The People of the First Light (Wampanoag) worked with and alongside the land, the water, and non-human creatures of Turtle Island to make a home, a life for themselves.1 Then a plague swept down the coast of the Dawnland devastating the People and emptying their villages.2 The People regrouped, persisted, and continued in their lives. Then guests arrived.
The People of the Mayflower (Pilgrims) endured a rough voyage, counting it less arduous than living where they were unwanted and unsupported. The seas took them farther north than planned, but they were eventually able to land. They arrived in a world new to them and happened upon an empty village. They discovered a ghost town.
The People of ATHE (students/artists/faculty) traveled by car, rail, and plane to Boston in 2018. They set aside lives, families, and routines to sit in cold, unfamiliar spaces listening to colleagues, eating with friends, learning from one another. They paid for the right to occupy space, to access wi-fi, to eat the food of their choice. They resided as customers.
This essay thinks toward how we as scholars, artists, educators, and humans can live better as guests on Indigenous land by overriding our entrainment to be customers, discoverers, and inhabitants of so-called ghost towns.3 I discuss how we can better understand Indigeneity, what we can learn from encounters with Indigenous peoples and spaces, and what practices we can implement to better relate to the land and peoples around us. As one contribution to these multifaceted topics, I offer the concept of guesting. In contrast to discovering, which reduces the discovered to a kind of possession, and customer-ing, which commodifies and dehumanizes, guesting is focused not on attaining or accreting, but on relationships, humility, and reciprocal nurturance. Guesting is an active and intentional practice of presence with the goal of honoring and supporting the Indigenous people and spaces that always already undergird, surround, and shape your life and work. The content and structure of this essay contribute to the decolonial praxis for which I am advocating. I intentionally manipulate temporality and positionality to unsettle Western preferences for intellect over embodiment, distance over proximity, and product over process.
This essay is for those wanting to develop a practice that purposefully unmakes the colonial systems that have separated, dehumanized, and denied resources to millions. It is for those who want to better know the land on which you teach and write and create theatre. It is for those who seek to work with and not demand from Indigenous communities. It is for those who guide students into spaces with often unacknowledged history. It is for those who wish to no longer live as customers.
Who Is Indigenous?
Indigenous peoples’ relationship to land, peoplehood/nationhood, colonization, the past, language, oppression, and sovereignty is complex and difficult to pin down in a global sense. It is precisely this complexity that led the United Nations in 2006 to state that it was most productive “to identify, rather than define indigenous peoples” (1).4 That does not mean it is impossible to define; it means that Indigeneity, while a global phenomenon, is uniquely experienced in discrete times/places and therefore accurately described in a variety of ways. Within the context of Turtle Island (aka North America), the scholar Daniel Heath Justice (Cherokee) offers a cogent definition: Indigenous is a “proper noun [that] affirms the status of a subject with agency, not an object with a particular quality.” Indigenous people are “those who belong to a place.” Indigeneity “affirms the spiritual, political, territorial, linguistic, and cultural distinctions of those people whose connections to this hemisphere predate the arrival of intentional colonizing settlers and conscripted and enslaved populations.” (6). Justice lays out the various aspects of who and how a people are a people while maintaining the primacy of relationship to land. Importantly, Indigeneity is irreducible to land title or legal jurisdiction or phenotype or the number of language speakers. Indigeneity is multiple and capacious. However, it is not available to everyone. All people have relationship to land, but not all people are Indigenous. Indigeneity is a distinction between kinds of relationship to land and is therefore not a passive term of description, but an active term of political/cultural/social/economic/legal utility. It is a people who say, as one theatre artist might, “‘We know we belong to the land’ and therefore require X.”5 This is quite different from saying “We know the land belongs to us and therefore can do Y,” which is what a colonizer/customer says. Within the context of what is currently called eastern Massachusett, the people who belong to the land are Wampanoag, Massachusett, Ponkapoag, and Nipmuck. These nations have unique relationships and responsibility to the land and the water of that region. The People of the First Light have lived in coastal Massachusetts for much longer than Massachusetts as a state or colony has existed. They still live there. They still are fighting for the responsibility of caring for their land.6 They are Indigenous.
What Is Guesting?
