In 2016, Maura Garcia (non-enrolled Cherokee/Mattamuskeet), a 2015 Rocket Grant recipient, launched her project Center of the Universe in conjunction with the Kansas City Indian Center. The programming involved workshops that met every other Saturday for six months, and what she termed as a “multi-media, investigative performance project.” These sessions were designed to engage the community in conversations and artistic expressions of their identities as Native people in an urban community.
I caught up with Maura recently and we talked about the project and what she has been up to since. Please note that this interview was edited for clarity.
Drea: I’ve read on the project blog that Kansas City is one of the places where Indigenous people were relocated to as a result of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which has created an “Urban Indian” identity. Can you speak to that experience and how it differs from identifying with a specific Nation?
Maura: When you’re in your community of people of your same Nation, you are surrounded by those who are connected to the same culture, who have in common foods and ideas and land connected to that Nation.
In a city, you are no longer with people of your Nation. You’re surrounded by people who are not only not Native, but who don’t even think Native people exist for the most part, who are prejudiced. So your daily existence is one of explaining, defending, and educating; it’s exhausting. Then, when you have other Native people that you have connection with, they’re not necessarily from the same nation as you–although there is a commonality. (On all continents there are commonalities that Indigenous people share, especially from the same region.) For example, you might share the same food types, medicine types, those types of things.
There’s a coming together of different Indigenous nations. If you want to be with Native people you have to be with those of other Nations, and you learn about them and create a new family and new community that’s broader than the one at home.
Drea: That feels central to the programming in Center of the Universe, to create a designated space for that sort of community to form.
Maura: Yes and no. That was already happening at the Indian Center. What I wanted was for us to talk about how this iteration of urbanism is new, but being urban and Indigenous is not new. There is this idea that whenever you see Native people from the past, you see only a few dwellings, small village portrayals. And that just isn’t true. There were villages, towns, people living remotely, but there were also cities–many of them. They weren’t small; some were bigger than London at the time. I’m tired of that continual depiction because it’s not true and the information is not new. It’s inexcusable that we don’t know these things. So I wanted to share that just because you’re in an Indigenous person in a city doesn’t mean your experience is new. Yes, people may be separated from their Nations, but they are connected to something older.
Drea: I’m interested in the logistics of how you designed the programming since it’s such an ambitious project. Did you have a preconceived agenda, or did it come together as you worked on it? Did the programming change over the duration of the project to suit the needs of the people attending?
Maura: The idea took about a year and a half to come about and the programming got solidified by being rejected by other grants. It’d write it, get rejected, then revise it. I also talked about it with folks at the Indian Center and people would say, “I wish I knew about this” or “I’d like to learn about that”, so I’d put that in as well.
I had an idea of the structure of the programming from the beginning. I knew I wanted to bring in other Native artists and I’d already spoken to some people who were interested. There are some things that I hadn’t planned–like the Google mapping project that mapped people’s family diasporas from their homeland to the greater Kansas City area. I checked with certain artists to make sure they were on board before I got the grant.
Each session would have a movement portion. We would also have an artist to teach another portion. For example, the theme in one workshop was exploring our identities as urban Indians through painting. People would share their experiences in the city, which was really lovely. We had Rikki Kluber–who’s a Kansas City Art Institute graduate and also Potawatomi–lead a workshop about color: how we use it traditionally, how we use it personally, and how that translates to ourselves as Native people and our identity in the city. In the workshop the participants would then use colors and painting to express those things.
The sessions would always end with eating Indigenous food. I knew I wanted feasting to be a part of it because it’s a part of all of our things; we’re always eating together. We always have food. I wanted it to be linked to the strength of our Indigenous foods here in Kansas City, so I let the cook do her take on Indigenous foods.
I also wanted there to be childcare because sometimes that’s what prevents people from coming–single parents, people who are working. There was a gas stipend because asking people to drive thirty minutes can be a burden. With that some people gave it back and asked us to keep it for the project (which is good because we went a little over budget).
Drea: I know that you were able to do research at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., looking at objects and how they could be interpreted through movement. How is that research reflected in the programming?
Maura: There’s the Smithsonian Museum but the institution also has an area almost the size of a town full of warehouses that stores the materials that are aren’t necessarily seen by the public. We got to go to the Cultural Resources Center of the Museum of the American Indian. The building was designed by a Native architect in a spiral formation. The way that they hold the materials is the things from the Southwest part of the country are in the southwest part of the building, and so on.
They’re actively involved in repatriation, the process of giving items back to their original Nations. The majority of what museums have anywhere is stolen and taken from nations under duress, taken as spoils of colonization. When we were there actually, there were two repatriations taking place. For some of the items, the Nations want them kept at the Smithsonian, but they might come and sing with them or do something special with them.
The materials I was looking at were old and not necessarily connected directly to a present-day nation, like the items from Spiro Mounds. Some of the older Nations were once a single Nation–like Cahokia–but over time have split into multiple distinct Nations. What I was able to see were things like gorgets, ear spools, breastplates.
