Murielle Borst-Tarrant, a member of the Kuna/Rappahannock Nations, is an author, playwright, director, producer, cultural artist, educator and human rights activist. Most of all, Murielle is a storyteller focusing on narratives from the Native American communities. Her new play, Don’t Feed the Indians: A Divine Comedy Pageant, will open at LaMaMa Downstairs Theatre on November 3, and run through November 19.
In 1976, Murielle’s mother, Muriel Miquel, known as the “Red Mother” founded the Spiderwoman Theater, which brought together a diverse group of women to explore themes such as gender roles, cultural stereotypes, and sexual and economic oppression. Murielle is a second-generation artist from this acclaimed company which continues to entertain and challenge its audiences.
Murielle, the author of the fantasy series The Star Medicine, works on the deconstructing of methods of the arts in Native communities in urban areas across the country and in the New York City education system. She consults many urban and non-urban universities on the development on Native theater programming. She was nominated for the Rockefeller Grant in 2001, won a Native Heart Award and was the only Native American woman to have her work selected by the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, at the Sydney Opera House for her one woman show More Than Feathers and Beads. She named one of the most influential women in American Theater by American Theater Magazine.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
I have been in show business for over 20 some years and I grew up in the theater world. I really don’t know a time that I wasn’t on stage. I did try many different things. I worked in the food and hotel industry. I wasn’t very good at [customer service] and I quit before I was fired. I also did singing telegrams, worked for my family at The American Indian Community House in New York City as an executive secretary for the Executive Director. I sold junk bonds and even got accepted into the New York City police academy to become a cop (another funny thought).
I was really rebelling against my family because my family ran a theater company (Spiderwoman Theater) and I thought the best way to do that was to do things that were totally against what my mother did. I don’t think I was fooling anybody by the way! But at the same time I continued dance class every day and wrote pages upon pages of essays and short stories every night. It was during that time that I wrote the short story “Jessica” that turned into my one woman show, More Than Feathers and Beads, years later.
However, the turning point or the trigger was while I was in college. I had a great professor named Jon Fraser who bluntly said to me when I was going back and forth whether to do this with the rest of my life or not, “Either get on the pot or off!” He didn’t give me time to think about it and I made my decision right then that I was going to do this for the rest of my life or die trying.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
There are so many things that I love about what I do and it is really hard to pinpoint just one thing. But I love the creative process and how one starts the process with one idea and then it flows into many others. How you can take one story from a conversation and it can be made into a theater piece or when actors take your words and give them life. There is no better feeling to me than going on stage and have that feeling that you belong and wished that the world was always like this. To get lost in the creative process where you put all of yourself in the performance, in the song, in the movement, in the writing so it feels like a just a little of yourself dies in a way every time you put your all into it. There is nothing more appealing to me than the creative process.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
Once I decided that I was going to go back to school full time, I chose a university that I knew fitted me. I eventually went on full scholarship through the HEOP program (The Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program) at Long Island University. It was there that I learned the importance of not only acting, but the importance of understanding all of theater. My adviser, Jon Fraser, ran a program that educated me on how to develop a whole person in theater, from lighting to stage management even taking a semester in theater administration where you were taught to write a grant.
At the same time, it was there that I was taught the craft of working with other seasoned actors on stage and from these actors (who came from some impressive resumes) Jon made it clear that these people who I was on stage with were there to coach me at the same time. I also would just sit with him and watch him direct and not say a word. That was very easy for me because my mother is a director and I watched her for years. These two directors really taught me about the leadership of directing. I was also studying dance at the time and shadowing a ballet master of the South Hampton Ballet and it was there I learned the craft of dance, not only as a dancer but also an instructor. He taught me that one must work with the body that is given and to take those limitations and work with them not against them.
After I finished my undergraduate work, I decided that I needed more craft with my acting skills so I decided to study acting at HB Studio with Sandy Morris and Uta Hagen. And it was there that I was able to hone my craft as an actor. But I also went to many comedy clubs and studied with comedians on how to be funny. One comedian said to me, “look, you’re either funny or you’re not!”
