The stereotype of what an American Indian person looks like is deeply etched into our cultural imagination. We see the familiar image on sports logos, on Land O’Lakes butter containers, in cartoons and on TV. But that contorted idea of a feather-wearing, leather-clad “savage” frozen in time has nothing to do with how Native people live in today’s world.
With a new multimedia project that includes a dance piece and companion art exhibition, Minneapolis artist and choreographer Rosy Simas sets out to challenge that narrow perception.
Simas says she has often felt invisible as a Native woman. “People have an idea of what they think native people look like, and I don’t fit that idea,” she said. “It’s because of the stereotypes that we have been created over time.” According to Simas, most of our American Indian stereotypes are derived from what the Plains Indians looked like more than a century ago. And she hardly fits that mold. She’s a citizen from the Cattaraugus Seneca Territory (within upstate New York) and was herself born in Florida, moving to Minnesota with her family when she was 5.
Her new show “Skin(s)”, opening Friday at Intermedia Arts, features layers of dance, video, poetry and sound design to highlight the diversity of urban American Indians. The overall goal? Giving the audience some sense of what it’s like to live “in the skin” of a contemporary Native person.
At the same time the show battles invisibility, Simas’ show confronts a certain kind of romanticism that non-native audiences expect from Native artists. “I think people go to see Native work with a conscious or unconscious desire to have a certain kind of experience — be it spiritual or whatever it is,” Simas said.
With “Skin(s),” Simas seeks to destroy those expectations. The show employs a soundscape (created by composer François Richomme) along with cinematography, art installation and lighting. The result is a nonlinear piece with absorbing visuals. “It takes [the audience] away from their preconceived ideas of what this might be because it’s a native artist,” explained Simas.
Simas partnered with Minneapolis poet Heid E. Erdrich to research the “Skin(s)” project. The pair spent months traveling to cities including Chicago and the Bay Area to interview Native people living in urban areas. More than 30 interviews informed the text Erdrich authored for the show. A recording of Erdrich reading the text was then abstracted and incorporated into Richomme’s avant-garde soundscape.
What’s so special about the interviews? The fact that nobody answered their questions the same way, answered Erdrich, an Ojibwe enrolled at Turtle Mountain (within North Dakota). “There is so much diversity. And the image is so simplistic of what Native people are.”
Erdrich also collaborated with filmmaker Elizabeth Day to capture the interviews on video. The result is a 4-minute film called “Skin Frequencies,” which features into the exhibition Erdrich curated for “Skin(s).” Also featured are paintings and sculptures by a cast of esteemed American Indian visual artists including Minnesotans Julie Buffalohead, Andrea Carlson and Dyani White Hawk.
Upside of injury
Simas attributes much of her recent success to a twist of fate. In 2012, she injured one of the discs in her back. She couldn’t work as a dancer for nine months.
Living on food stamps, she was driven by desperation to sit down and embark upon the tedious process of applying for artists’ grants. First she was awarded the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Dance Fellowship in 2013. “That was really the first funding of any size that I had received,” she remembered. “It allowed me to go part time at my job as a body work therapist.”
With more time for writing applications, she soon found herself winning more grants — from the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, First People’s Fund and the McKnight Foundation, among others.
At the same time, Simas resolved to sharpen her career focus.
“I made a decision to say, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’ ” she remembered thinking in 2012.
She soon found herself driving across America in her 2007 Ford Escape. The mission was pitching her work to theaters, galleries and other performing arts presenters. And the result? Simas booked “We Wait in the Darkness,” a solo dance work exploring her ancestry, at venues in New York, Montreal, Los Angeles, Chicago and even Maui. She performed at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Illinois. She was invited to participate in Vancouver’s Talking Stick Festival.
“Skin(s)” will be Simas’ second tour in five years. After its run at Intermedia Arts, which commissioned the piece, Simas will tour the show to the San Francisco Bay Area and to Chicago with support from the National Performance Network.
In the midst of all this touring success, Simas has also become more visible on the local dance scene. She develops her shows locally. She’s teaching at the University of Minnesota and regularly hosts dance workshops. And she’s increasingly hired as a curator — she’s putting together dance shows for the Ordway and Walker Art Center next year. All this has enabled local dance lovers to watch Simas’ work deepen and grow.
“I feel like she’s become such a force,” said Laurie Van Wieren, the influential local dancer who curates the monthly 9x22 series at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. “She’s really become herself, and it’s inspiring.”
Simas was finally able to quit her body-work job right before premiering “We Wait in the Darkness” at Minneapolis’ Red Eye Theater in 2014. And then she gave herself a new job title: full-time artist, choreographer and dancer. “
It is considerably more administrative work than I’ve ever done in my life,” she confessed. “And sometimes it’s really challenging, but I feel like I’ve been honored by my own community.”
Sheila Regan is a Twin Cities arts journalist.