Since its founding in 1947, Idyllwild Arts (IA) has been devoted to promoting, advancing, and teaching Native Arts in collaboration with Native American artists and scholars. This has long been demonstrated by IA’s Native American Arts Program, which expanded into the Native American Arts Center (NAAC) in 2022. This year, the NAAC has had an eventful, wildly successful summer of classes, workshops, the Michael Kabotie Lecture Series, the celebrated Native American Arts Festival Week, and more.
One of the highlights of this summer took place at the very beginning, in June: IA’s fifth annual trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Spearheaded by the NAAC’s Executive Director, Shaliyah Ben (Diné), this trip brought arts education to the students of Red Cloud Indian School. The partnership between IA and Red Cloud Indian School was originally fostered by Marianne Kent-Stoll, IA’s prior Head of School.
This year, Shaliyah Ben, alongside IA faculty Abbie Bosworth (Chair of the InterArts Department) and Rachel Welch (Visual Arts Faculty), conducted a week-long, interdisciplinary arts workshop in which the students of Red Cloud Indian School saw their culture represented in art and had the chance to use art to celebrate it themselves.
A Play By and For the Oceti Sakowin
Ben, Bosworth, and Welch kicked off the week by bringing the students to see the Cornerstone Theatre Company’s production of Wicoun [wee-CHO], a play written by Larissa FastHorse (the first Native American woman playwright to have her work shown on Broadway—read more here).
FastHorse’s play, Wicoun (which translates to “way of life”) is described as “a new play with and about the Oceti Sakowin.” The Oceti Sakowin Oyate [oh-CHEH-tee shaw-KOH-we oh-YAH-tay], or the People of Seven Council Fires, refers collectively to the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people. From late May to early June, the Cornerstone Theatre Company shared free performances of Wicoun throughout the South Dakota communities and reservations that inspired it (learn more about Wicoun here). The play itself—a comedy about superpowered Lakota teens—addresses several contemporary issues facing these Indigenous communities while emphasizing the strength that can be found in heritage.
The play also celebrates the legacy of genderqueer identities in Indigenous culture through the journey of its protagonist, the female-presenting teenager Áya. As Áya seeks the strength to protect their family, they learn to embrace and express their innate gender identity. When Áya transitions, they become the super-powered Ahí, a two-spirit (someone with both a masculine and feminine spirit—hence, two spirits). It’s no coincidence that they become a superhero when they become their true self. In choosing to center a two-spirit character, FastHorse pays homage to the long-standing cultural significance of two-spirit people (or “two-spirits”) in various Indigenous communities (read more here, here, and here).
For the students of Red Cloud Indian School, Larissa FastHorse’s writing and the Cornerstone Theatre Company’s work demonstrated how one can honor their culture and give back to their community through art. Meanwhile, the play itself—with its emphasis on celebrating identity—expressed a theme of combining the traditional with the contemporary while empowering the voices that have not had the chance to speak for themselves.
All of this made watching Wicoun the perfect start to IA’s arts education workshop with the Red Cloud students. As the week-long workshop progressed, Bosworth and Welch led the students in learning about different aspects of theatre and art, mixing tradition with the contemporary as they shared their unique voices.
Exploring Art and Honoring Culture
After watching Wicoun, the students of Red Cloud Indian School set out to create a production of their own. Throughout the week, Bosworth and Welch led the students in activities and exercises spanning several disciplines: theatre, creative writing, visual arts, and more; they did so with help from a teaching assistant and IA alumna Emilee Swalley (Oglala Lakota), an InterArts student of the Class of 2022.
With guidance from Bosworth and Welch, the students ultimately brought their interdisciplinary work to life in an original play—Wówauŋśila: The Flower of the Amazon. “Wówauŋśila” [wo-WAHN-shee-luh] refers to the Lakota virtue of Compassion and Kindness.
The students took inspiration from FastHorse’s Wicoun as they structured their play and—like FastHorse—incorporated the Lakota language throughout the script and dialogue. As the students developed the plot and the conflict, they reflected on their personal experiences and the challenges their community has faced. “They were ready to connect their lives with art,” said Bosworth.
Various theatre games helped students build the ensemble, creating an environment of trust, collaboration, and interconnectedness. Through exercises in role-play and improvisation, the students developed the story of their play and the characters within it; visual arts activities aided the process as they helped the students plan, visualize, and personally connect to the material.