In The Haunted Stage, Marvin Carlson writes about the ghostly qualities of theatrical culture and “this sense of something coming back in the theatre” (2). The concept and term he offers to describe this phenomenon is ghosting. Playing on Carlson’s foundational theory, I offer guesting as a way to practice presence. If ghosting is that which returns to a space (physical/metaphysical), guesting is the intentional act of coming to a space (physical/metaphysical). As guests, we can assess our practice of presence from our hosts’ perspective.
Guesting relies upon five important facets: impermanence, dependence, relationship, precedence, and reciprocity. Guesting is by nature impermanent. Guests are not resident owners. They come to a place already occupied, already owned. They come to a specific place, a place that existed prior to their arrival and prior to their needs as guests. Guesting reminds us that we are under the authority of our hosts. We are not preeminent. We are dependent. One can only be dependent upon someone/something. Dependency requires relationship. One is always the guest of someone, of someone who is real and alive. The inherent relationship within guesting precedes the acts of guesting and hosting. Not only do hosts exist prior to a guest’s arrival, but the relationship enabling the guest to arrive preexists their arrival too. Guesting well demands healthy relationships that invite respect, reciprocity, generosity, listening, conflict resolution, boundaries, and joy. Guesting is practicing reciprocity in the interest of generously supporting your host. It implies obligations for the guest. And in an Indigenous worldview, hosts include the land, water, nonhuman animals, and more-than-human presences. Guesting is a practice that encompasses and accounts for all those relationships. It is not simple nor formulaic. Bringing flowers and wine as a hostess gift will not be enough. Guesting requires thoughtful, intentional, holistic practices in thought, speech, and action. Guesting well takes time.
Because temporality is fluid in this moment as you read on a screen and I write from the past, let us begin in Boston in August 2018 at ATHE’s conference, “Theatres of Revolution: Performance, Pedagogy, and Protest.” As part of the exploration of revolution(s), the conference committee creates a series of events highlighting performances of history. Included in these events are theatrical performances at the conference hotel and excursions that occur offsite touring local, embodied performances of the past. Taken together, they speak of how history is (re)membered and (re)made through performance, through narrative, and through political intention. One of the excursions is to Plimoth Plantation, the nonprofit living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, focusing on Pilgrims and Wampanoag in the seventeenth century.7 You board the bus on a warm, sticky morning and ride for an hour to arrive at Plimoth. The excursion coordinator informs you there will be group pictures involved.
Once inside the visitor’s center at Plimoth you meet your tour guide, Darius Coombs (Mashpee Wampanoag), the director of Wampanoag and Eastern Woodlands. Coombs has worked at Plimoth for decades and warmly welcomes you to the Indigenous-centered tour you will experience today. He leads you to the cinema, a small film screening auditorium, to watch an introductory film that will frame your experience of Plimoth. The short film describes the Wampanoag homelands and the history of European contact immediately preceding the arrival of the Pilgrims. From 1617 to 1619 a plague—most likely caught from European explorers—infected Indigenous peoples up and down the coast. One village emptied by this epidemic was Patuxet, a Wampanoag village. Those who did not die in Patuxet relocated to other Wampanoag villages. This empty Patuxet bore witness to the drastic reorderings that would occur as a result of European exploration and colonization on Turtle Island. Contact is not a solitary exchange—it is a ripple. Patuxet lived out the consequences of contact’s contagion.
However, the Plimoth film does not say the word ghost or suggest emptiness as a characterization of the land when the Pilgrims arrived. Instead, the film forwards the vibrancy and presence of Wampanoag in the region. It refutes the idea of absence. The Wampanoag are not ghosts who haunt the Pilgrims’ lives. They are not a presence who returns. The Wampanoag “were” not; they are the people to whom the Pilgrims came. The film emphasizes Wampanoag homelands, lifeways, and presence. Importantly, this film has not always been the suggested first stop for guests at Plimoth, and it is not mandatory. The efforts by Plimoth Plantation to create an environment in which guesting can be done well are laudable. And although one hopes that all guests take advantage of the film as an introduction to their experience, one also understands that relationships are agential and guesting exists on a continuum. Some guests are better at guesting than others, and all must choose their own paths. You choose to take the film’s and Coombs’s suggestion and follow the path to the Wampanoag Homesite.