Some of what came from Cahokia and Spiro Mounds were portrayals of people or semi-human spirit beings who were moving and dancing in geometric and specific formations. In one, their right hand was extended, their left hand down, their legs up. As a dancer I thought, “Well, this is all dance, this is very much related to choreography.” In choreography you have a shape with the movements you’re doing but also a greater shape overall, and the designs factored into that.
I was also able to look at pottery. What you saw on pottery were these designs–and I loved it because you could see people’s distinct styles, some with lots of different designs. A lot of designs are still used by nations today.
In each session of the programming, before we moved into the activity, we looked at one thing that I saw at the Smithsonian so they could see too. In looking at the designs on these items we were able to decide what we would make in the art workshop. We had t-shirts I was able to get for folks and we brought the designs back for the t shirts.
Drea: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the Center of the Universe programming?
Maura: I’m sorry that we had to end them. There’s so many things to think about and so much we could have done. People came out with their own talents and interests: One of the women that participated really ran with the designs and kept doing paintings of the designs after the end of the sessions. They were abstracted–mixing multiple designs on one canvas. Then there was another person who had never painted but really wanted to. She told me that the workshops really reawakened the artist in her and she also kept painting even after they ended.
There was someone who had never done bead work. And in our conversation with the bead work artist who taught that session we asked ourselves what we take with us in terms of our identity when we travel or move from place to place, and she had them bead keychains. That’s kind of the modern version of that; you always have your keys with you. One person found it very cathartic and kept doing it after the workshops ended. One young man ended up making digital music to play during the showing.
So different people liked different sessions. Some loved moving, or the Google mapping, or charcoal drawing. And that confirmed my thought that it’s correct to have these different art forms. As a dancer I love to move and believe that everyone needs to move–and it’s a part of the culture of many Native nations. But I also understand that it’s not everyone’s jam, so I wanted to make sure that yes, movement would always be an aspect, but that there needs to be other things that people can connect to. It was interesting to hear what people liked the most.
Drea: I also wondered if there’s any ability or thought to do it again? Or if it could continue in the future?
Maura: I feel like it needs a little while to gear up to or recover from–mostly from the application process, not even the workshops themselves. It takes a while. I think I could apply again and I could rework it for a new grant application. Yes, it could exist again. I have workshops that I continue to teach at the Indian Center. I would like to continue to talk about these old Indigenous cities because I feel like it’s still hidden. And just talking about our daily lives and our identities–for some people this was the first time they had come together to talk about them. I thought, “Wow, this isn’t enough time.”
I want to give people more time to take control over what the end of the programming looks like. What we ended up doing for the culmination wasn’t a comprehensive show, but an exhibition where people could do mini versions of the art projects we had done. We did some of the dances. I think if we had another chance to do this and a little longer, people could decide how they wanted to integrate it all together at the end. And I don’t know what they would make.
If we had more time and could do it again people would be able to get more comfortable. This last time I feel like we were just opening something up and in doing it again we could take it out.
Drea: How does your community organizing practice intersect with your dance practice? Do you see them as separate or overlapping?
Maura: I don’t see them as separate because I’m just one person living this life. But there are separate aspects to each, mainly whether you’re working with people who get paid to do their artwork and that’s their livelihood, or people who are making art and participating for other reasons. For me, if I am doing something with a public aspect and working with people who are not professional artists–and by that I don’t mean that they’re not talented but that they’re not getting paid and don’t need to follow certain rules–to me there is a distinction of how I work with them. I want to make sure people are comfortable. It’s not about whether it’s “stage worthy” but whether it’s good for the people and they have a good experience.
Drea: What are you working on now in your personal practice?
Maura: Right now I am working on a few things. I have piece that’s in development that has to do with our ancestors which premiered at Open Spaces. In that one I’m still experimenting with how best to present it.
I also have a performance I’m working on touring. The performance is finished, but it has an aspect where I would come into a community and work with about five or so Indigenous movers in the community–and by movers I mean anyone who is used to moving in front of an audience whether that it’s a football player, or a martial artist, or someone who does Powwow dance. So I work with movers in the community and there’s part of that where they perform. There’s also another part of it where I have “extras,” people from the community doing simple movement learned on that day in the background. When you’re with people for six months, you understand how impactful it is for both parties. You can’t have that same depth of connection in a one-off, but how can you have some connection when you’re with people for two hours?
I’m working on finding a way to tour that and present it in a way that makes sense to the people participating in and viewing it. It has to do with planting; it’s an outdoor dance. I finished developing it this summer and had props made by a local artist Fred Vorder-Bruegge and a costume made by Kenny Glass, a Cherokee artist from Oklahoma. I’m sharing that more, working with that more, finding ways of working with people in communities, even if I’m only there for a short time.
Drea DiCarlo, March 2019