One exercise had the students pick an animal protector they would take with them if they went on a journey like the one in Wicoun. The students then made 3D models of their chosen animal protectors out of simple materials (as Welch says, “Butcher paper and tape can do anything”) and could be seen carrying their protectors around; at the end of the week, every animal was eagerly taken home.
Putting it All Into Play (and Putting on a Play)
The students were eventually divided into two groups: actors and technicians. The actors joined Bosworth in various exercises to workshop and rehearse scenes for the play. Meanwhile, the technicians worked with Welch to finish backdrops, props, costumes, and the set: a floor-to-ceiling construction paper rainforest depicting the Amazon.
Bosworth and Welch remember the moment when the two groups reunited: the technicians had just finished the set and the actors were seeing it for the first time. The excitement in the air was tangible as the students really saw their production coming together and appreciated everything they had accomplished so far.
The week culminated in a performance of Wówauŋśila: The Flower of the Amazon for an audience of proud parents and family members. The production really showcased how much the students had learned during the week as the show exhibited the many different artistic disciplines that were involved in its making. Most importantly, the students walked away having had an incredible experience in using art to share their voices, tell their stories, and make an impact.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank Ben, Bosworth, and Welch for extending IA’s impact by bringing such a valuable inter-arts experience to the students of Pine Ridge. We would also like to thank Red Cloud Indian School and everyone who made this collaborative workshop possible.
Welch described it as a “transformative” experience for both the students and the teachers: “The whole time I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this, this is so amazing,’” she said. Bosworth echoed her sentiments, saying, “I’d like to keep up the partnership—I’m so grateful that I was able to be involved.” Providing arts access to young creatives—especially those in historically disenfranchised communities—continually proves to be a meaningful experience for all.
Celebrate Native Arts with Us on Campus at Idyllwild Arts
There are several upcoming opportunities to engage with Native Arts at IA in person. To learn more about IA’s Native American Arts Center (NAAC), please join us in person on Sunday, October 8th at 2 p.m. for a specially-catered engagement at Lowman Concert Hall, followed by a concert with NAMMY-winning Navajo pianist and composer Connor Chee. To learn more about the NAAC, click here.
This all leads up to Indigenous People’s Day at IA. On October 9th, IA will host its annual Indigenous People’s Day celebration, complete with a full day of in-person arts and educational programming, all free and open to the public. The day’s events will feature performances, lectures, outdoor concerts, and Native foods, as well as several special guests, including (but not limited to) musician Keith Secola; hoop dancers Sky and Talon Duncan; artist Steven Paul Judd; filmmaker Ivey Camille Manybeads Tso; singer Tia Wood; and designer Bethany Yellowtail.
Coming Soon: Michael Kabotie Lectures Premiere Online
With this November also comes the chance to experience (or revisit) this summer’s celebrated Michael Kabotie Lecture Series online. This lecture series partners with Indigenous creators to promote Native Art and highlight Native perspectives.
Each Wednesday in November at 7 pm PDT, a recording of one of this summer’s Michael Kabotie Lectures will debut online via IA’s YouTube channel. Check out the line-up below:
- Nov. 8 – Still We Smile: Humor as Correction and Joy with artist and curator Meranda Roberts (Numu/Xicana).
- Nov. 15 – An All Around Comedy and Cat Guy, A Conversation with Joey Clift (Cowlitz): comedian, TV writer, and cat guy.
- Nov. 22 – Art that Makes You Laugh, Makes You Think, and Makes You Feel Pride with filmmaker, director, screenwriter, fiction writer, and visualist Steven Paul Judd (Kiowa/Choctaw).
- Nov. 29 – Good Medicine Comedy with stand-up comedian, writer, actor, and producer Jackie Keliiaa (Yerington Paiute/Washoe/Native Hawaiian) and showrunner, screenwriter, filmmaker, and weaver Sierra Teller Ornelas (Navajo).
These lectures all focus on the power of comedy, humor, and joy in Indigenous communities; all of the lecturers are working artists and creators who continuously promote these themes through their work while playfully rewriting some of the false preconceptions about Native American people. Save the dates, and don’t forget to tune in! To stay updated on upcoming events—and see more of Native Arts at IA—follow us on Instagram. You can also find us on TikTok, Facebook, and LinkedIn.