Review of In the Balance: Indigeneity, Performance, Globalization

In the Balance: Indigeneity, Performance, Globalization. Gilbert, Helen H., JD Phillipson, Michelle H. Raheja, Editors. Liverpool University Press, 2020. 304 pp. ISBN: 978-1786940346

The world of Indigenous cultures is an untapped trove of unique insights into the human experience. Although native societies all across the globe have already conceded vast amounts of land and other natural resources to more powerful colonizers, relatively little is known about their individual ways of life. Helen Gilbert, an Australian working in theatre and performance studies, Michelle H. Raheja, a Native American who specializes in cultural and especially literary studies, and Dani J. Phillipson, a Canadian living in London who works on creative research, all provide very perceptive observations of these cultures, allowing for a deeper appreciation of the lengths that Indigenous people have to go through in order to remain prominent in a world of increasing globalization.

In the modern day, it has become increasingly evident how war, poverty, and discrimination disenfranchise Indigenous peoples. These groups receive fewer protections than their colonizers and are constantly taken advantage of. Globalization seems to have only accelerated this process, as more and more people fall prey to the Western ideals of capitalism and greed. However, with expanding interconnectedness and dependence, there comes visibility as well. Worldwide integration seems to have maintained its ability to inspire optimism as the “vast transnational information and entertainment industries and ever more sophisticated communications technologies [are] mediating relations of power quite as effectively as trade agreements, diplomatic alliances or military adventurism” (3). The advent of video cameras and the internet has allowed those displaced by corporate interests and other socially fragmenting forces to rekindle connections with others taking on the same struggles. In the words of Stuart Hall, “the most profound cultural revolution has come about as a consequence of the margins coming into representation in art, in painting, in film, in music, in literature … in politics, and in social life generally” (4). This collection of essays delves deeper into how many different Indigenous peoples have taken to the stage in order to be seen and heard in the public sphere and to be validated, especially on matters that are of most consequence to their respective communities.

In the first chapter, “Inside the Machine: Indigeneity, Subversion, and the Academy,” speaker Michael Greyeyes gives a performative keynote address reminiscing about his time spent as an actor and professor. Throughout the entire chapter, Greyeyes switches between Chief Bromden from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and himself, enlightening the audience on his personal history. When he saw this film for the first time as a young boy, he immediately felt a connection with Bromden since he was “the only brown face visible” in the entire movie, and he was also “surrounded by that which was not me” in his predominantly white neighborhood of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in western Canada (26). Greyeyes recounts how much of his identity is based upon difference, which is a reality that anyone of a non-European descent faces, as fair skin had been subconsciously adopted as the “norm” by much of Western society. He was later asked to teach a course on intercultural theatre, which surprised Greyeyes, an Aboriginal man, as it gave him the opportunity to provide a new perspective on “colonialism, identity, the colonial gaze, interculturalism,” which provided his class with “a clear urgency – an authenticity” that no other professor had (32). He then closes out his speech by talking about how Malcolm X had a brief encounter with Islam. His embrace of the religion beyond what had been previously accepted allowed him to slowly unravel his hatred, which helped him move towards a “richer, more complex understanding of his religion and his purpose as a human being” (42). Greyeyes then draws a parallel to his own life, demonstrating the fact that by slowly extricating himself from the colonial mentality, separating himself from his learned grammar, narrowness, and arrogance, he too could find the validity of existing as an equal human being.

In the third chapter, “Assimilating Globalization, Performing Indigeneity: Richard Loring’s African Footprint,” Arifani Moyo contemplates the largest running musical from South Africa and how it gave the entire globe a chance to observe the beauty hidden within the continent’s Indigenous peoples. He remarks that this play has been the “most salient attempt at making the diversity of indigenous South African cultural heritages visible within the global theatre market” (65). Its inaugural performance occurred in front of statesman Nelson Mandela and other world leaders on Robben Island, and through its fusion of rhythms from both ancient and modern Africa, it empowers its audience to be proud of their culture and rich history. It depicts scenes from the ordinary life of both Indigenous people and the proletarian population to some of the extraordinary moments shared by both to the beat of “Afro-fusion dance,” which merges “rock, pop, and jazz influences with world music, drawing on local traditional, folk, and urban genres” (66). Moyo states that African Footprint is “not special because of what it does, or even how well it does it, but because it best epitomizes a particular, replicable method of cultural value-creation in South Africa” (67). This is emphasized by the fact that African indigeneity is a unique concept, as the entire notion is pluralistic within the boundaries of pan-African political agreements, and thus, “ethnically heterogenous black majorities are considered indigenous,” which is in stark contrast to Western mindsets (67). This point only further supports the idea that bringing indigeneity and its politics into contemporary talks allows for a more wholesome and complete picture of the world. Bringing into light the vitality and cultural importance of these tribes, including the Zulu and Xhosa majorities and especially the Ndebele, Venda, and Tswana minorities, allows those who were once invisible to the political discourse the chance to publicly defend their freedom and history. African Footprint is thus demonstrated to be a critical display of art as it celebrates the diversity of the South African people and asserts the power and beauty to be found in collectivism.

Chapter 8, “Following the Path of the Serpent,” written by Amalia Cordova, follows the evolution of Indigenous Film Festivals across Abya Yala, which is the Kuna name for North and South America used to evoke a sense of belonging (164). The earliest recorded festival was the American Indian Film Festival, which took place in Seattle, Washington, in 1975. Similar festivals started popping up across the Americas, such as the Festival Latinoamericano de Cine de los Pueblos Indigenas in Mexico City, and the Dreamspeakers Festival in Edmonton, Canada. Because of the popularity, visibility, and impact that these celebrations had on native populations, several organizations were founded with the sole mission to “foster understanding of the culture, traditions, and contemporary issues” of Indigenous people (165). Organizations like these create spaces where an otherwise dispersed transnational community can gather and share their ideas and allow outsiders a chance to observe a once foreign lifestyle.

This book is a very eye-opening collection of essays that are meant to highlight the issues unique to Indigenous cultures, especially those concerning how Indigenous peoples present themselves on a global platform. Throughout each chapter, the audience can come to appreciate the differing perspectives of not just the essay authors, but also the book’s editors as a whole, as each brings a refreshing new angle on a field that has been historically undervalued. As a scholarly journal, this would be an excellent source to draw insights from, as each chapter contains its respective citations, and altogether helps minimize biases that can come from a Eurocentric viewpoint, all while allowing readers to draw up their own conclusions about the validity of Indigenous peoples and their works of art.

 

Francis Aquino
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

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