Monique Mojica is Nuedi, a nuga Olonadili Oloedidili, Ganosoktha. She was born into the Guna and Rappahannock Nations, was adopted into the Cayuga Bear clan of the Haudenosaunee at Six Nations, and is generation three of four performing artists.
_Monique Mojica InterviewMonique Mojica
Interpretations of their own teachings and opinions shared here are the responsibility of each artist.
Written transcript is below.
“I privilege the body. I figure if there's something my body knows then I, I search that down until it comes into impulse, till it comes into gesture, until it comes into sound, movement, and very last is text.”
Interview with Monique Mojica
Krysta Williams: Who are you? Who do you relate to yourself? And what are some things that you think are important for people to know in terms of just your demographics? And then we'll get into your artistic practice.
Monique Mojica: Formally, Nuedi, a nuga Olonadili Oloedidili, Ganosoktha. I'm Monique Mojica. I was born into the Guna and Rappahannock Nations, so I'm both Central American Indigenous and North American Indigenous, and I was adopted into the Cayuga Bear clan of the Haudenosaunee at Six Nations, and that was done so that my son would have a clan. Bears claimed us. I am generation three of four generations of performing artists in my family. And I'm tired. (laughs)
Krysta Williams: Yeah. All right, so some of the questions about artistic expression is what's your method of artistic expression? Why is it important to you?
Monique Mojica: Method is something that's kind of, set, fixed has more borders and containment around it than in the way I think of living as an artist. I'm an actor. I started as a dancer. My mom in the 1950s, New York took me to as many dance, music, art and kiddie drama classes that she could get a bursary for, for a little, brown girl. I was a very busy kid. I've been doing this since I was three years old, so that's coming up on 63 years.
When I was a kid, the people that were around my family, whether it was my nuclear family, my mom or dad, were one kind, of sort of Greenwich Village, New York, vanguard of the civil rights, post-war kind of artist, activist, crazy people. On my grandparent's side, which was, you know, over the Brooklyn Bridge in Brooklyn, there were a lot of other kinds of crazy people. Show Indians, a lot of show Indians that did exhibitions and powwows and White folks who attach themselves to show Indians, well, they had the Cowboy and Indian Club. So, when I was very small, there were still a lot of folks like that, that were in and out of my grandparent's home.
There were families of show Indians whose descendants and grandchildren I met along the way and try to sit there and try to figure out who I think I know who like... Buddy Big Mountain, the ventriloquist. His grandfather, I believe it was, his family might... One thing my grandpa used to do is that if there were Indians that were stranded in New York who ended up there and they were kind of ditched by whoever had hired them, he would go get them and bring them home, take care of them, and sometimes they stayed for years in my family's house. So, the Big Mountains were one of those families. There were people that, and now we're married into some of those families, those very early show Indians, like 20s, 30s, in New York. The family of Lillian St. Cyr-Redwing was one of them. My cousin married the great-, grand-nephew of that family. So now. My niece, who is same generation as my son, is creating a performance piece about Redwing.
In my practice, I think the way that it has evolved from kiddie classes in the 1950s with a lot of notable people. I mean one of my first dance teachers was Murray Lewis, who was one of the principal dancers from the Alwin Nikolais Company and, you know, people like that, is that I had to find a way in the 70s and early 80s to reconcile my activism with my arts practice, because I'm spending eight hours, 10 hours a day in the dance studio, wasn't jiving with you having to go show up for an action or something.
So. I would say that my... thrust, my driving forces still remained trying to reconcile doing the revolutionary work through performance and through transforming what we know as theatrical performance into something that is inherently Indigenous, something that uses Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous perceptions and ways of being and puts it in the centre. Instead of just using it like decoration. I'm done with doing Shakespeare with a few fringes and feathers and "way ha hey yo"'s stuck in there. I won't do that anymore and I'm not interested in recreating the well-made play as we are taught, you know, by that formulaic, exalted way of working and dumping Native content into it. I'm not interested. It bores me to tears.
What I've been very... tenaciously dedicated to is... To tearing the hierarchical structure of how theatre is conceived of, how it is made, who has the power while it's being made into something that we can call Indigenous theatre, and I don't think we're there yet. I've had a couple of projects where I felt "okay, that was successful," or "that part of it was successful," but I do find that, and particularly, most recently, the biggest obstacle towards being able to work that way is those Indigenous folks who have been trained in Western theatre, we've all been trained in Western theatre, but they've been trained in that and aspire to being a star, being famous, getting the kudos from White folks, because it's something that is palatable, because it is something that is easily recognized and understood as something familiar. And it's a lot more work to do the kind of theatre that I'm interested in, it's challenging. It's creating something new. It's starting from a completely... It's, it's transferring structures that we may not know or recognize ourselves, because you have to, for me, first step has always been not being afraid of what I don't know in terms of Indigenous culture. I can't be afraid of not knowing or afraid of being called out for my inauthenticity or whatever it is, I start from the premise of, well, I don't know, so that's exciting. How do we fill that up? How do I figure out how to learn language in Dulegaya and to learn what vestiges of language from Rappahannock that people know or piece together, and build with that being the most important to keep intact.
Krysta Williams: And is that why, I imagine, like why dance, why theatre, why performance - why those particular mediums kind of call to you? Was it just circumstance and kind of what you were, you know, what you were shown as a young person, or is there something about that method?
Monique Mojica: I don't know why dance, theatre, and performances were where I've always stayed. It's probably the realm where things were the easiest for me to understand and translate emotion and experience. I always begin from the body, my work privileges the body over the head cut off from the or, this much, you know, forehead up is what Western scholarship, academia, knowledge is measured by this much, from the forehead up and always the head cut off from the base knowledge of the body and I privilege the body. I figure if there's something my body knows then I, I search that down until it comes into impulse, till it comes into gesture, until it comes into sound, movement, and very last is text. Whereas Western theatre creation, Western playwriting privileges text. So, it's really upside down in terms of the organizations and institutions that are set up to make and produce theatre and performance in North America.
Krysta Williams: And is there a particular piece that you've had or that you've been involved in that you're especially proud of, that you'd like to share?