As you walk down the dirt path shaded by trees you encounter a sign, which depicts a roughly three-quarter life-size image of a Wampanoag man in traditional seventeenth-century Wampanoag dress, holding a bow that rests on the ground and is nearly as tall as him (fig. 1). The sign reads, “Do you have a picture in mind from movies or books of what ‘Indians’ look like?” It explains that the man depicted on the sign, Darius, is a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag—your tour guide, a few years younger. In congenial, conversational language, the sign identifies stereotypes as images and words and politely requests that guest do not rely upon these stereotypes to interact with the Native American people at the Homesite. It ends by inviting conversation, explaining that not everyone in the Homesite is Native and that guests are welcome to ask each person about their nation. You know you will encounter eager and pleasant people happy to interact with you.
This sign prepares guests to encounter the rigorously researched reconstruction of dwellings, food, clothing, cultural practices, and implements of the Homesite.
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Welcome sign before entering the Wampanoag Homesite.
It also informs guests that they will be interacting with people—individuals with unique histories and identities—not generic or stereotypical depictions of Native Americans. Unlike other Plimoth Plantation employees, Native American historical interpreters do not have to “stay in character.” Historical interpreters in the Pilgrim-centered locations, such as the seventeenth-century English Village, are assigned the identity of a specific historical figure and must maintain interactions as that figure. In contrast, the Native interpreters can speak of themselves as individuals and answer questions about modern issues and topics. As Coombs pointed out, they can talk about Wampanoag home-building techniques in the same breath as the Red Sox. This flexible temporality is matched in the performance of historical Wampanoag life. The interpreters who perform Wampanoag roles are all Native Americans, but they are not all Wampanoag. After an intensive multiweek training process, they become experts on traditional Wampanoag lifeways and carry the weight of accurately representing another nation’s history and identity alongside their own. In this way, Native interpreters constantly shift from past to present, from self to historical other, from nation to nation. They embody the impermanency of guesting well in the fluidity of their interactions and acts of representation.
Coombs explains it was the Native interpreters themselves who requested that the welcome sign be put in place. Interpreters were routinely faced with insensitive and ignorant actions and words by guests—a “war whoop” here, a “How” greeting there. These acts, often performed by visitors oblivious to their impact, created a barrier to conversations with Native interpreters about the specificity of Wampanoag experience. Plimoth Plantation’s website also addresses the ways that visitors’ reliance upon stereotypical tropes of “Indians” can negatively impact their and others’ experience at the Homesite. In the “What to See and Do” tab on its homepage within the “Wampanoag Homesite” section, you can see this clear and concise request. “No Costumes, please” (“Wampanoag Home-site”). The website explains that the historical interpreters are not in “costumes,” but in traditional, specific, and culturally meaningful Wampanoag clothing. Visitors in costumes confuse the experience for other guests and may be asked by staff “to remove or cover up an ‘Indian’ costume” (ibid.). Plimoth Plantation responded to the experiences and suggestions of its Native employees to address the negative experience for both interpreters and guests. Although incidences still occur, Coombs estimates the welcome sign has reduced the number of stereotypical tropes interpreters have to deal with by as much as 90 percent. The sign is a tangible practice of teaching guests to guest well; it is corrective and it has worked. It is also an indication of the poor guesting that too regularly occurs. I pay significant attention to this sign in this essay because it locates the moments where guests do not guest well and models a practice of inviting better guesting.
I linger on the sign, because it is important for more than just preventing racially charged encounters and experiences for interpreters and guests. It is a model for actively engaging in improving a situation without relying upon the labor, intellectual and emotional, of the people experiencing harm. The sign is a neutral, physical, and authoritative object that guests encounter. Guests have the autonomy to read or not read the sign. It appears that the majority of guests do read the sign. The educational labor of the sign relieves the interpreters of additional work to educate guests and allows them to focus on the education they are hired and trained to do: to communicate the historical Wampanoag and contemporary Native experience. Rather than spending time addressing the nature and meaning of stereotypes and explaining why they are inappropriate, interpreters spend their time addressing the nature and meaning of life in seventeenth-century Wampanoag homes and connecting it to contemporary Native American life and lifeways. The sign is both an invitation and path for guests to practice guesting well; it is also evidence of listening well to the hosts—the Indigenous peoples who care for the land.
