Recent scientific study verifies what many Native people have always known: that traumatic events in our ancestors’ lives persist in our bodies, blood, and bones. These events leave molecular scars that adhere to our DNA. Our grandmother’s tragic childhood can trigger depression or anxiety in us, but we have the ability to heal these DNA encodings and change that trait for future generations (Hurley 2015).
Culturally, we are always looking toward the future, to our children’s future, to our grandchildren’s future. The circle of life turns one way—forward, and we are bound by the arrow of time to move ever forward in material existence.
When we pass on, though, we leave our physical body, and our spirit is no longer governed by the laws of earth. String theory proposes that there are ten possible dimensions (some say eleven). For our ancestors, time is no longer governed by the earth’s physical laws. If this is true, then our present day actions could potentially impact the spirits of our ancestors—and help to heal the trauma of the past.
In my work We Wait in the Darkness, I am investigating my connection to those from whom I come— those to whom I am tied by history, genetics, and spirituality. I am looking at “the past” as a history of facts, but with aspects that can potentially be changed. I am asking: is it possible, through intentional action (storytelling and movement) in the present, to heal the spirits of my Seneca family who are no longer bound by space-time?
The Seneca people pass on our histories and stories through oral tradition. The telling is a remembering and acknowledging of what has occurred. The memorization of the oral history and pronouncing the words aloud are actions. These actions evoke. They talk to our DNA, and those have gone before us listen. We are changed because of these actions.
We Wait in the Darkness is a dance, visual, and aural artwork to heal the DNA scars of my grandmother, her mother, and our ancestors. Through movements (action), visuals, and sound (telling), I evoke my ancestors to move and speak with me.
The Seneca are a part of the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations). We are matrilineal. We get our identity (our citizenship, clan, and inheritance) from our mother, her mother, and her mother’s mother.
The knowing of these ties (internally and intellectually) is an essential part of belonging for all Haudenosaunee people.
We Wait in the Darkness is inspired by the life story of my grandmother (Clarinda Jackson Waterman, 1901–1987). At age five, she watched her grandfather kill her father. She grew up without parents, and was forced to attend an Indian boarding school where she was stripped of her first language (Seneca) and culture. Eventually she thrived in the two worlds, spending summers still tied to Haudenosaunee Longhouse culture, and the school year learning piano, sewing, and knitting.
Boarding school for Senecas was not education as we understand it now, but a domestic training ground grooming youth for servitude to the dominant white culture.
When my grandmother graduated from Thomas Indian School, she was a popular pianist, always in high demand to play at various church services and sometimes traveling from church to church on Sunday mornings (even though she herself was not Christian). She had five children, four boys and my mother, whom she raised alone on the Seneca Cattaraugus territory. She moved from New York to San Francisco with one of her adult children, where she became a founder and leader of the San Francisco American Indian Center during “voluntary” relocation and the takeover of Alcatraz. She was a leader in the community, using her skills to run the Indian Center. One of the projects dearest to her heart was a weekly sewing circle that sold its creations to raise funds to send the bodies of Native people who had died in the city home for burial at their home reservations.
We Wait in the Darkness reflects on and reacts to the tragic and powerful moments of my grandmother’s life: from her first memory of a blood-stained floor, to her coming of age, to my memories of her as an elder. And although this story is mainly about her, other ancestors frequently show up during the performance within and around me, including my uncles and great-great grandparents.
Although my performance is an hour-long solo performance, I am never alone on stage.
We Wait in the Darkness is a meeting of sound, movement, film and paper sculpture that tells a story of displacement and homecoming, inspired by my Grandmother’s life story, engaging in each performance with all that this story evokes and enacts.
This project began with what would be called research, although I think of it as concentrated time on one story of my family. I worked with a genealogist who specializes in working with descendants of the celebrated Seneca leader Chief Cornplanter, uncovering some unknowns about my grandmother’s ancestors that she never spoke about. Through this I learned about many other Seneca families, the process of the U.S. documentation of Seneca people, and the process of removal of children from their families. I interviewed and talked with Seneca elders and friends. I built a set of paper, created movement, and filmed and recorded sounds from my homeland. I engrossed my family in the collecting and uncovering of family and Seneca artifacts to create a companion exhibit.
In the beginning scenes of We Wait in the Darkness is a recording of two women in the 1970s having a casual conversation in Seneca. This places the audience in my home Seneca territory. Composer François Richomme made recordings of Seneca speakers and environmental sounds from my homeland that he crafted into music. Thus the dance is also generated from the sounds, silences and intonations of the oldest part of our culture—spoken words and ancestral land.
My film work includes a seven-minute segment telling of the flooding of my grandmother’ s birthplace. She was a direct heir of my fifth great grandfather, Chief Cornplanter, and should have inherited our ancestral land. But thousands of Seneca were displaced by the flooding of these lands caused by the damming of the Allegany River in 1966. John F. Kennedy approved the U.S. Congress’s plans to break the 1794 Canandaigua treaty and build what is now the Kinzua Dam and Recreation Area. My grandmother’ s inheritance was lost. When she returned to Seneca Territory as an elder, she was without a home.
To develop movement vocabulary for choreography, I have been focused on decolonizing somatic and contemporary dance forms in my body and those I work with. For this work, I created improvisation structures with composer François Richomme, to tie imagery, sound, and senses, with systems of the body.
Unfurled in the present, this organic movement expresses the past. The dance is reflection and responsive action in the same moments. Through my body of DNA memory, the dance is ties together my family, my homeland, and truths of Seneca history.
This dance is to heal my grandmother through that which ties us in the present, my body. Her story is one of perseverance in the face of tragedy. It is a story of how cultural beliefs and practices endure through assimilation and oppression. I carry her story in my bones, blood, and flesh.