Monique Mojica: Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way and Izzie M: The Alchemy of Enfreakment. Those would be the two pieces that I wrote and produced myself (huff puff) and Izzie is still growing. So, I know less about what I did and how I got there in a reflective way. Chocolate Woman was a while ago and I've done a lot of reflection, discussion, examination and writing about what that was and what is still in it, and it's - there are other - another project that's grown out of that. It's like, "Okay, so how do you publish?" How do you publish a script that was written in pictographs? Because, yes, I have the words extrapolated from that, but my script is like I think in twenty three reams of banner paper in pictographic form that I can read and that's a form of writing that Gunas use. I didn't use a particular song-specialists system.
I made my own because I haven't gone through that training. I am not one of those... Those are healers. They notate their chants, but each specialist has their own system and they teach their chants to their apprentices who only see those pictographic writings once they have been declared graduated. It's not like you read the score like an orchestra score and you learn it from the score. You have to learn it in your entire being, body, mind, spirit and heart. And then when you're all done and you know it on all those concentric levels When you know it on all those levels, at the end, you see the score. So, I created a movement score in pictographic form that I could read. So then after it's all done and years after the production is over, say, well, how do you publish a script like that? So, there's an ongoing project, there's a long-term project that we're still working on now, so I don't even have the answer now with the collaborator, non-Native collaborator, who is working with me on iconic forms and embodiments of iconic forms. She's a British woman named Brenda Farnell. And with two digital artists here in Toronto, Jennifer Wemigwans and Jason Baerg, who are creating a portable, immersive environment and, as well, creating ways to insert pictographs into the video of the show. So it's something that can travel and also play with teaching embodiment, you know, something that can go into communities, a small, immersive environment, a dome or wigwam, or whatever it is, to go into and be able to play with embodiment of those forms, the pictographs and petroglyphs, which is our literature. And that's, I think, the premise. These are the things that excite me when you say, "what is my practice?"
It's been in recovering and reclaiming those things that are our performance literatures, which are on the land, through the land, and through medium of land itself, whether we're talking about burial mounds and effigy mounds or the trail marker trees, or pictographs and petroglyphs, those iconic forms hold encyclopaedias worth, dissertations worth of information. So, if you're taking those patterns and those energies into the body, therein lies the potential for repair, and the potential for reconnection, and the disentanglement and unwinding of all those huge concepts of terra nullius: land belonging to no one. It's one of the big things that I got excited about looking at in the last couple of years is that if we look at a term like terra nullius, land belonging to no one, and if my work is looking at land and body, and connecting land and body, and performing land on body, and allowing land to perform us, then what's the correlation? Is there such a thing as corpus nullius, body belonging to no one? And it's a thing! Much to my surprise (chuckles). So, looking at the relationship of terra nullius and corpus nullius, can that be reversed? And if we put ourselves on the land and allow the land - and in those important places in power centres where the ancestors left so much information for us to still be able to decode when everything is almost gone, then what happens? Then what happens?
Krysta Williams: What makes you proud of those two, the two pieces that you mentioned, "Chocolate Woman" and "Izzie M"? Like, why those two pieces? What about those are you - I mean, you mentioned that you -
Monique Mojica: They were my concepts, but because they were not built on Western structures and hierarchies of how to make theatre. They were not built on the European literary narrative. They were not built on euro-dramaturgies. *Big word* dramaturgy - it means structure, structure of theatre, theatre drama, dramatic structure. So, the dramatic structure that I was searching for, I didn't know ahead of time. I didn't know what the dramatic structure was. I knew that I had lots of examples for how stories are told in Guna culture, I had a lot of examples of how stories were fewer in terms of East Coast Peoples, you know, the Rappahannock, but Rappahannock were mound builders.
So, I teamed with a Choctaw woman named LeAnne Howe, who's a novelist, poet, playwright from Oklahoma. But we were looking at Southeastern Peoples and the Peoples who had emerged from Cahokia, which is near present day Saint Louis. And so, there's the three, three big cultural groups that came out of there, were the Haudenosaunee, the Muskogean, and the Algonquian Peoples all came, we all came out of, emerging and coming up from Central America following the Mississippi and emerging into that culture and then splitting again. So, there are Anishinaabe Peoples who hold the story of the migrations that came from around present-day Carolinas and up back through. So, you know, looking at how we were connected, and how we were connected through river systems, through star systems to mound systems.
That's the literary structure, the dramatic structure, the dramaturgy that I'm looking to uncover, reconnect with, embody, and hold up. Because it's not what's being held up now, it's not what's being held up. It's like we're asked to celebrate Shakespeare in feathers and fringe with all the same tropes, and I just will not do it anymore. I cannot do it anymore and... I celebrate and jump up and down every time I find a Indigenous theatre practitioner or scholar or artist-scholar who's interested in what I'm interested in, but I can count them on one hand.
Krysta Williams: Well, speaking of, I wonder if you can name artists or movements that you've been influened by?
Monique Mojica: Well, Spiderwoman Theatre has to be, you know, the first on the list; that's my family, that's who I was trained by, and my aunt, Muriel Miguel, I think at 83, continues to be really out there on the cutting edge of what Indigenous theatre can be. But it is very difficult. You know, there's this mythology, you can change things from the inside once you get in there, and I think it is the... Hmm, it's the fallacy and the mythology around representation, 'cause representation is just not enough. It is not enough. It's not enough to be there. You have to change the structure.
Unfortunately, people - our people who get in the door in arts and cultural institutions, for the most part, are not interested in changing the structure because they got theirs, they got in the door, they pulled up the ladder. You know? So... When you're in a situation where you're fighting for things that we need as Indigenous artists in order to do the work... You know what it was like? It was like, what's that movie, you know, that movie where there's a babysitter and she's being threatened and someone keeps calling, "When a Stranger Calls," - that's the one. At the end, the cops call and say, "Ma'am we've traced the call and it's coming from inside the house,"... (laughs) that's what it felt like. That's what it felt like. And that's left me with a very profound disillusionment.
This is sacred work! And taking this work into mainstream institutions, into mainstream cultural institutions, no matter how artsy-fartsy and how progressive they think they are, are not about recognizing, respecting, or transforming. What they already know covers their bottom line and their bums in seats. So, it's put me at this point in my life - I'm going to be 66 in a couple of weeks, about two weeks I think.
Krysta Williams: Happy almost birthday.
