Sailing Our Own Odyssey, through the Arts

Double Edge Theater's staging of The Odyssey in Western Massachusetts inspires rural leaders to dream big and, in the spirit of Native peoples, bring art's magic back home.

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Hearing shouts of “Odysseus!” from actors perched in trees at Double Edge Theatre in Massachusetts took my mind back to the tiny library in the small Wisconsin town of my birth.

I remember stumbling upon a child’s book of Greek mythology during my many hours in that old Carnegie library. How it fired my imagination!
 
I found refuge in Homer’s great epics. When things got complicated at home, I could curl up in the old red leather wing back chair at the library where no one yelled or ever asked anything of me.

The central theme of homecoming in The Odyssey came to life for me when I saw it performed so vividly by the actors of Double Edge Theater. The experience was a personal homecoming to my childhood creative mind and a reinforcement of art’s importance in my life and and everyone’s.

I was in Northwestern Massachusetts to attend a conference about the importance of arts and culture in rural America. When I was informed that we would also be attending the Double Edge Theater’s production of The Odyssey, I gotta admit I had some trouble seeing how Greek mythology fit in with expanding the awareness and support of art and culture in rural areas. Soon, however, I saw the genius of combining the two, especially for American Indians, a drama for the way we view our relationship with art, culture and the world.

In doing some brief research about Homer, I find that many scholars think his original poem was created in an oral tradition, intended to be performed and heard rather than read. Like the ancient poet, Native folks approach art and culture as something to be lived, an experiential process inseparable from life. 

Shawn Poynter/Center for Rural Strategies
Botnita Rickers of the Institute of Indian Arts took part in the convening on rural culture.

I found it difficult at first to discuss art and culture as separate concepts and was a bit daunted by the language the non-Indian fellow conference-goers used to talk about them. As an example, here is a selection from the Double Edge Theater’s website about the conference or convening in Ashfield, Massachusetts —

The State of the Rural Arts: Crisis, Change and Opportunity

Where have we been, and where are we going? This conversation will present a historical perspective on the place of the arts, and its cultural connections, and will discuss how traditional rural-urban, international, and disciplinary boundaries have expanded in recent years.

Double Edge along with Art of the Rural and the Center for Rural Strategies is hosting a Rural Arts and Culture Convening at the Farm. Over 35 cultural organizers, practitioners, and advocates will meet to formalize an organized effort that promotes our shared belief in the transformative power of the arts in our culture. We hope to emerge from this gathering with the basic framework for a movement that spans the country that resonates across cultures, disciplines, and experiences and informs policy.

Shawn Poynter/Center for Rural Strategies
David Martinez from the Media Literacy Project at the meeting of rural arts and culture advocates, Ashfield, MA.

Thankfully, (for me) three of those organizers, practitioners and advocates were American Indians, David Martinez of the Ohkay Owengee Pueblo from The Media Literacy Project, Logan Anderson of The First Peoples Fund, and Bonita Rickers, Ponca/Sicangu, of the Institute of American Indian Arts.

We shared our deep understanding and appreciation for the ways in which spirituality, art and culture are inextricably tied together for Native peoples. These concepts are not discrete; they are part of a flow, like a river and like the water in the river, essential to life.

Although the Indians and the non-Indians used different words in describing the importance of art and culture for their communities, in the end we shared the same love and appreciation for the creative spark that is so essential to being human.

I was reminded of a story told to me by Dr. LeeManual Bitsoi of the Navajo tribe, a geneticist at Harvard University. He told me of a conversation he had had with an elder uncle in the family hogan, a structure used for ceremonial purposes. The uncle listened silently with his eyes closed as Bitsoi described (in the Navajo language) his work at Harvard and told of the discovery that the platypus shares over 80 percent of the same genes with humans. After a long time the uncle opened his eyes and commented, “Well, I’m glad to hear that those white scientists are finally understanding our relationship with the world.”

Shawn Poynter/Center for Rural Strategies
Mary Annette Pember (at left) talks art, culture and Native American perspective with Logan Anderson of The First Peoples Fund at the Ashfield meeting.

Similarly, I think all the folks meeting at the Theater are moving towards an appreciation of the essential element of arts and culture in the lives of human beings. This understanding and the drive to ensure we can continue to support creative activities in our communities are more important now than they has ever been.

Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney recently announced that, if elected, he would discontinue funding for PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts.

As the Art of the Rural reports, “This represents a sad confluence of forces, of Culture Wars bullet points that impose a political rhetoric on art making itself (liberal, Blue State) and ignore, on the most basic level, the role nationally-funded arts have played in American Democracy, and even in ‘family values.’ Further, this ignores the overwhelming data suggesting how — beyond the intangible benefits of artmaking — such creative collaborations can transform local economies. “

David Weiland/Double Edge Theater
Overseeing the Land of the Dead, actor Hayley Brown lights up a precipice with mystery in Double Edge Theater’s The Odyssey, Ashfield, Massachusetts.

I was also reminded of a story I did earlier for the Yonder about First Peoples Fund, a non-profit organization supporting and honoring Native artists. Executive director, Lori Pourier of the Ogala Lakota tribe said, “The embodiment of these practices (art, culture and spirituality) can make us whole again as nations. These are the things that truly sustain us.”

The sustaining element of creativity in my life was embodied by the tale of Odysseus and his journey home. I was reminded how Homer’s epic spurred my dream and drawings and ignited my great secret goal of becoming a writer.

The wild acrobatic doings and immersive stage settings of Double Edge’s Odyssey nearly rivaled my childhood imaginings of Odysseus’ travels. My inner child squealed to see the Cyclops perched in a tree, bathed in lurid light while devouring Odysseus’ men.

As I walked the grounds of the Theater on that summer evening, I was reminded of how essential wild, unbounded creativity and art are to our lives.

 

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