Performance

A Performance in Montana Challenges How We Define Activist Art

Artist Mary Ellen Strom and Native American researcher Shane Doyle orchestrated a far-reaching and complex eco-art event at the Missouri Headwaters State Park in Three Forks, Montana.

Shakira Glenn, Scene One, Cherry River, Where the Rivers Mix, August 23 (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

THREE FORKS, Montana — Over in Big Sky country, artist Mary Ellen Strom and Native American researcher Shane Doyle orchestrated a far-reaching and complex eco-art event titled Cherry River, Where the Rivers Mix for audiences of 300 during consecutive evenings (August 23 and 24) at the Missouri Headwaters State Park in Three Forks, Montana. Strom’s previous collaboration in July with Ann Carlson’s The Symphonic Body/Water (part of the program of the non-profit Mountain Time Arts) is another of her explorations of connection between the bodies of humans and bodies of water. The multi-media Cherry River performance focused on water through engaging in Indigenous forms of revering nature and ritual actions on behalf of the restoration of the name Cherry River — or, in Crow, Baáchuuaashe — replacing the name East Gallatin River officiated by Lewis and Clark in 1805.

The return to original Native place names aligns with the current advocacy for removing Confederate monuments. The word Aashalaxxua literally means Where the Rivers Mix, an example of the way in which Crow place names describe the natural characteristics of the site — the other two rivers, the Jefferson and the Madison, that converge at the Missouri River Headwaters were once called Crooked or Horse River and Straight River respectively

The concerted effort by 28 tribes in May this year to change the names of Hayden Valley and Mount Doane to Buffalo Nations Valley and First Peoples Mountain in nearby Wyoming was met with resistance from the County Commissioners of Yellowstone National Park. The history that has been memorialized through names is grim. Ferdinand Hayden signed official documents in 1872 to approve the extermination of Indigenous residents, while Gustavus Doane led the massacre of the Blackfeet village on the Marias River. As U.S. Secretary of Treasury, Albert Gallatin’s name may not be as infamous; however, the credulity of Lewis and Clark ascribing it to this “new land” has been greatly diminished by the 2014 scientific breakthrough in which the 12,000 year-old remains of the child found in a gravesite just north of Bozeman in 1968 was genetically matched to present-day Native Americans. The DNA testing confirms the ancient origins of Montana where the long-standing residency of tribes to this day include the Crow, Salish, Kootenai, Chippewa Cree, Assiniboines, Gros Ventre, Sioux, and the Northern Cheyenne.  Shane Doyle was instrumental in overseeing the genetic testing conducted in Denmark and ensuring the return of the remains for ceremonial reburial.

The Cherry River project strategically builds consensus for renaming in the Montana community. The collaborative effort staged in three acts was an exhilarating and emotional engagement in indigenous ways of experiencing culture-as-nature through the sense-perception of music, environment, dance, and movement.  The mixing of these different languages of expression in relation to the literal language of naming is reflected in the metaphor “where the rivers mix” representing also the mixing of cultures in Montana.