Monique Mojica: Thank you. I am feeling that I don't think I want to do this anymore. And what does that mean and what do I do now? I've been moving over incrementally to dramaturgy - not because I can't do the physical work, because I don't want to be available for that level of violence. If you can do a show on the national stage about violence against Indigenous women, where there is so much violence against Indigenous women being experienced by the cast and directorial team, then what are we doing? You know, I just feel like I need to say, "not available for that." Not available for that. Someone told me recently, "you know, there's so much violence in theatre," and up until - how did I get to be this old and never had put those two words next to each other? But one of my closest friends saying, "Well, I thought you knew that, because as long as I've known you - all these years, it's been like watching you go from one abusive relationship to another every few months," and I thought, "hmm..." (laughs), you know? "Hmm..."
So I've had the experience the last few years, where first my son, Bear Witness from A Tribe Called Red, said to me, “Mom, nobody's writing theory, please write the theory. We need the theory, nobody's writing theory. Please write the theory," and I feel like I need to listen to him saying that to me. And I was in New Mexico and that had the privilege of visiting with Roxanne Swentzell, who is a marvelous Santa Clara Pueblo sculptor, artist, ceramicist, and her daughter, Rose Simpson, who was - she does amazing stuff. She also works on cars, so she refurbished and detailed a car with Pueblo ceramic designs. Anyway, she said the same thing to me. She said, "I've been trying to find Indigenous performance theory. How come nobody's writing theory?"
And Brenda Farnell, who I was there working with, said, "Well, she is,". So, I have two books coming out in which the theory is beginning to be written down. And again, that feels very, very counterintuitive because here we do all this work to have a holistic practice. But in order to write it down in a way that's going to be ingestible, you have to take the whole thing apart and it's in pieces again. I have one book coming out that. I wrote with Brenda Farnell, and that's called “Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way: Mapping Embodied Indigenous Performance”. And that's about the process that I described of creating Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way. And will include url links to video and interviews with José Colman, who was the director of that piece, a Guna director who came from Panama to work with us and interviews with my mother, who was on the stage with me, and the process that we went through. And the other book is Volume three of Staging Coyote's Dream, the first two volumes were anthologies/plays that I coedited with a White, male scholar named Ric Knowles, and the one that's coming out in - they're both coming in 2022 — Algonquin theatre scholar, Lindsay Lachance and I are co-editing, “Staging Coyote’s Dream: Indigenous Dramaturgies As A Radical Continuum” and that has a focus on dramaturgy.
So urls again, where performances are involved or with Spy Dénommé-Welch and Catherine Magowan from Unsettled Scores who write opera and libretto in Anishinaabemowin. We've invited folks in who are already working with innovative ways of creating Indigenous dramaturgies.
I've been working a lot with Santee Smith as her dramaturg. So, it's very interesting to kind of pool our knowledge and insights. She works very much from land. And working with patterning is the area that I want to go into and the pieces that I've - I'm now dramaturg in the third piece in her triptych. I performed and dramaturged the first one, dramaturged the second and I'll dramaturg the third and be in part of the video. And the dramaturgical model for those pieces is ceramics. She comes from a pottery producing family. But looking at all of those things in our material cultures that tell the story. Whether it's weaving, ceramics, wampum belts, molas, any kinds of textiles. And my premise... So who else did I not mention? Who is...
Krysta Williams: Like artists and art movements...
Monique Mojica: Artists and art movements. Certainly, the Absurdists and something else may come to mind.
Krysta Williams: It's okay.
Monique Mojica: Clowns! Clowns, but not the - not circus clowns as much as Marx Brothers. Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball, and in the 80s when I was here, when I first came here, there was a movement of clowns that seems to somewhat have dissipated. Some of them were Pochinko clowns, some of them were not, who were doing very political clowning. Marx Brothers, Marx Brothers keep coming back to me and... Arts movements, Arts movements, all those folks who are doing... And again, those people seem to have dwindled because it got so dire to be able to... Feed yourself. Some of the early works of performance artists like James Luna, Guillermo Gomez Peña, Rebecca Belmore. Not all the people that I feel are influential are performers.
Krysta Williams: You've spoken about this a little bit already, but are there particular lands or waters that you're connected to that also influence your work?
Monique Mojica: Going to Gunayala, even though I was quite a mature person once I got there. Going to all of my places of origin, you know. I went to Virginia in the 90s for the first time. Walking on ancestral land... You can connect to land. I mean, there's different levels. There are lands that I go to, I say, "Well, this is pretty —not my land,". I feel that way about northern Ontario. I feel that way about the Rockies, "Oh, this is really pretty. Isn't that amazing? Stunning landscape — not my place," you know? (laughs) but going to those tidewater and marshlands of Virginia, that East Coast River territory was... I hardly had words for... You know, every time we crossed a marsh, I'd burst into tears and I didn't know why. I was travelling with Pura Fé and Marjorie Beaucage, the first time I went. And I had no idea, every time. We were driving along and we go across another marsh, (cries) and then, you know, in talking to people and connecting with Rappahannock folks and other Powhatan folks the Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Chickahominy. Came to find out that in all of those horrific wars way back, 16, 1700s, the People ran to the marshes and they would hide in the reeds, you know, they would do that underwater thing with the reed, you know, and that also the marshes, the reason that some of the birds and beings that are so sacred to those tidewater Peoples are sacred is because the medicines are in the marshes. A lot of food, you know, the tuckahoes and the cattails are in the marshes. You know, so, yes, there are beings and spirits that are close to me. Because they are from that - I didn't know the connection.
You know, and that made its way into Izzie and the Alchemy of Enfreakment, because the character, from whose point of view a lot of that story is told, is loosely based on my great-grandmother who was from there, from Westmoreland County, Virginia, Rappahannock, Rappahannock River. And the South has a violent, violent history for Indigenous Peoples and much more - that whole idea of invisibility. You think we're invisible here, but we're not invisible the way we are in the US and we're not invisible other places in the US, the way that we are invisible in the South. Invisibilized and legislated out of existence in places like Virginia as it was a bi-racial state by the legislature, a bi-racial state. So, you were either White or Coloured and anybody who wasn't White was Coloured and there was - oh, it's another long story. But there was this evil, evil man named Walter Plecker, who worked at the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics for many, many, many, many years. He had his own little fiefdom in there, and he made it his business to eradicate any records of Indigenous presence. He went around buying up anybody's birth certificate that said Indian on it. They were called "mulattos" or the other anthropological term, what is it? Tri-racial isolates. So anything to say that we were not Indigenous people and had no land title.
