Worldmaking 101: Imagination and Reparation at Double Edge Theatre and Ohketeau Cultural Center

Art cannot exist in a vacuum. Yet, as Klein has insisted, the exclusion of minoritized communities from the art world dangerously creates such a vacuum. For Double Edge, the de facto exclusion of BIPOC, queer, working-class, disabled, elderly, and youth populations from the arts is both a social problem and an artistic problem. So too is it a social and artistic problem merely to pay lip service to diversity and inclusion initiatives rather than wrestling with the profound and difficult work of structural change. According to their mission statement, the ensemble’s commitment to working “authentically and earnestly with artists, collaborators, and partners” necessarily extends to “rooting out appropriation, exclusion, invisibility, [and] marginalization.” As Klein wrote in her 2018 essay, “Living Culture is impossible to achieve unless it includes everyone. It cannot be that part of a community, or even part of a society, are excluded from participation.”

Since 1982, Double Edge’s performance cycles have grappled with historical trauma and the scars of genocide and cultural erasure. Over the past four decades, its performances have championed glorious imagination in the face of usurpation and death. But the work of reparation and art justice must also happen on the ground. Literally. And not only in the bodies, faces, and experiences of the artists who make up their ensemble but in the ownership and stewardship of the lands on which the theatre company trains and performs.

Perhaps closest to home for Double Edge was the realization of how fully the Indigenous inhabitants of Western Massachusetts have been subject to appropriation, exclusion, invisibility, and marginalization—and have been all but disappeared from contemporary cultural life in the United States. Researching the history of their community in Ashfield, Double Edge reached out to Indigenous artists and culture workers whose people still inhabit the region despite their presence having been rendered all but invisible. Through this research, two local artists, Rhonda Anderson and Larry Spotted Crow Mann, became aware of Double Edge Theatre in turn and began collaborating with and through the ensemble.

Anderson is an Iñupiaq-Athabascan curator, silversmith, herbalist, and activist who was born in Alaska and raised in Western Massachusetts. Mann, a citizen of the Nipmuc tribe of Western Massachusetts, is an award-winning writer, poet, cultural educator, traditional storyteller, tribal drummer/dancer, and motivational speaker. Together with Double Edge, they founded the Ohketeau Cultural Center, an organization that has grown to include two artists-in-residence, a program associate, and a youth-in-residence. Ohketeau now regularly produces workshops and performances, including a major, ongoing colloquium series: The Living Presence of Our History, which features Indigenous scholars, artists, activists, and intellectuals from across the Northeast and, increasingly, the Americas.

Ohketeau is a Nipmuc word for “a place to grow,” and this describes the organization’s mission as well: to provide a space for interdisciplinary education and a safe, rewarding, and enriching experience for the Indigenous community of the region.

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Rhonda Anderson and Larry Spotted Crow Mann about their encounter with Double Edge and the intense amount of cultural work they have committed themselves to in the interest of making it possible for Native people in the region to survive culturally and imaginatively. Like me, Anderson and Mann learned about Double Edge as a by-product of the ensemble’s research, as well as their own. Their encounter was, in many ways, a happy accident. What emerged from this meeting, however, was something far more intentional—and far more substantive—than any happy accident could ever be. As Anderson tells it:

It was early 2017, and I was supporting Larry by attending his talk about being a Nipmuc Water Protector, as Nipmuc means “people of the freshwater.” This was at the UMass Native Center, and I happened to sit next to Carlos [Uriona, Double Edge co-artistic director and lead actor], who was looking for Indigenous people to talk with about Double Edge Theatre’s town-wide Spectacle, which would take place that May. Stacy, Carlos, and the Double Edge team had tried to find information about Indigenous peoples in the area and wanted to highlight this history in their Spectacle. They were told, “No, there were no Indigenous people here; there’s no one here now.” Essentially, the local historical society invisibilized entire communities.

I ended up talking with Carlos, who invited me to visit Double Edge, tour the facilities, and see if I could suggest other Native peoples, communities, and tribal leaders who might assist with their Spectacle. Eventually, Stacy said, “Hey, we’re renovating this barn,” and she threw out some ideas: “Maybe we could have a library, where people could come and read about Natives.” And I thought maybe instead of a library, we could create a community center where Native people could come and just be.

Ohketeau is a Nipmuc word for “a place to grow,” and this describes the organization’s mission as well: to provide a space for interdisciplinary education and a safe, rewarding, and enriching experience for the Indigenous community of the region. Like Double Edge, Ohketeau is committed to serving the needs of its community, understood here as fostering Indigenous cultural survival and supporting the careers and lives of individual artists. For Ohketeau, the work of artistic survival means attending to not only the minutiae of organizing, fundraising, administration, and the stewardship of artistic labor, but it also means reckoning with the cultural demands of land access and cultural survival in the wake of centuries of genocidal settler colonialism. Contemporary cultural institutions and funding agencies don’t meet these needs, Mann explains, “and they never have. Those needs need to be met, and the questions folks have been asking need to be answered.”