Cast of Don’t Feed the Indians – Standing: Danielle Soames (Mohawk/Kahnawake Nations), Kevin Tarrant (Hopi/Ho-Chunk Nations), Henu Josephine Tarrant (Hopi/Ho-Chunk/Kuna/Rappahannock Nations). Sitting: Nicholson Billey (Delaware/Choctaw Nations), Murielle Borst-Tarrant (Kuna/Rappahannock Nations), John Scott-Richardson (Haliwa-Saponi Tribe)
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
Look, I am a Native American woman who comes from New York City and also comes from a tribe that no one has ever heard about! I also lived on the Southern Ute reservation in Ignacio as a teenager and going to that high school taught me that I had to fight for everything and so did my friends who were there with me. We constantly fought for our identity and for us not to be painted always as these spoiled Indians who got oil money and that everything was our fault and we were just handed everything because of that. Some of us were put in classes so we could get ready for a vocational career and nothing else or some non-Native teachers saying “why are you so angry all of the time at us? We didn’t take your land and what does this have to do with me?” It was a constant struggle and I learned then that we had to fight for everything to be seen and heard and that was a town in the middle of a reservation.
But out all of those teachers there was one teacher who believed in me. Juvvie Jones, an English teacher, wasn’t an acting teacher or in the performing arts, he was just a teacher who happened to be a football coach and he decided to teach me and saw something in me that no one else saw. He saw beyond the trouble maker and the big mouth; he took me on and challenged me and told me to write and brought in scripts for me to read and basically told me that I had to go to college no matter what. And that was probably one of the most encouraging things that anyone has ever really done for me in my younger years.
We as Native Peoples always have the struggle of marginalization no matter where we live. It is a constant fight, nothing is marketed towards us, we are considered nonexistent, a non-entity, but yet we are everywhere in the American scope of the Americana, towns are named after us, hotels, ice cream, candy bars, streets, baseball teams but yet we don’t exist. There is a bizarre oxymoron when you look at that. So, in my profession and field there are always people saying that you don’t look Native American enough, you don’t act Native enough, you are way too educated to have a struggle as a Native woman in this country. What struggle can you have since you live in the city and not on the reservation. You are not skinny enough, you are not good looking enough or you are just too ethnic to have a real career in this business. I heard it all! So I always come from the perspective that there will always be the naysayers.
I am a fighter and I was raised that way. I had to fight for every little thing that I got in this field and in life. My mother told me that nothing comes easy and I realized that it doesn’t. Nevertheless, I now choose my battle ground which is in theater and the arts. I can only do the work to the best of my ability and I always keep in mind that I stand on the shoulders of over 500 years of powerful people who opened the doors for me and I have on speed dial when things get rough.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
Yes, there was a time that I decided that I was going to go into politics and at that time I was asked by a Community member of New York City and a member of the Onondaga Nation, Tonya Gonnella Frichner, who was the North American Regional Representative to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. She asked me to serve as her special assistant and in that capacity I advocated for Indigenous arts and culture and human rights. We worked together on how to make legal constructs on the international fora for Native Rights of North America and that included our cultural rights as artists. We believed that all rights were important and our cultural rights were just as important. And when approaching communities in making initiatives for Native communities that we had to be part of the process in the decision making and we have that right as human beings.
Human rights are still very important to me and I believe that everyone has the right to live in dignity. And that includes how we as Native Peoples are portrayed on stage and film. We have a right to tell our own story and from our point of view. And no one has the right to come into our communities and take our stories, our songs, our dances and culture without our permission. The same way they don’t have the right to extract oil and water from lands our without our free, prior and informed consent.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
I realized that I had to tell the world any way that I could on what was happening on an international level, that communities needed to know more about their collective human rights and that the Doctrine of Discovery (which means if you are not Christian you are not human) is still dictating to us as Native Peoples what we can write about and what was going to be accepted in the arts. We were being told to compromise in our fields and meanwhile a non-Native artist makes a piece about Native Peoples and it is considered worthwhile and meanwhile we have to stay in the Doctrine of Discovery framework. That was when I knew I couldn’t become a full-time diplomat and that I had to fight in the field that I absolutely love, where I wake up in the morning and say I have to do this before I die.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
Funding. Having our own space. Telling our own story. Respect and equality. And the constant fight for visibility.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
Diplomacy. It is more than smiling and shaking hands, it is a hard line of negotiation and that is always helpful even in the theatre world.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
My daughter and my marriage of 23 years.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Be professional, do the work, respect the work, stay to your vision, tell your story, and spend the money on a Chanel suit for meetings!
Photo of Murielle Borst-Tarrant by photographer Lidia Arriagada-Garcia
Cast photo: Theo Cote