Krysta Williams: Of course.
Monique Mojica: Right, so a lot of very complicated racial things were manufactured because of that and a lot of tension between people designated Coloured, people designated Indian when they may, in fact, be both. Or White and Black and Native and a lot of things that are still tearing apart communities there were manufactured and put in motion. You know, that woman, “Love”, they made that movie about it, it was supposed to be a White man and an African-American woman who got married, blah blah... She was Rappahannock and Black. But that's the invisibility that, you know, that's what's done. And you're so invisible as a Southern Indian. I remember, though, on that trip where I was travelling with Pura Fé and Marjorie Beaucage, and it was very interesting because it was, I remember Marjorie saying as a Métis, as a White presenting Métis, she was more used to just not being seen. But when we were travelling in the South, it was her that people would come up to, not me and Pura Fé who look pretty Indian, you know? They would come up to Marjorie and go, "are you Indian?" And she'd say, "Yeah, yeah, well, I'm Métis, I'm from -" and of course, the person would say "(whispers) Yeah, yeah me too."
And for her, it was amazing because it was the first time that she was in a place where she was immediately recognized as Native, because she was obviously not Black, but also obviously not White enough. Yeah, but we would do things on that - if we got lost or something, we'd have to like, "Marjorie, you go ask, you look White enough for going up to these White people," and, you know, so it's a whole different feeling in the South. And I did another Southern trip. I did a Southern trip many years later, I think it was 2014 I did a Southern trip - two Southern trips with LeAnne Howe across Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, all the way to Alabama and back. Which was very, very interesting. I was nervous about two Native women travelling alone through the Deep South. But, you know, I experienced less overt racism on that trip than I experienced on a daily basis if I'm going to go to Montreal or Winnipeg or Vancouver or Regina. And not any more than here and much less than in places like Montreal, which people seem to love and I absolutely abhor.
So the other place, that much to my surprise, I felt grounded in, much to my surprise, because every time I'd been to Europe, either as a kid or, you know, I felt like, "Whoa, I don't like this," I'm really - even as an adult, like I'm like all up in the air. There's nothing under my feet. I don't like it, and people, you know, especially the French, are so awful.
I went to Poland for the first time in 2013 and I got off the plane and I'm like, "(whoomp) I'm grounded. What is this, what's going on here?" And then going to their woods and copses of trees and looking beneath the surface at their sacred places and old knowledge that was really - you just scratch the surface in Eastern Europe and it's still there in a way that it's not in Western Europe. And, you know, there were little people's spirits, tree spirits were showing themselves to me. And I'm like, "hmm, okay, yeah,". My grandfather was born in Poland. That side of my father's family was probably there since at least the Inquisition and maybe longer. Also, six family members died at Auschwitz in Poland. So, there was a lot there that I felt. I can't almost articulate, it's almost beyond articulation. I don't understand any more Polish than tak, tak tak, you know, (laughs) it's like. Yeah, but I went on another trip to Poland last May 2019 and went particularly to look at pre-Christian burial mounds and effigy sites. And that was really fascinating. I almost have no words for that at all because it was very much more in the physical sensation than being able to organize intellectually, any kind of thoughts.
Krysta Williams: Process created...
Monique Mojica: And I guess it's one of the thoughts that is in the forefront is that, you know, White folks have this ancestry, those things are still there. They're still extant. You can touch them, you can see them, you can go and feel them. So why are they digging around in our stuff for? And what would happen, what would happen if they use that energy to go connect themselves where their ancestors are from? If I can find a link to ancestors, European ancestors that I never knew, well, so what's stopping them? Why they over here trying to appropriate stuff that, you know, it has to do with - you know, okay, power and privilege and the same old stuff, but the way the consumerism of: "Here it is, here it is, I can take, I can eat it, I can regurgitate," - it's bigger work to go someplace, like, what powerful places! The woods in Poland, that - the fact that the woods in Poland affected me on the level as the tidewater and the marshes in Virginia, and the ocean and the mountains and the rainforest in Gunayala, was a jolt and a surprise.
Krysta Williams: That's interesting.
Monique Mojica: I may be going back to Poland with some Indigenous artists who are connecting with Jewish artists and talking about resurgence and reclamation. The Podemski's grandfather and my grandfather are from the same town in Poland.
Krysta Williams: And I'm wondering if we can switch gears and think about how gender has influenced all of these experiences as well, has influenced your work? I know it's a big question. So if it makes sense to start with how you self-identify or how gender and like sexuality have been shaped kind of over that time; the actual question is this, but I think, you know, it weaves itself through all of what you're talking about. And so, thinking about how your gender identity, your sexual orientation influenced your early work, your early years - or, sorry, your early years, and then how that has influenced your work. So kind of looking at it over time.
Monique Mojica: Yes, I'd say it is a big question. That is a big question. Well, I'm plain old, boring, real vanilla cis, het., so my early years have been a privileged place. I never had to think about it. I never had to think about gender as separate from sexuality as separate from identity. It was just like, it was just a given. I got to be like 60 before, I feel - late 50s, 60s before I even started thinking about it, and I mean I always had gay and lesbian people in my family. What am I talking about? In my family, two generations, like from my grandmother's brothers to friends of the family to aunts and uncles and cousins, I mean, so it's always it was a given as a kid, the people that were around. And that was, you know, kind of a non-issue.
Krysta Williams: And maybe let's dive into that, like, what do you mean by "it was a given", like what kind of, like what were you either implicitly or explicitly told about gender, kind of especially in a performance family and kind of being in...
Monique Mojica: What was I told?
Krysta Williams: The picture that, the picture you were painted about what it meant to be a woman?
Monique Mojica: I mean, whoooa, (look at you?) God, you're a...
Krysta Williams: I'm gonna go hard, yeah (laughs).
Monique Mojica: I think that stuff was all mixed up in a lot of ways. I think that, when I was a little kid, there was a couple I was around and you didn't say one of their names, you always said both of their names. And I knew that they lived together. They were a couple. One of them was nicer than the other. And, you know, it was those kinds of things... One was a better cook. You know, who's cooking if we're going over there, it was, you know (laughs). I understood they were two men and they were a couple. I think that as a little girl coming up in the 50s, I was taught really stringent gender roles without...
