Current Issue, Volume 1

Theatre in Contested Lands: Repatriating Indigenous Remains

One cannot live carrying the dead on one’s back.
—Yves Sioui Durand, director and cofounder of Ondinnok (2010)

For these old souls, I say, “Dear God, forgive us. We’re in a different society.”
— Carmen Lucas, Kwaaymi elder and monitor for archaeological excavations in San Diego County (in Larson 2008)

A young indigenous1 woman walks slowly onstage and heads towards a bench adorned with a series of masks that form a detachable bas-relief. She stops in front of the mask of a weathered Mayan face as if the elder had silently hailed her. The performer slowly lifts the mask, places it on her abdomen, and turns to face the audience. Her pose evokes for a moment the ubiquitous displays of indigenous life found in natural history museums worldwide. Here however, the young woman interrogatively returns the audience’s gaze and disrupts the usual one-sidedness of museum encounters with indigenous bodies. The image is striking: the past, its ancient mask nestled in the young woman’s womb, seems alive, rooted in the present. Moving slowly, the performer places the mask over her face; her body progressively becomes a surrogate of ancient gestures. A temporally blurred image breaks through: the old Mayan figure seems to materialize and speak through the body of a living person. The image is fleeting but at that moment in the 2010 production of Xajoj Tun Rabinal Achi by the Montreal-based company Ondinnok, the masked woman exists suspended across time and geographical boundaries. She is past and present, herself and other, and her body bridges the divisive borders imposed on indigenous communities by colonial powers.2 Staged in 2010 at Montreal’s Présence Autochtone/First Peoples’ Festival, Ondinnok’s adaptation of the Mayan dance drama Xajoj Tun Rabinal Achi, translated into French by Alain Breton, was an unsettling experience: a moment of cartographical and temporal collisions that revealed oft-buried narratives. The encounter between a pre-conquest text and contemporary indigenous performers stands as one of these collisions. Indeed, the play dramatizes a moment when Mayan nations were sovereign and as yet untouched by the Europeans. The same cannot be said for the unique cast of indigenous performers from across the Americas assembled by director Yves Sioui Durand and choreographer Patricia Iraola for this adaptation of the Mayan play. These performers and the communities from which they stem belong to a moment of what Ngugi wa Thiong’o might call “post-colonial colonialism” (2012:50). Thiong’o destabilizes the term “postcolonial” as a settled marker and writes: “Is the colonial period that follows the act of colonialism also postcolonial? Can you then have postcolonial colonialism?” (50). This unresolved term aptly describes the situation of many indigenous populations of the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand who “never went through an independence stage” and struggle with ongoing internal colonialism in countries that generally portray themselves as postcolonial (50). Coming from countries now called Canada, Guatemala, and Chile, the artists in Ondinnok’s production articulate their identities against settler-state borders, policies, and institutions that remain colonialist at their core. The text of Xajoj Tun Rabinal Achi and the complicated ways in which it was transmitted permeated Ondinnok’s production, creating a second collision, occurring this time between the text and its context. While the script of Xajoj Tun Rabinal Achi is unmarked by the horrors of the conquest, its transmission history is marked by colonial censorship and the devaluation of Mayan culture. The play has gone through a complex performance cycle since the conquest, lying dormant as a result of Spanish Catholic colonial authorities’ repression or, more recently, during Guatemala’s Civil War (1960–1996), which greatly affected the region of Rabinal, and reemerging during periods of relative political stability.3