Your remaining time at Plimoth is spent at the Homesite sweating in a winter wetu (a multifamily dwelling [fig. 2]), walking among the summer wetu and kitchen, visiting the garden, and having a group picture taken. Then you walk up a hill and enter the Craft Center and witness a Native American artisan creating feathered, northeastern woodlands–style headdresses. You eat a lunch of traditional Native American foods like venison, sunflower seed gravy, squash, beans, and berries. You board the bus and head back to the conference hotel, late afternoon sessions, and a keynote by two remarkable sisters.
Four Steps in Guesting Well
I delete the preposition I write in this section header, “to,” and type a new one, “in.” The steps I explain in this section are not steps to a stamp of Indigenous approval. They cannot promise achievement of “good guest” status if followed. Instead, they identify practices that are included in a process called guesting well. In the case of ATHE 2018 in Boston, guesting well looks like attempts to build into the conference ethos a practice of acknowledging ourselves as guests, of learning from our hosts about guesting well, of spending time building relationships, of intentionally deciding to invest our resources in our host as we recognize the ways in which we rely upon their resources.
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Inside the winter wetu.
Acknowledge your Hosts
Know who your hosts are—which is to say, know where you are. One way you can begin knowing where you are and identifying your hosts is through performing a “land acknowledgment.” Land acknowledgment is a growing practice in Canada and the United States that recognizes the preexisting relationships between Indigenous peoples and the spaces occupied by settler colonial governments and settlers. It is a public declaration of guesting—most often of uninvited guesting.8 Before the keynote event at ATHE 2018 conference, I performed this kind of land acknowledgment. First, I located myself and my people, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. I then reminded us that we were all uninvited guests of the nations who have cared for and lived in symbiotic relationship with this land and water for centuries, and then I named the specific nations. Immediately following this I introduced a local elder, Dedra Ko (Cherokee, Haliwa Saponi, Mohawk), who was given time to speak. No limitations were made on what she could or could not say. We did not ask for her blessing or for her to assure us of guest status. We asked her to speak whatever message she had for us.
Finding the nations/bands/tribes of the land can begin on the internet, but should not end there. The website www.native-land.ca offers a starting place to locate traditional tribal relationship to land. While not exhaustive, the site is updated regularly. Another useful resource is “Honor Native Land: A Guide and Call to Acknowledgement” at www.usdac.us. This guide is produced by the US Department of Arts and Culture, a grassroots action network unaffiliated with the federal government. It offers a step-by-step approach to understanding and a script for implementing land-acknowledgment practices into your organization. Next, you can begin contacting local or regional Native organizations and nations/tribes/bands and developing relationships to increase the accuracy and specificity of your land acknowledgment.
Importantly, the complex history of Native peoples and land means that there can be many different nations connected to specific areas. Criteria for legitimacy of and within each of these kinds of nations are complicated and contested. Federally recognized tribes are those with a nation-to-nation relationship with the US government. Some tribes are recognized only by a state rather than the federal government, and still others are unrecognized. But it is important to remember that being either federally or state recognized as a people is a particular kind of political action that is useful to achieve specific political goals. Nations’ goals change over time, and their access to feasible political actions evolve also. For many nations, the rules of the game have repeatedly changed in ways that shut them out of the game altogether, although they retain cultural, governmental, and national identity. The complexity of these matters is one of the reasons that developing relationships with local Native communities and community members is essential to recognizing your hosts.
Listen to Your Hosts
Guesting at Plimoth Plantation is especially instructive of several ways that a host might be trying to communicate a need. The website preemptively framed the Native interpreters as not in costume, and it requests visitors to choose not to costume themselves. The film explicates the specificity of Wampanoag presence in the land. The sign invites guests to a kind of engagement that maximizes the quality of their experience. These are ways that the plantation invites its visitors to guest well within Indigenous space. It is up to the guest to try to listen. Listening well sometimes means unlearning, sometimes means asking questions, and sometimes means trying out new ways of interacting. Listening well requires time and focus.
Once you have connected with the local Native American communities, nations, and organizations where you live and work, introduce yourself without asking anything from them. Ask if you can attend their events. Follow their lead for attendance and participation. Invite them to your events. Tell them about who you are and who your people are. Listen to them when they tell you about their community. Do not expect their trust simply because of your good intentions. Earn their trust over time. Do not demand their wisdom or encouragement or blessing. Request their friendship. Do not be discouraged when friendship is not instantaneous. Time is an opportunity to display consistency, care, and concern. Build a network, not a contact list.