The word gender is still really new for me to use. I'm still trying to figure out what that means and as I am not only true to myself, but learning at an older age, how to really respect and honour how other people want to be seen and spoken about. I will say right up front, the pronoun thing makes me trip and slide and slip and fall and just fuck up, left, right and centre. And in some of our languages it's either animate or inanimate or, you know, whether you're saying me, you, they - those things have no gender. In Dulegaya men and women can have different vocabulary depending on their relationship — for example with the word for sister. There are also different words for younger sister vs older sister. The relationship is different. So that's something I'm still trying to understand, where that fits, and where it fit in Indigenous worldview, where it fits in where we are now. At the same time, I will refer to people however they tell me they want to be referred to. Great.
Monique Mojica: In the 50s, in the 60s, in the 70s, the revolutionary movements of the 70s, gender roles were very stringent and prescribed. Even if I had a family who said, "You can do whatever you want," there was also, "Girls don't fight, girls don't do this, girls don't - that's not very feminine," or all of those things were really, really prevalent, and prevalent in a family that identified as feminists in the 70s, 80s, you know. Calling yourself a feminist doesn't do it for me (laughs). It doesn't mean that you're necessarily liberated from any of the tropes. Any of the tropes. In my family of feminists, I know I am, I still, I think, a disappointment to my mother because I came up in anti-glam kind of fashion, you know, and as a teenager and young woman, my mother really, really wanted me to glam. My mother didn't throw out the garbage without her makeup on, you know.
Krysta Williams: Nice.
Monique Mojica: So, yeah, I came up in anti-glam... movement. So, jeans and cowboy boots or, you know, jeans and work boots, and that kind of... And I could have gone the other way in the way that I looked as a young woman. I certainly was encouraged to do that. And I hate it - if I got makeup on, I'm working, so don't bother me. I'm on stage, I'll put the makeup on. I think that both in my family of origin and in the world that I came up in, in the Movement, even when I started to become more aware, that supporting men and supporting the woundedness of Native men, was certainly in the forefront of how we were taught to be. Yeah? It was really prevalent in the Movement, except for women like Madonna Thunder Hawk, who was my mentor when I was 17, 18 years old, and went into AIM.
And I also think that my own blueprint of having a dad who was a wounded political refugee and traumatized and what that meant, set up a certain way of being. I was always really aware of my father's trauma, having been born - I was born seven years after he arrived in New York City as a Holocaust survivor, a hidden child. So that story of genocide took precedence in our family over the story of the genocide that happened on these lands.
My mother still has a hard time comparing her experience and the multigenerational experience with the immediacy of my father's experience, so that was very uneven in my family. And looking after traumatized parents, (laughs) you know? And it did present itself in different ways. The immediacy and drama, the drama of my father's trauma, was much more visible, you know. I learned as a really young kid - so my brother wasn't born yet, so I was like maybe three, four. My mom would say Saturday morning, my dad's home from work, he's sleeping, "Go wake up your dad, it's time for breakfast,". I was the only child at that point and I knew that I had to go very quietly, sneak up to him. Call his name, shake him, and step back because he would sit bolt upright, flailing and speak only French. And I had to wait for him to calm down and come back a bit and I would watch. I didn't know why it was like that, but I knew that's what would happen. If the telephone rang, if the doorbell rang, and he was asleep, he would jump up and run around the room in circles, speaking only French. If the - there used to be this noon siren that went off in New York City. My dad would run to the window, throw it open and look up at the sky. And I remember sitting and watching my dad do these things and say, "Ooh, that's..." But it was like, that's just what Daddy does. Until my mom would explain to me, "Well, it's because of the war, he does that because of the war". He knew he was in New York, he knew it wasn't an air raid, but there was no way that he could not check the sky, you know. So that was what was visible, you know, and I think that that relationship to degrees of trauma also taught me that you have to take care of men's fucked-upness.
It's not that my mother's trauma was not as big. It was different. My mother was the one with the rage.
So gender, gender in a movement. Shitload of violence against women that was acceptable, tolerated. And a lot of the same women who tolerated are the ones who are speaking out now. There was no - there wasn't even a full awareness. There was - what we used to do in the Wounded Knee legal defence house - this made it into a couple of plays: what we used to do was that if a woman was getting beat up in the night, we would get up and we would go to where it was. And we just stand. Silently. We'd just stand. None of the men would get up except for one guy. He was a little Irish guy from the IRA who was working, you know. I got beat up in the house once and nobody did anything, nobody got up. Nobody got up. It was that, "Well that's between a man and his wife," that was the prevalent attitude and I think that that has shifted. That has shifted, but at the time, in the 70s, mid 70s, what the only thing we felt empowered to do is to go silently stand and be witness and most of times that would stop the guy. Because he was being watched.
Krysta Williams: How do you think that has influenced your work now?
Monique Mojica: Yeah.
Krysta Williams: Some ideas around witnessing, around maybe trying to also change the narrative, change the outcome, imagine something different.
Monique Mojica: Yes. A lot of those guys too were just coming back from Vietnam. The most damaged people I have ever encountered in my entire life were Indigenous men who were Vietnam vets, and I married one when I was 19. So that group. So, it's not cut and dry. It is not cut and dry, and one of the things that was all - this I say has also really influenced me. One of the things that was a big impediment and made it really hard for us Native women to talk to these guys was the White feminists that were around.
Krysta Williams: Interesting dish.
Monique Mojica: You know, because they come in with their agenda and their political point of view and all their privilege and all their "(mocking) well, and women, and women, and womeeeeeen!" and (laughs) just like, "shut the fuck up, we can't get a word in edgewise," you know. So, it was really, really difficult in the Movement to talk to our men about not being pricks and assholes and abusive when the party line that White women were bringing in, it came in with all their White privilege, and entitlement. The entitlement to teach Native men (gags). So, it's really messy.
The way that I think that it has influenced my work... The stories that were being told on stages in during what was referred to as the Native theatre explosion of the 80s in Toronto, it was Toronto specific, is that all those pieces that were being produced and being celebrated were by men - so it was all being done from a male point of view. Male interpretation of women's stories, male interpretation of Native experience, and women's histories and women's stories and women's experience were not being told by us, which is why Michelle St. John, Jani Lauzon, and I formed Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble, is to tell women's stories. And for a while there, I really didn't want to work with men at all.
