Native Feminists Talk About Excellence

(l-r) Sharon Day, Marcie Rendon, Rosy Simas, Heid Erdrich, Rhiana Yazzie. Photo by Cully Gallagher

In applying for grants or competing for opportunities to exhibit, perform, or publish, artists often confront an ambiguous concept — “excellence” — that renders critique of their work frustrating.

At a panel discussion of Native women artists, organized by All My Relations Gallery and held at Augsburg University in January, moderator Ananya Chatterjee asked, “As feminist artists, in your own ways, how do you interpret the notion of ‘excellence?’”

Rosy Simas, Seneca dance artist, talked about how she choreographed a piece about her grandmother. “My work is very abstract. I wanted to do the show for my people. I took it to a university near the Fredonia, New York Seneca community. Ten people from my reservation came. I had no idea how they were going to receive the work. One woman I spoke to afterward said she understood everything, in a completely abstract work. To me, that’s excellence.”

Heid Erdrich, Ojibwe writer, added: “Excellence is supposed to be about being ahead of someone else or others. But I think of it as opening a path and having others come along with you. A kind of momentum. That’s what I would be proud of.”

Rhiana Yazzie, Navajo filmmaker, shared: “I’ve loved many artists’ works, especially those that made me see a dimension of myself I hadn’t realized. But I’ve also met excellent artists who made me feel so small. I no longer find their art excellent. When artists thrive on diminishment of others to create power for themselves it changes the quality of the work they make.”

Sharon Day, Ojibwe water walker, added: “I got turned down for a grant for work I really wanted to do. My grandson said, ‘Gram, who are the people making the decisions? Are there any Indians on that panel? What do you care about what they think?’

“I think about organizations like the Guthrie,” Day continued. “For their plays, they have more production people in the room than we have in my whole agency. In my theatre work with kids, I’m the executive producer, playwright, van driver, director, stagehand, set maker. We’re everything. We must see our work as being excellent!”

Marcie Rendon, Ojibwe writer, reflected: “I love the process, stringing a bunch of words together. At a meeting of Native writers, one said, ‘We have the obligation to be the next Hemingway!’ I completely disagree. I want to write plays, books, stories that people will want to read and enjoy. But we also face an audience challenge: when white students read our work, they won’t understand the context.”

Rendon continued: “One of the first times I read my poetry on stage, in O’Shaughnessy Auditorium, three Native women in the front row were crying. That’s how I knew I was doing the right thing!”

During Sharon Day’s youth theater play, “Everything is a Circle,” about the Carlisle boarding school, Rendon recalled seeing the actors cry.

Day shouted in response: “That’s healing!”