Ondinnok’s adaptation echoed the play’s cyclical history in the overarching corrective gesture it sought to perform: throughout the performance, and at times independently of the play’s storyline, in interludes of what Sioui Durand calls “divinatory theatre.” During these interludes, performers halted the performance of the Mayan play and, as one performer read excerpts of Mayan divinatory texts—the Popol Vuh and the Chilam Balam from the region of Chumayel—performers aided by ritual objects imbued with the spirits of ancestors such as bones and rocks, symbolically unearthed ancestral figures, celebrated and mourned them, and finally laid them to rest. Together, the performers enacted a form of repatriation, an embodied response to the material and cultural pillaging as well as the redrawing of borderlines that both have scarred indigenous landscapes since the conquest. Xajoj Tun Rabinal Achi became a ritualized performance of “surrogation” (Roach 1996:36): the actors stood in for ancestors and became vehicles though which the victims of the genocide against indigenous populations of the Americas could be repatriated, remembered, and mourned. The performers achieved these regenerative gestures when they channeled and rendered visible the characters of the Mayan play and, more broadly, when they brought forth unnamed ancestral figures for which they acted as mediators and stewards onstage. This happened through the performers’ transformative mask work and through their intimate communing with ritual objects. Attesting to the production’s potent affective power, Alexandre Cadieux, a theatre critic for Montreal’s Le Devoir, wrote: “[It] establishes a living contact between the present and the vestiges of a civilization massacred by mankind.” To encounter this loss, even momentarily, left the critic with “an indescribable sensation of vertigo” (2010).4 Ondinnok’s dramaturgical repatriation project and the moments of what I call “vertiginous consciousness” that it created find a striking parallel at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where I currently do research in the fields of theatre and dance studies. Here, bones, the very real material remains of two indigenous bodies exhumed from the site of the chancellor’s residence at UCSD in 1976, are at the center of an ongoing and bitter repatriation dispute between the Kumeyaay nation and a group of researchers from UCSD and other University of California (UC) campuses.5 The Kumeyaay, also known as the Tipai-Ipai or Diegueños, comprise 13 federally recognized culturally and linguistically related bands6 that have historically occupied parts of Baja California and the San Diego area. Today the Kumeyaay are part of California’s large Native American community.7 San Diego County itself has more reservations than any other county in the United States.8 Despite the size of the Native American population and the fact that UCSD stands on Kumeyaay ancestral land, Native Americans remain largely absent from the public sphere in San Diego and at UCSD (the university attracts and retains a dismally low number of Native American students). The dispute between UCSD and the Kumeyaay, which received both local and national print and television coverage, stands as an exception to this state of affairs. Since 2006, the Kumeyaay have pressed UCSD for the repatriation of the remains of those they regard as ancestors. The Kumeyaay want to put the remains to rest and give them a proper burial—to perform a literal as opposed to a dramaturgical repatriation. Unlike Ondinnok’s work, which garnered generally favorable reviews, the Kumeyaay’s repatriation project has been consistently resisted by a small but very vocal group of scientists from the UC system whose mediatized performance of opposition replays deepseated colonial scenarios and betrays a profound resistance to indigenous epistemologies. In 2012, after rounds of failed negotiations, the Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee (KCRC)9 intensified its efforts, taking UCSD to Federal Court (Reynolds 2012). The KCRC argued then and still does today that by keeping the contested remains, UCSD violates the 2010 amendments to the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law designed to correct a long history of insensitive and unethical handling of indigenous bones and funerary objects.10