But that's kind of - it kind of - started to feel silly. It wasn't practical, we don't have enough people, so, I mean, I do - I end up working with men when I didn't set out or intend to work with men. They were the ones who were there to do it, you know. And now I am at a place where I'm not willing to be present or available for any of that disrespecting, belittling, or outright violence against women and women artists, women knowledge keepers, in any way, shape or form. I just won't do it. And to the point that I'm really questioning whether I can remain in theatre because there is so much violence in theatre. And there's, even when, I mean... Women directors.
Directors have a lot of power in the rehearsal hall. Indigenous women directors are not treated well. I watched my aunt be not treated well in a project that was about violence against Indigenous women. And she's an Elder. So I won't do it anymore. That's been the trajectory. And knowing that more women's stories are told now, many more, many, many more... I am concerned about trauma porn. I am concerned because I don't want to be in the audience of - where there's an Indigenous woman's work, who I really want to support, and feel like I'm the one having all the skin torn off. We have to create work that doesn't re-traumatize the people that we're (laughs)...
Krysta Williams: Making the work for...
Monique Mojica: And I think that's a huge question right now, because trauma porn gets a lot of attention and it gets a lot of support from non-Indigenous folks, and they're the ones with the money. So how do we tell those stories? How do we be such skilled artists that we tell those stories without re-traumatizing ourselves and each other? 'Cause the work of theatre is to turn things inside out and show, not tell. And so, people feel not necessarily, you know, understand, but so that you feel it. So how do we do that? How do we be so skilled and so creative that we're still offering a place to stand and a place to be held and uplifted in the telling of these hard stories? These stories are hard, these stories are so horrific that the general despair that we walk around with is so heavy that it's difficult to find a container. I've spent most of my life making that container, making theatre be that container. It feels that it's no longer sufficient. It's no longer - it's no longer vast enough. Especially if you have to kowtow to the established structures, it will never be a viable container. It's got - then, like I see, that that's what it's gotten to, the point that the theatre is no longer a viable container for the immensity of despair. And so that transformation becomes so much more a responsibility than it's ever been before. I mean, transformation is a large, is a really important key to all the work that I'm doing here. It's, it's a... That's a technique, it's a technique that you learn in theatre.
I practice transformations. It's the cornerstone of the work that I inherited from Spiderwoman is sound and movement transformation. Those are the performance techniques I work in, but conceptually, the transformation of that, of the traumatic stories. The transformation of the despair and the pain and reverberations that seem to never end from those stories, the transformation. You do not hit the stage with those stories until you have transformed them, (whoo). Getting very emotional about this. What I see more than that is the telling of the stories without their transformation, and without their release. So, they're premature. They're premature performances, and that is lacking in responsibility and respect to ourselves, to the craft, to the audiences, to the communities that we say that it's for.
Transformation, how do you turn it over? That's what ceremony is for, is for transformation and people say, you know, these tropes that are very sort of trite "Well, theatre is ceremony,". Yeah, yeah, yeah, but you've got to make it so! You've got to make it so and you've got to do an awful lot of ceremony that doesn't make it to the stage for those stories, for the spirits that show up to take you through story, for the land that you're on that takes you through the story, for the people who are going to come witness your story - that never makes it to the stage. But then the ceremony of transforming those stories. Oh, I think that's the only reason to do it. For me, that's the only reason to do it. If I believe that theatre holds a transformative power - or people say this thing that drives me crazy: "Oh, art transcends! It shouldn't matter what people do in their lives because their art transcends anything they did in their personal world." Well, bullshit! I just call bullshit, the only way that art transcends is if you pick up that responsibility to transform and create the space to hold those people that you've invited in to be witness.
And that's a lot of work. I think that's the only way that I would do it again. If you don't turn the story over, if you can't transform it then, why bother? And I don't go to a lot of theatre for that reason. I can't be available to be re-traumatized. Does that answer the question about gender?
Krysta Williams: Who knows, but that was amazing!
Monique Mojica: I don't know how much of that is about gender, I don't know if it's about gender.
Krysta Williams: We went on a really great ride there. So I'm gonna... We can take a moment, to take a breath, have some water. I think you've spoken to some of these things - so one section was about childhood reflections, and how the generation you grew up in influenced your ideas about art, which is what sounds like you've answered. The aspects of your identity that's influenced your art practice, you spoke about that, and kind of the place, the place making.
Cultural teachings around gender identity and sexuality that you feel comfortable sharing how they relate to your practice, and you mentioned that that's something that's a bit more recent for you, which is great. And I think maybe the things that - the teachings that you have internalized about responsibility, about what is your role as a woman in our community... You know, other than the things that you've rejected and said no, maybe what are the teachings you have internalized...
Monique Mojica: Mhmm, mhmm.
Krysta Williams: That have meant something to you, that you feel comfortable sharing?
Monique Mojica: Chocolate Woman, Buna Siagua. 'Round about 2006 was a real time of personal crisis for me, and I got also really tired. I get tired of repeating myself. I get tired of doing the same thing. If I have to do something where I'm going over where I've already been, I get really bored and I was tired of telling victim stories. I remember the moment, I remember where I was, I remember where I was sitting, I said, "Ugh, another victim story. I'm so tired of this." You know, I did a show about crawling around in massacre piles, for godssake. I was just like, ugh. So, I said, I remember saying to myself, "I can tell those stories of rupture really skillfully at this point, I can be really entertaining. I can tap dance around these shows." We did, in Scrubbing Project, we did a production number called Dances With Genocide, you know, (sings) "Living with genocide, dancing with genocide." I mean, we just... And I asked myself, "so, I know the story really well, the broken stuff. You know, those ruptures, you know, what have I got that isn't broken?" What have I got? What have I got? It was still... From - what would change in the stories that I tell? What would change in my artistic practice if I didn't start there? What would happen if I change the place on the circle where I start? What happens if I say, "What's intact?" And the first one's to say, “Here I am (chuckles): Chocolate Woman, Buna Siagua, and Nis Bundor, the Daughters From the Stars.