Choir, Brass, Fiddlers, Act Two, Cherry River, Where the Rivers Mix, August 23

The performance begins at the Headwaters as viewers are led high up the hill to the area called Fort Rock overlooking the Jefferson and the Madison as they merge. There, they are met by the singer Shakira Glenn, a member of the Apsáalooke Crow, who stands above the audience in a twelve-foot tall installation. Designed by artist Jim Madden, Strom, and textile designer Alayna Rasile, the singer looks like she is wearing an enormous fuchsia-colored dress in the color of the choke cherries that grow in the region. Doyle explains that the Headwaters was commonly known in sign language as the “Choke Cherry, Cherry, or Berry River” among the many different tribes who went there to meet and conduct trade.  The signification of the choke cherry color is therefore monumentalized by the figure of Glenn, who visually captivates the viewers at the same time that the sound of violins begins to waft from the small speakers placed along the ridge of Fort Rock. Looking down on the rivers below, the audience can barely see the four drift boats that carry the Fox Family Fiddlers who play in the Métis tradition (a Native-Celtic-French culture).  As they move up the Madison, their music is being projected from the boats at a far distance. Four other boats arrive upstream on the Jefferson carrying the Brass Band (with trumpeter and tuba player from the School of Music at Montana State University) along with four boats carrying the Choir of orchestral singers to the bank where the rivers converge. Now fully in view, Jamie Fox stands up in the anchored boat against the surging wind and plays the song “Sitting Bull” — Glenn echoes the violin’s phrases, resulting in a hauntingly beautiful melody that emerges powerfully from both the instrument on the water and the voice high up on the hill. This experience in Native singing and Métis violin was incredibly moving, and could only have been effected by nature, the scene of water and mountains — so much so, that when Glenn finishes the set by singing “It’s Been Days,” a Native Round Dance cover about longing, audience members did not know whether to clap or end the moment in silent reverence.

Audience Hiking to Second Scene, Cherry River, Where the Rivers Mix, August 23

The mood shifts with the second act as the audience must trek down the hill to the riverbank where the Brass Band has already begun playing songs such as “Wade in the Water” of the African-American spiritual tradition.  Viewers are led to the bank across from the location where the rivers mix, and where the Brass Band, the Fox Family Fiddlers, and the Choir present the second set, including a solo by Doyle who sings the American Indian Movement (AIM) song.  The combination of scores and styles arranged by musical director Ruby Fulton makes the point that the music, like the visual arts, and dance, are usually separated by cultural expectations.  But the performance’s mixing in every media succeeds, partly because the cohesive sound of water runs through every scene. In case the audience needed clarification, the Choir sings “Without Water There Is No Life” that is spliced with the projected voices of a taped monologue, which included the geo-morphologist Karen Boyd, artist Jim Madden, and Doyle discussing the need to think about water in a new way and the river as the place for muskrat, otter, and deer.  Their speech act is embodied by the movement of the three dancers Melissa Dawn, Michael O’Reilly, and Elly Stormer-Vadseth whose reflection on the water signifies the human “self” of nature.  The joyful noise of the second act ends in an uplifting crescendo as the musicians all play together while the dancers dive into the water as a baptismal disruption to the river.

Northern Cree Drummers Singers, Cherry River, Where the Rivers Mix, August 23

The final act features the star of the show, the Cherry River. Viewers are guided to the other side of the Headwaters Park to face the Gallatin. Once there, they hear the Northern Cree Singers drumming and singing as they come up the river on four drift boats. Waiting is the participatory engagement of Cherry River as viewers eventually see the singers perform their Cree “Cuttin song” — presented at the 2017 Grammy Awards, the Northern Cree are the super stars of Native singers. Then Blackfoot representatives Grace King and Jaya King dedicate a prayer at the river to the four sacred directions of the earth, the creator, offering berries to the water and sacred tobacco to the land. The powerful ending, mirroring the performance’s beginning, is marked by the assertion of women in seminal roles. By the time that Chontay Mitchell Standing Rock completes his Chippewa Cree solo, the audience members (a mix of people but mostly the Bozeman area community) are visibly moved. The sound of Native singing and drumming in the context of the river is not comparable to any other experience, providing a different performative context for understanding the Nature/Culture divide. The fact that the Missouri River is the same water source for the Standing Rock Sioux connects this community to the exigencies surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline.  Initiated by MTA’s 2017 Waterworks series of conceptual works, Water Art in Montana has contributed an effective Indigenous approach to acknowledging the woeful inadequacies of industrial humanity, and through Cherry River’s performance rituals, the hope is for a return to attributing the rightful name to the river.

Mountain Time Arts presented Cherry River, Where the Rivers Mix on August 23 and 24 at the Missouri Headwaters State Park in Three Forks, Montana (1585 Trident Rd, Three Forks, MT 59752).

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