The disinterment of the chancellor’s house remains, as they are known, brings to the surface polarizing questions over whose explanatory power is privileged to name and understand the past. As Kwaaymi elder Carmen Lucas laments in the epigraph above, the two bodies unearthed at UCSD have surfaced in a vastly “different society” from the one in which they first existed, and they now occupy a contested position. Anthropologist Ann Kakaliouras (2012) proposes the notion of “repatriatable” to define remains that have the potential to be returned to a Native American tribe under NAGPRA. These “repatriatables,” Kakaliouras argues, form an ontological and epistemological category of their own: they are in flux, forming “an uneasy bridge”—temporally, spatially, and affectively—and illuminating seemingly irreconcilable understandings of the world (2012:214). As repatriatables, the chancellor’s house remains reveal such irreconcilable differences: on the one hand, the group of UC scientists cast the remains as commodities, but also as sources of knowledge for humanity—a category from which indigenous bodies have so often been excluded historically. On the other hand, the Kumeyaay position these remains as subjects and ancestors who deserve to be put to rest. Leveraging Kakaliouras’s anthropological concept to discuss theatre and performance, I argue that, as a nexus of competing narratives and worldviews, the repatriatable remains found at UCSD gain a wider performative potential. I expand the category of repatriatable to include remains and living bodies that do not fall under NAGPRA jurisdiction and can be repatriated in a more symbolic realm. These bodies or remains are what I call “performative repatriatables,” and they embody what Joseph Roach calls “memory and counter-memory” (1996:20); that is, they render visible indigenous presence and epistemologies where they have been and continue to be violently erased. Circum-Atlantic societies like the United States and Canada have invented themselves through the performance of “incomplete forgetting” (Roach 1996:6). Until 1990 when NAGPRA was implemented, anthropologists and archaeologists concerned with the Americas labored largely unquestioned within this economy of incomplete forgetting. These researchers unearthed indigenous remains only to erase them once again by denying them the dignity of a burial and by unilaterally imposing on them a Western reading that constitutes a further act of silencing (see Killion 2008). The remains found at UCSD act as uncomfortable reminders of these practices and of the genocidal project that sustained what Roach calls the “invention of a New World” (1996:36). These remains simultaneously act as incriminating witnesses, as evidence of the “destruction, dispossession, and scientific objectification of [indigenous] cultures and heritages” (Kakaliouras 2012:214), and perform as surrogates for departed Kumeyaay and other Native American ancestors, holding open a place in memory, a mourning space, however imperfect it may be. The chancellor’s house remains may pre-date Conquest but in the dispute with UCSD they have come to stand in for the victims of subsequent genocidal campaigns against Native Americans leading to the creation of the United States. Similarly, Xajoj Tun Rabinal Achi dramatizes a precolonial Mayan society—but the play, as the living remains of an ancient practice many times buried and carefully unearthed, narrates the violent cultural erasure that sustained colonial projects. In both Ondinnok and the Kumeyaay’s repatriation projects, performative repatriatables act as stand-ins for a past that they can never fully replace. The two bodies found at UCSD and Ondinnok’s adaptation of Xajoj Tun Rabinal Achi act as reminders of what existed, and illuminate by comparison the devastating losses suffered by indigenous communities. Native American repatriation projects inevitably trigger anxiety in settler populations. Repatriation (or the attempt to repatriate) constitutes a disruption of dominant culture’s explanatory power: it names and reclaims indigenous bodies as meaning makers and pushes them from a position of absence into the public sphere. In both Ondinnok’s production and the Kumeyaay repatriation case, material remains of indigenous presence bring to the surface, and at times provoke a symbolic reenactment of the originary violence that created the so-called New World. While theatre affords Ondinnok’s founding questions a more permissive explorative.

This article was first published in TDR: The Drama Review 59:1 (T225) Spring 2015. ©2015 New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Featured Image Credits: Three masked performers commune with ritual objects during an interlude of “divinatory theatre.” From left: Lara Kramer, Leticia Vera, and Patricia Iraola in Ondinnok’s Xajoj Tun Rabinal Achi (18–27 June 2010), directed by Yves Sioui Durand at Montreal’s Excentris. (Photo by Martine Doyon)

About The Author

Julie Burelle is Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of California, San Diego. Her research focuses on how First Nations sovereignty, cultural identity, and nationhood are negotiated through performances in the particular context of Quebec.

Indigenous Stages, Volume 1 (Fall 2022)

INDIGENOUS STAGES (IS) is the world’s first and only global interdisciplinary academic journal dedicated solely to indigenous stages. Its mission is to foster, survey, and publish the contemporary and historical theoretical discourse surrounding the field. Empirical and theoretical peer-reviewed articles, as well as critical book and performance reviews, will contribute to further strengthening indigenous studies as an academic discipline within theatre and performance studies. 

The English language biannual IS journal welcomes submissions from all adjacent disciplines. 

Editorial Board:

Founder and Lead Editor: Opalanietet Ryan Pierce
Ph.D. Candidate, The Graduate Center CUNY, New York.

Published by The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, The Graduate Center CUNY, New York.

The Graduate Center CUNY Graduate Center. 365 Fifth Avenue, New York NY 10016

©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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