Which to me, I have, I kind of have superimposed with Sky Woman, you know, from both the Haudenosaunee and Algonquian, the east coast Algonquin, they both have Sky Woman. Those women that came from the stars. And I asked Chocolate Woman, I invoked her, I invoked her. And that's when I started looking for the stories of female energies and female deities and power from within Guna culture. I went to Gunayala. I found out that cacao is the most complete and sacred medicine that the Guna have. Other medicines you have to mix with to get a synergistic energy, but cacao is the most important. There's no ceremony that begins without cacao, and of all Guna ceremonial life, there is no ceremony more sacred than the ceremony for a girl's first cycle.
Some of that I knew as my mother had told me. She felt that rupture and the loss of not having her puberty ceremony. My grandmother was Christian. So when my grandpa wanted to do something to celebrate, my grandmother wouldn't let him. But she did get to as an adult witness - see in Guna culture, it's a father who has the right, it's his role to take his daughter by the hand and take a conch shell and blow it in the four corners of the island of the community and announce, "Today my daughter is a woman! Come six weeks from now, come, everybody's invited. We celebrate that my daughter is a woman. We will make chicha. We have chicha ceremony. Everybody come! Today, my daughter is a woman." That's the father's role. And in the absence of the father, it's the uncle, and I got to experience that, too. Not in a way that my mother did, but I walked into a household in a community in Gunayala, and the uncle in that household said, "Would you like to see the photographs of when... (whispers, I forget the young woman’s name) We have a new señorita, he said to me, a new young woman. Would like to see the photographs of when she became a woman?" So, I said, "yes," and he proceeded to show me this album like you would show like a graduation album or something. And it was this young woman. She was 11, sitting naked in a basin, painted black. She was naked in all the photographs and she was standing there. Oh, she's proud, she's standing, looking over my shoulder like... She was so proud that her uncle was showing me these pictures of her naked...
Krysta Williams: Oh, she was there, okay.
Monique Mojica: You know.
Krysta Williams: Yeah.
Monique Mojica: And there was something at that moment that really said, "Ah! This is so different," and to watch the way that Guna women just move around their world and how they negotiate, I mean, the women, the men are kind of docile in Guna culture, but the women, watch out! So, it's like I said, "Oh, my goodness," - I was not ready for being inside a functioning, modern matriarchy.
Krysta Williams: Right.
Monique Mojica: And I know we talk about it a lot here, but to be inside a culture and in my family where that was still intact...? It was really, like, Whoa! And things function quite differently there, what people see from the outside, you go to the gathering house and it's men speaking, but that's because women have their own congress, you know, and they can speak in these, you know. I mean but it's like the roles are very specific. But the other thing I saw there that's influenced me a lot... So the men and women's roles are quite specific as they are in a lot of Indigenous cultures, but they're not without variation. So the Omegiid are very sacred people. They're special people, any time we came or were around anyone who was Omegiid, which means literally like a woman, however, they considered the third gender —someone would say, "that's one of our special people, that's one of our special people. They bring happiness," and I remember being in the chicha ceremony, so the ceremony for a young woman's first moon cycle, and I was on the women's side. Because there's a men's side, there's women's side, and the chiefs and the ceremonial people are in the centre. I was dancing with the grandmothers. I saw these men. I said, "what are these men over here for? There are men standing on the women's side!" and then one of them turned around and I go, "Oh, these are the Omegiid”, and they're the only ones who can be on either side or they can be wherever they want.
And when I was on my family's island, I was visiting, I had to - all the different cousins, right? And there's like so many of them, and I was at my cousin Clemente's house. And he didn't want me to leave and he didn't want me to leave because he said, "You've met the daughters, but you haven't met my son. You haven't met Francis, you have to stay," and I'm saying, "okay, same old thing. Got to meet the boy," and so we were going to go and I was, "Okay, we'll stay,". He says, "You have to meet my son," so then he saw his son was coming. "This is my son. THIS is Francis." And Francis came in with his little friends. Yeah, I said, "oh," you know, I met him, I shook her hand. I hugged her and my cousin's doing like, going like, "Yeah, this is the family you come from, huh?" Because it's a status symbol, you have an Omegiid in your family... That’s status. And so going back to the city and meeting the young cousins there and -I told them who I met and who I saw and I said, "and I met Francis," "oh, you met Francis!" It was really a different scene. I did, however, notice - and my family's island is the island that was more culturally impacted by national Panama and some of the other ones. So, they - the women there do not wear Mola. They won't have their rings - it's different there. I think they're recovering now. But the 1925 revolution was fought largely because of the atrocities that were being committed in that Western zone of the comarca and on my family's island.
But in other ways, I mean, the Molas, which is Guna women's art that carries a lot of cultural knowledge, a mola made by the hands of an Omegiid is valued three times the price of one made by a woman. Because they're just considered that much more special and that much more magical.
I did not meet lesbians there. And I met a lot of trans women — third gender. The word that they use when they're speaking Spanish, they use transgénero, you know, they don't use homosexuales, or when they're speaking Spanish, when the group of - I'm in touch with one man who's from the community attached to my community, who is an Omegiid advocate, in the city and HIV/AIDS educator, and the interviews I've heard him talk about the Omegiid - he uses the word transgénero, which is interesting because some... It's not trans the way that trans is used in downtown Toronto. And that's what I think is really important, that we not lose, that we not lose what those people who were recognized as special and important, that we don't The Omegiid in the creation story is named Wigudun. And creator in Dulegaya is neither male nor female, it's father/mother, so there's father/mother and the Omegiid.
Krysta Williams: Who created the Universe?
Monique Mojica: Yeah. So those are the things that from cultural teachings that I think that I bring in from that side.
Krysta Williams: Thanks for sharing that.
Monique Mojica: From the Powhatan side it's really hard to get the correct information, because it was impacted so long ago, 1607. But I do know that the matrilineal line, it was different from Haudenosaunee. So it would go, like, this is how I saw it: Powhatan, who was Pocahontas' father, the leadership would go next to his sister's children. Matoaka Pocahontas. When she was kidnapped, she was kidnapped because she was on diplomatic missions, that she was a translator and diplomat, she was her father's representative, which was why she happened to be on that Captain Argyle's ship and got... It's so Baptist. It's so Southern Christian in Virginia right now that when I go there, when I have gone there, it's been hard to find... I think a lot of the information that remains is among women who are doing ceramics because they still have to dig in the earth to get that clay. My great grandmother was from there, was a midwife. So I feel that that birthing knowledge - and she caught my mom and the other two sisters in Brooklyn, she - I think by the time Muriel was born, the story is she kicked the doctor out, 'cause she didn't like what he was doing, she'd said, "get out", you know, in the 30s in New York. So gender, gender, teachings, teachings - the way that I live my life now, I come up against a lot of resistance about teachings, because it's become really hard to navigate the teachings that makes sense to me and I think that that's going to change again.
