
Dance is life.
What does the word “feminism” mean to you?
North American feminism takes its inspiration and influence from Onkwehon:we women. Early American feminist such as Elizabeth Stanton, Matilda Gage and Lucretia Mott looked to our matrilineal, matri-focal society to spur on their aims for rights. Female settlers and their children came to Turtle Island with no power and place in European state and church. Onkwehon:we women on the opposite spectrum held sovereignty over their bodies, lands, children, households and sustenance, they appointed male leaders and could take away their roles if the man was not upholding his responsibility. Women were an equal voice in politics, held their own councils, so contrary to popular belief of the Native woman only being represented as earth goddess with the singular role for procreation; women held authority, agency and positions of governance. A pre-colonial concept of feminism on Turtle Island did not exist since there was no need for it to be in place. Feminism to me, is a concept that originated from women without power, place and rights. It’s not surprising that the first settlers, Jesuits and priests were mortified at the equal status upheld by Onkwehon:we women and children and the subsequent and swift clear cutting her voice, body and presence was the first assault.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I am a Konkwehon:we (Indigenous woman) with a specific understanding of sovereignty. I do not consider myself a feminist. I can relate with Indigenous feminism in that it addresses de-colonisation and the lingering impacts of colonial imposition.
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges we face in the struggle for equality today? How do you think we can overcome them?
The world is out of balance and has been for quite a long time. We have only to look at the mistreatment of the Earth to witness the destructive aspects of patriarchy and its associated capitalistic, materialistic paradigm. So I and many others are advocating through our work a paradigm shift, away from the status quo into balance and peaceful co-existence. Unfortunately, the status quo is becoming increasingly resistant to what is perceived of as loss of their privilege. Arts and activism are ways people are making their voices heard and bringing instant global awareness on social media…which is now serving the Indigenous communities like a massive smoke signal.
There is another important and timely quote from Métis leader Louis Riel that rings true: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists that give them back their spirit”.
What advice do you have for young women thinking about a career in dance?
For a career in dance, it takes passion since it’s a demanding profession. The love for dance and performance needs to supersede the sacrifices such as the physical rigour for little financial compensation.
If there’s one piece of advice you could give your younger self, what would it be?
To be courageous, to not hold back and to stay on focused on my path.
Is there anything else you'd like to say?
I would like to acknowledge the mana whenua and Māori iwi in Poneke. It’s an honour to have the opportunity to share NeoIndigenA on their ancestral lands. I am grateful to my friends and whanau who support my work and are working hard to privilege Indigenous performance around the world.
Nia:wen/Kia ora to Kia Mau Festival - Hone Kouka and Miria George, BATS Theatre and Dance Aotearoa New Zealand. Nia:wen kowa to Kaha:wi Dance Theatre company supporters including audiences, collaborators, family and funders Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Arts Council.
Santee Smith will be performing NeoIndigenA at Wellington’s BATS Theatre from Tuesday, June 6 to Saturday, June 10. More information and tickets can be found here.