by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy, a Hupa, Yurok and Karuk woman currently working as an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. I got the chance to ask her some questions about her upcoming book We Are Dancing For You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women’s Coming-of-age Ceremonies (which is set to be released this spring), and learn more about her work supporting the revitalization of Native American arts and culture.

Illustration above: Teach her by Mia Ohki 

S: First off I wanted to thank you for taking your time to do this interview. I recently came across an advertisement for the book and have been exploring your writing ever since. Do you want to tell our readers a little bit about your work both through academia and in your community?

B: My work focuses on Native people and communities to help tell the stories of our strength and resilience. I try not to separate the work I do in academia from the work I do in the community, although it is sometimes hard because of the way that academia expects certain kinds of discourse. I’m always thinking about how my work can show the important ways that Native people have always been foregrounding land and environmental based knowledge and how they have built a very long tradition of education and intellectualism that most people do not learn about in schools. My academic work is focused on elevating Indigenous voices and the work being done by Indigenous peoples on the ground. Some of the most important things that we can learn about how to build a future that is liberated from patriarchy, heteronormativity, and white supremacy should come from Indigenous teachings. Since the beginning of time we have been theorizing our worlds – so I know we have a lot to offer when it comes to addressing major issues that are part of this contemporary culture.

The work I do on the blog is trying to use humor to break down people’s ideas about Native peoples and issues. A little while ago a friend asked me what I thought were my most powerful tools that I have to continue the work we do to liberate and elevate our communities and I said “humor.” I’m always telling students that Native people are probably the funniest people I know, usually inappropriately funny, but people don’t learn that about us, or even see that in movies or on television. We laugh all the time. My grandma was always saying to me “everything is a funny story…later” and “if you can laugh at something it doesn’t have power over you anymore.” That’s how I feel about colonialism. Colonialism is counter-intuitive, doesn’t make a lot of sense and it is just dying to be the punchline in a joke. I’d like to think at some point I’ll find a way to bring a lot of humor into my academic work, but I haven’t done it nearly enough yet.

S: So, your book We are dancing for you, is about to be released this Spring. Can you talk to us a little about the book, about what inspired you to put these experiences into words?

B: The book came out of my personal experience with the revitalization movements for our women’s coming-of-age ceremonies in the Northern California region. When I was 12 years old I started menstruating and my mother offered to do a dance for me, but I refused. A lot of it was internalized ideas about menstruation being dirty or shameful, but it was also internalized ideas about “primitive Indians” and how they celebrate women. After I turned it down my mother continued to do work with the women in our community to bring this dance back. It was important to them to center young women so that we could teach our young women self-determination and self-worth. Part of the idea was combating our recent history of colonization that had targeted our women’s ceremonies for eradication, and part of it was also to empower the entire community by showing how we value gender equality and that young woman are an important part of our cultures and futures.

The more work I have done with Native communities and peoples the more I see how our Native feminisms were silenced by colonialism and that we are working now, not just to decolonize, but to decolonize in a way that dismantles patriarchy. When I started going to these ceremonies, and singing over these girls I wouldn’t have used these words to describe what we were doing, but the more I listened and learned and the more research I did in Native feminisms, the more I realized that our ceremonies were and continue to be an important praxis of decolonization. My original thought was “how can the women who did this work on the ground tell this story?” For too long, the story of Native people and Native cultures has been told by mostly white, male anthropologists and ethnographers. So I wanted to make sure that this story, one that is about our survivance and our resilience, was told through the voices and memories of our people. And this also becomes the theorizing and demonstration of what Native feminisms actually look like. Our cultures are about balance and equality and that’s feminism.

S: So often the ceremonies and histories of Indigenous people around the world are written about through a colonial and anthropological perspective. More often that not, these writings are deeply influenced by racist assumptions. Can you talk about the power of writing about stories from your own community?

B: You know, I grew up knowing who the anthropologists were that studied our communities. I could name some of them, including Alfred Kroeber (one of the most famous). And I knew what he said about our people – but almost in a joking way. We joked a lot about how wrong assumptions were about us. Many people think about our cultures and peoples as in the past, almost as if we stopped existing because we were not the “pure” Indians that were being described by anthropologists in their books. So I do think it’s important that now we are finding ways to tell our own stories and interpretations, using the knowledge we have to decide what the narrative of our cultures and histories are going to be.

What is interesting about revitalization movements like these, is that in our community the women actually used the anthropological research to help understand the ceremony. So while Kroeber was writing these things down because he believed that the people were dying, or that the ceremony was going “extinct,” instead, they became part of the record that would be used to revive the dance. That’s a powerful moment. We are not dying, vanishing Indians, we are revitalizing, living peoples. And these books don’t hold our dying, in the past cultures, they are part of our living cultures. I like to think (and I theorize in the book) that many of the Native people working with the anthropologists at the time envisioned that moment from the very beginning. So they didn’t buy in to the “you’re dying and should tell us stories so we can document them before you disappear,” instead they were thinking “one day our people will find these stories and these descriptions and I want them to be here for them when they do.” There are transcripts that I’ve read which are Native people saying just that, like in one case a woman offered a song and she opens it with something like “this is a Flower Dance song, it hasn’t been sung in a long time. I hope one day someone will sing it at a Flower Dance again.” And then we did. That’s not the story that Kroeber or other anthropologists were telling when they wrote and published their books, but that has always been the real story. That’s the story that we are going to tell.

