Jacqueline Shea Murphy

Dancing Indigenous Worlds: Choreographies of Relation

University of Minnesota Press, 2022

392 pages


Reviewed by Cindy-Lou Holland

Jacqueline Shea Murphy’s Dancing Indigenous Worlds: Choreographing Relation offers an experiential account of the relationality enacted by Indigenous peoples via the practice of dance. Identifying herself as a “settler dance scholar,” Murphy provides intimate descriptions of her decades-long engagements with Indigenous dances, dance scholars, dancers, and their performances, offering readers insight into the relational world-making aspects of Indigenous dance. At the same time, Murphy demonstrates her willingness to share the trial-and-error processes involved in bridging the distance between settler-colonial and Indigenous logics, regardless of context.

The book features the author’s relations and experiences spanning the first two decades of this millennium, and primarily engages with four particular Indigenous choreographers located in four countries: New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Murphy describes her project as a “[grappling] . . . with what I’ve felt Indigenous dance doing, saying, and enacting.” But she notes, “The dance I discuss in what follows is not just about relationality but also enacts being in a relational, connective world of communities of care with responsibilities to one another.” As such, the book is less about Indigenous dance itselfand more about its relational effects in the world and how the space created through dance offers potent opportunities for regenerating Indigenous lifeways. Thus, the work does not offer a settler-colonial explanation of the meaningsof dances or in-depth descriptions of dances or dancers themselves, actions which center colonialist logics and are still too commonplace. Rather, it provides an honest (and, at times, fraught) description of the sensory and relational experiences Murphyhas had over decades of witnessing and participating in the regenerative dance work of Indigenous peoples.

The book is structured around Murphy’s relationships with four Indigenous dance artists, each situated within a chapter highlighting a particular aspect of Indigenous relationality and resurgence: reciprocity, perspective, abundance, and refusal. While these concepts anchor how Murphy approaches each chapter, her relationship with each dance artist frames both her access to and experience of dance events as well as the colonial tensions she navigates.

Chapter One, “Choreographies of Relational Reciprocity,” begins by offering the reader a description of the felt dimensions of a particular island off the north coast of New Zealand. Murphy provides historical and situated information to ground us in the colonial relations that continue to influence Maori people in general and the event she is attending in particular. As Murphy notes, such events are conceived and designed as“Indigenous Events,” where care of participants is a core feature of the event: “There is a place for everyone, and everyone is taken care of, because everyone has value and something to contribute. I am startled by how startling this feels to me.” As in subsequent chapters, we experience the event through Murphy’s senses and her descriptions of relational reciprocity offer a way for us to see just howsuch events differ from non-Indigenous spaces, and how an Indigenous dance event effectively “enacts Indigenous exchange as a sustaining act of history, futurity, and reality.”

Chapter Two, “Choreographies of Perspectival Relationality,” introduces us to a workshop Murphy attended led by the US-based Indigenous dance group Dancing Earth Creations (DE) and its leader, Rulan Tangen. This chapter emphasizes the degree to which the group’s grounding in relationality manifests in all aspects of its operation, including its leadership, and the centering of perspectival exchange. The organization creates participatory events in which audiences are taught to physicalize their engagement with the world, often through an ethos of caregiving. At the same time, Murphy insists, the focus of DE is “on enabling its Indigenous dancers to practice enacting an Indigenous-based relationality within a context of coloniality.” Tangen’s focus on “the energy that dancing can be directed to mobilize” helps the reader see that, while dance is the what of the group, relationality is the how, and further, that the tools of a relational way of being have the capacity to confront—and offer an alternative to—the persistent influence of coloniality.

Following the performative theme, an “Interlude/Pause/Provocation” is next, a shorter chapter describing an event featuring Alutiiq performance artist Tanya Lukin Linklater, which demonstrates how Indigenous dance and performance cannot be separated from the reality of ongoing coloniality. Such performances open spaces for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants alike to reflect on their own relation to coloniality.

Chapter Three, “Choreographies of Relational Abun-dance,” works with the theme of abundance and addresses the colonial narrative of precarity “(not being able to rely on the status quo, everything being in flux)” as almost laughable. As Murphy notes, for Indigenous peoples in North America, “the ‘precarity’ of not being able to rely on the status quo is the status quo.” Indeed, quoting scholar Kathryn Yusoff, Murphy notes: “Precarity is not (just) ‘the condition of our time’ but ‘part of colonialism’s ongoing project.’” As such, this chapter outlines the multiple ways in which the culture surrounding Indigenous dance emphasizes and enacts an economy of abundance. Through caretaking practices such as feeding and tending to one another, Indigenous dance works have the potential to activate “the strength in stories, structures, and practices of relational durational connectivities.”

Chapter Four, “Choreographies of Relational Refusings,” is perhaps where the tensions that Murphy maintains are most on display. Noting that Indigenous peoples have long experienced “being researched as a form of being colonized,” Murphy recounts a few acts of refusal she experienced at various dance events. For example, at a Closed Cultural Protocol Ceremony held where non-Indigenous people were denied the right of participation, Murphy describes the reaction of another non-Indigenous participant and their subsequent conversation regarding how “colonial privilege entitled (mostly white) people seem always to presume our right to have access to anything we come across,” and how “our schooling has taught us that absorbing all the knowledge we can get access to is unquestionably good.” Following Stó:lō scholar Dylan Robinson, she identifies this presumed right and subsequent will to knowledge as an “epistemic hunger,” which Robinson insists is increasingly important for academics to resist. What Indigenous refusal teaches academic researchers, Murphy notes toward the chapter’s end, “is to let what we learn lead to change in our methods, practices, and assumptions, and in us.” As such, Murphy elects to end the chapter with Native voices, whom she invites to comment on her work.

This project’s scope feels ambitious, as Murphy is weaving together theory and concepts of Indigenous relationality/resurgence and modern dance and dance scholarship and Indigenous dance-maker practices and the coloniality in which all are steeped alongside the relations and experiences she has had with Indigenous peoples and their dance practices over two decades and hundreds of exchanges. A project like this could easily tend toward sprawl, but what genuinely anchors the text is the persistent tension Murphy feels and maintains between her status as a settler dance scholar and her desire to describe the transformative effects of Indigenous relationality. In this way, the text may best be described as a model of what Walter Mignolo calls “delinking,” the active effort to break one’s ties to colonial ways of knowing, being, and doing. Murphy shows us both her experiences being welcomed and encircled within Indigenous dance makers’ webs of reciprocity and care as well as the admonishments she received from Indigenous acquaintances after her missteps. What Murphy models for the reader is how transformational and rewarding engaging Indigenous dance work, and Indigenous lifeways in general, can be, and the necessity of delinking, particularly in academia, where coloniality remains an overriding feature of the landscape.