At the ATHE 2018 conference, relationship-building happened remotely and within the constrained calendar of a conference committee. It was consequently incomplete. I was able to make connections with only one tribal nation, one community organization, and a few Native people in the region. I spent time on the phone getting to know the leaders of these organizations, letting them know who I was, what ATHE was interested in doing, and that I was willing to learn from them about their protocol and needs. It took months for me, an outsider to their communities, to develop the relationships that made the presence of one elder at the keynote event possible. This should not be seen as a success; it was just what was feasible within the constraints of the committee’s time and process. An ideal scenario for future ATHE conferences would be to draw on preexisting relationships developed between ATHE members and the Indigenous communities of future conference sites.
Think carefully after listening to your hosts. What are their stated needs? Identify your areas of strength, the resources from which you can draw. Talk to your hosts about how those resources might be used to support their goals, to fill their needs. Get consent before beginning a project that is supposed to benefit your hosts. Let your hosts know what your needs are. Trust is built over time. Demonstrate your trustworthiness by following through with your commitments to your hosts.
Ko’s presence and prayer at the keynote was an opportunity for ATHE to practice reciprocity. The conference leadership decided that we should offer our resources as theatre professionals and educators to the Native American community of Boston, and specifically to Ko for the generosity and trust in us expressed by their support of our event. We arranged for all-conference passes for interested community members of the North American Indian Center of Boston and interested members of local Native American nations. We also gave theatre tickets to Ko for her special investment in our event. We presented ourselves as guests who understood we could easily be an imposition on our hosts and wanted to offset that perception. We offered our resources that might fill our hosts’ needs. We tried to guest well.
For educators and artists who create environments in which learning and artistic experience happen often simultaneously, the welcome sign before the Wampanoag Homesite issues a challenge. How might we actively create physical reminders that graciously invite better guesting from our students, our audience members, our patrons, and our interlocutors? How might our actions take away the burden of teaching these important skills from the populations that poor guesting most drains or exploits? How can we model guesting well and build a praxis of guesting into our productions, our classes, our departments, and our scholarship? How can we refute with our lives the received narrative that we discovered empty space, that Native Americans are merely historical phenomenon in America, and that we can pay for the right to be where we are? How can we guest well?
The author thanks Margherita Laera for the invitation to write this essay, and Selena Couture and Elizabeth Hunter for their comments.
1 Turtle Island is an Indigenous term for the land mass also called North America. Wampanoag means People of the First Light, according to Nancy Eldredge (Nauset Wampanoag, Penobscot).
2 Dawnland refers to what is currently called New England. To learn more about the nations and peoples that call the Dawnland home, see www.dawnlandvoices.org.
3 Janice Kelly defines social entrainment as “all those cycles of behavior, at the individual, group, or organizational level, that are captured and modified by one another or by an external pacer that may serve to regulate those behaviors” (786).
4 In the following year, the “UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” was released. The United States voted against its adoption, along with other former colonies of England: Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.
5 Oscar Hammerstein II wrote these words for the title song in the musical Oklahoma!
6 In September 2018, the US Department of the Interior decided that the Mashpee Wampanoag, despite being a federally recognized tribe, did not have the kind of legal status needed to have land held in trust by the federal government, which is a critical component of tribal sovereignty. The Mashpee Wampanoag responded by suing, Mashpee v. Zinke, on September 27, 2018.
Anonymous. “Wampanoag Homesite.” 2003–19. Web. 28 Sep. 2018.
Carlson, Marvin. The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001. Print.
Eldredge, Nancy. “Who Are the Wampanoag?” 2003–19. Web. 28 Sep. 2018.
Justice, Daniel Heath. “Introduction: Stories That Wound, Stories That Heal.” Why Indigenous Literatures Matter. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2018. 1–32. Print.
Kelly, Janice R. “Social Entrainment.” Encyclopedia of Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. Ed. John M. Levine and Michael A. Hogg. London: Sage, 2010. 786. Print.
Magelssen, Scott. Simming: Participatory Performance and the Making of Meaning. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2014. Print.
Robinson, Dylan, et al. “Rethinking the Practice and Performance of Indigenous Land Acknowledgement.” Canadian Theatre Review 177 (2019). Print.
United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “Fact Sheet: Who Are Indigenous Peoples?” 12 May 2006. Web. 29 Sep. 2018.