S: How has the reclamation of this ceremony impacted the young people in your community?

It’s hard to summarize, because there are so many ways that the ceremony has affected young people. Some of the   young women I interviewed talked about how it showed them the amount of support they have in the community, so they felt like they could do anything and would always have people to help them. Others talk about how it gave them the confidence to do things that they might not otherwise do. People talk about how it demonstrated for them that women can be central to ceremony and that seeing women singing together showed them how much support we can give each other. At first when we did the dance many young women didn’t want to do it because it is usually done after a girl starts menstruating. They were worried about people knowing because of our western menstrual taboo. But now young women are planning for their dances their whole lives. They talk about them. They are excited for them. It has made people in the community excited for young women as they grow up. So instead of young women feeling ashamed about puberty etc. they are excited and happy. Most of the young woman I’ve seen who have gone through this ceremony are now doing amazing things, reaching for their goals in life, and making sure to pass along their own lessons to younger generations. I love that young people see women singing, because for a long time you didn’t really see women singing in our ceremonies. Now, you have young people requesting women to sing for them, or you have them complimenting women singers. These types of things change very quickly, I have found. For instance, when I was 12 and my mother offered to do this dance for me I said no because I was scared and didn’t want people to know about my period. After we did the first revitalized dance, young girls were still hesitant. Now we’ve been doing the dance for over 15 years, and guess what, this is just what we do. My daughter is 10, she’s never known a time when we didn’t dance for young women who had their first menstruation. She hasn’t known a time when we didn’t come together as a community to show young women how much support they have. She hasn’t known a time were we didn’t reach out and provide support for young woman as they move from being a child into being an adult. So in her mind, this is just who we are as Hupa people. That only took 10 years.

S: What kind of advice do you have for people wanting to revive ceremonies in their own communities?

B: I would say, start by listening. Go to as many elders and people as you can and just listen to their stories, their memories, their questions, their visions of what this could look like. Collect all the stories and memories and ideas that you can. Listen to them and then listen to the people who left their stories in the archives. It takes a lot of listening because you are helping to wake these stories up. All of the women I interviewed they kept saying all it took was to “scratch the surface.” They said “we just had to start going to people and hearing their stories and then another person came and another. We found one story in the archive and then another and another.”

The best advice for the archive is to read the books but also read the notes. Anthropologists and ethnographers usually kept detailed notes of their interviews. This is where you are going to really be able to listen to the words of those who worked to leave an archive behind. The notes are very often different (more detailed, more focused) than what is in the book. In some cases they can completely contradict what is in the book. So read the notes, read the transcripts. Listen to those stories.

And after you’ve started “scratching the surface” be open to what else comes your way. At first there were not very many songs that people had to sing, but that’s okay. We came and sang the three or four songs people knew. But then after that other people started remembering songs. Or other people started to get songs. I got a song once while I was making mashed potatoes. It just came to me. I started singing it and I couldn’t get it out of my head. Now I sing it all the time. So the women like to tell me,   you start this journey, and everything comes together, because these ceremonies have been waiting for us to search for them again. They’ve been waiting for us.

Anthropologists like to say they went “extinct” or “disappeared” but I like to think about what my mentor Ines Hernandez-Avila taught me. They never went extinct, they were just waiting for us. So we scratch the surface, and we listen for them, and they will come back to us.

The last thing the women told me was “just do it.” They said, start the listening, do the research, put some notes together and then just do it. Don’t wait for it to be the perfect time, just do it. After the first one there will be a second one and then a third one. You just have to do the first one. So, just do it.

S: How can people get a hold of your book?

B: You can pre-order it now on the University of Washington Press website or on Amazon. It will be released in May-June 2018. I know for sure it should be at the Native American Indigenous Studies Association Conference this year in Los Angeles, CA. I’ll also have a link to it on my website.

Dr Cutcha Risling Baldy

Dr Cutcha Risling Baldy

Dr Cutcha Risling Baldy is currently an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. Her research is focused on Indigenous feminisms, California Indians and decolonization. She received her Ph.D in Native American Studies with a designated Emphasis in Feminist Theory and Research from the University of California, Davis and her M.F.A in Creative Writing & Literary Research from San Diego State University. She also has her B.A. in Psychology from Stanford University. 

Mia Ohki

Mia Ohki

Mia Ohki is a Metis Japanese-Canadian artist, born in Connecticut, USA, and raised in Alberta, Canada. She presently lives and works between Edmonton and Calgary, AB. Mia primarily illustrates with black pen on white paper to convey ideas surrounding the social, feminine and cultural influences in her life, however her art is mostly influenced by her background, with Japanese and Metis culture frequently appearing in the subject matter.