I also think that the ways in which people talk about gender has blown my mind, and I completely embrace that mind blowing and about 10 years ago, all of a sudden, I had all these trans people in my life and I remember looking around and saying, "Where did you all come from and why now?" And that point of view and their experience is so different and so multileveled from what I had to think about that it blows my mind and I welcome it and I mess up around pronouns. I did it when I was teaching, that was the worst. That was terrible. So you feel awful. What do you do? apologize and, oh. I had two lovely non binary students when I was teaching in Providence. One of whom was Navajo. I always forget the name in Navajo for that.
Krysta Williams: Nádleeh.
Monique Mojica: Nádleeh.
Krysta Williams: My pronunciation could be awful.
Monique Mojica: Nádleeh, nádleeh? One of them in there. Yeah. Yeah. And they were they were interesting. They were interesting. And I blew it with pronouns then. And I was very grateful that neither one of them were angry and it didn't - it didn't prevent them from participating going forward, you know, because I've also seen - I've also seen that happen in a way which is like, oh God, I'm old and I'm trying here, but I don't know, I don't know. Ask me something else about gender because I feel that's where I get flat footed.
Krysta Williams: And the last question I think we're interested in hearing, of course, anything else that you want to share, but we are coming up on our time - what's been useful for you in terms of support and solidarity from either Indigenous community or non-Indigenous people, like what's been useful? Because you mentioned, like, we can talk all day about the disillusionment and the violence and all those things, but what's been useful in terms of support and solidarity?
Monique Mojica: Ironically, I think I've gotten more support for the kind of work that I'm interested in, that looks at changing structures, from a scholarly or academic... Indigenous scholars, than I have from theatre practitioners, both Indigenous and white folks. Who are scholars and interested in ideas rather than interested in the bottom line, bums on seats are getting famous and what's “good for their career”. There's a handful of us who don't want to just recreate the same kind of thing. I've been supported by graduate students who are writing their own theses. I've been supported by people in - and the academy inviting me into teach a semester of Indigenous theatre practice. Recently, much less supported by Indigenous practitioners or people in positions of power or gatekeeping who are going to go with the tried and true and things that are going to be recognizable to White folks.
What has worked in terms of power? Banff! Indigenous arts at Banff has been enormously supportive, bringing - and I think Reneltta Arluk, who's the director there, has been really good at bringing different kinds of people in different disciplines and just you know, it's set up there in the main institution of giving people space to explore, and Reneltta's been really good at not being exclusionary, including people from a lot of different disciplines and just saying, "yeah, we can do that," and it's been really a breath of fresh air, but it's also what the larger institution purports to do. I think we need more laboratory. Some of us senior artists who are true to our - who are thinking about how do we do things differently, need more time, space and financial support to do that exploration. Being sought out by artists like Santee has been enormously supportive because this feeling of we're cooking something, which also goes towards younger artists like Lindsay Lachance, who - she's Algonquian, she's the only Ph.D. in Indigenous Dramaturgy in existence, I think. She's quite wonderful. And we have this idea that we want to think about starting a little Indigenous dramaturgy Lab.
So we have a little handful of people who really want to do this and who are already doing it. And we get our maple sugar shack. You know, we start cooking, we start cooking, we start stirring and start, you know, making more solid these these ideas that we have, but I really am talking handful, right. Because I watch people's eyes glaze over when I explain things that I have explained to you or in the earlier days when I went in and said, "I'm creating this piece based on effigy mounds and earthworks, would you support this in your theatre?" As I watch eyes glaze over and we're being told by our Indigenous artistic directors of Indigenous theatre companies, “Well, I don't know what this is, you know what this is. It's not theatre. It's not theatre the way we think of theatre." So being told that my work is not theatre has not been - it's not the exclusive purview of White settler folks, I've been told my work isn't theatre by Indigenous theatre folks, so. .. Just have to - finding the like-minded people and the time and the space to work - and sometimes the like-minded people aren't Indigenous people!
They're White people, White people with specialized knowledge like Brenda Farnell, whom I've worked with since 2008 because she did her work and she's British! She did her work on Plains Sign Talk, and looking at that as a system of embodied knowledge and of the iconic forms that are used so that our place of in intersection came in with her saying, "Well, Sign Talk are pictographs in motion.” And me responding that pictographs in motion is what I want to use to build this piece,". We've been working since then. And she's very much a scholar and academic who is adamant about the body as text. And I've been working from that point of view, the body is text, it's not only the written or the spoken word that we can consider text. It's the body, and when you talk about the body, you're talking about all of those - all of those teachings, of all the directions, and the responsibility of the human on land in all the directions with other relational kinship to the human and the non-human. And that work I've been doing with a non-Indigenous person. What helps? Hard because it's, you know, a lot of times it comes back to financial support, time and space, and right now, right now, we are a particular point in time with where the gatekeepers and the financial support who dictate time and space are very, very, very conservative. We have snapped back to a very, very conservative place, reactionary conservative place, and particularly in the arts. And those people are Indigenous right now.
So... Well, the other thing that helps is the ability to connect with other Indigenous artists the world over are not thinking of it as a Canadian thing. Who are the Canadian artists? Who are the American? But the world over and connecting with the Indigenous art scene has helped, being able to connect with Maori artists, being able to connect with Indigenous artists in Mexico and Panama, as well as in the U.S. and Canada. That has helped.
Krysta Williams: Well, thank you so much, Monique, this was amazing, I super appreciate all the stories and vulnerabilities that you shared and I really hope that you feel okay with what you've shared. And, of course, you get a chance to review it and if you feel -
Monique Mojica: I always feel really stupid about gender stuff because it's like.... I just started thinking about it!
Krysta Williams: Yeah. But I mean, I think that's a valuable perspective, right? Like who says - we're not, at least this project, is not about getting expertise, right. It's about getting that real - that realness of like... Yeah, where are people at, how are people thinking about this, how are artists conceptualizing this? How do we untangle all of these things? And I think that's a valuable place where people always want us to speak from a place of expertise. But I think it's really cool to hear people talk from a place of learning.