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How Spiderwoman Theater’s Power Pipes Addresses Violence Against Native American Women
I like to see myself as a contemporary storyteller. In writing my humble, little plays, I like to think of myself as carrying on the tradition of storytelling that our Elders have shared with us. As the times change, we find ourselves going from telling stories around the campfire to telling stories around the stage. The location may have altered, but it is my sincere wish that the heart and essence of the storytelling experience come from the same place. After all, there is little difference between the two. Much like an actor or writer, a storyteller uses his body, voice and imagination to take the audience on a journey. If that is not the essence of theatre, Native theatre, I don’t know what is (Taylor, 203).
Spiderwoman Theater is a company that uses Native American storytelling elements to raise awareness of modern Native women’s issues.
It was founded in 1976 by Muriel Miguel (Kuni/Rappahannock), who put together “a diverse company of women of varying ages, races, sexual orientation, and world view” (“About Us”).
The company’s mission is to “address cultural, social and political issues in the Native American and women’s communities” and “to entertain and challenge their audiences and bring communities of people together to examine the causes and effects of a wide variety of issues” (“About Us”).
Spiderwoman Theatre’s third published work is Power Pipes, a play whose “form is episodic, moving from ritual chanting and dancing to enacted scenes to monologues [and back] to ritual chanting and dancing” and whose “storyweaving relates to the childhood of the sisters, its horrors and its hilarity” (D’Aponte, xx-xxi).
Power Pipes achieves Spiderwoman Theater’s mission through its use of traditional storytelling elements. Because it uses Native American storytelling elements to address issues of violence toward Native American women, Power Pipes would be an excellent play to produce, and to perform it in a wide range of areas would further fulfill the authors’ mission.
Violence toward Native American women is a pressing issue.
Statistics indicate that as of 2010, Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted or raped than other women in the United States.
It is predicted that more than one out of three Native American women will be raped during their lifetime (Fertig). The national average is one in five (Pfenning).
The rate of intimate partner violence is higher among Native Americans than in any other U.S. ethnic group, and the murder rates of Native women are much higher than the national average (Fertig).
Power Pipes uses traditional storytelling elements to address violence against Native women.
Spiderwoman Theater’s writing/performing process is described as “storyweaving.”
Muriel Miguel, the director, explained “that the Hopi goddess of creation, Spiderwoman, taught the people to weave, instructing them ‘to make a mistake in every tapestry so that my spirit may come and go at will’” (D’Aponte, xx).
Power Pipes is an example of storyweaving, and many of the play’s scenes have the words “story” or “stories” in their titles, such as “Cuna Story,” “Queen Story,” “Shame Stories,” and “Fish Story,” (Muriel et al.). The scenes without the word “story” in their titles are also stories.
Episodic structure tells us that these issues are current problems and that the struggles in each scene are ongoing
Characters in Power Pipes are humans, metaphysical beings, and animals from traditional stories. The play’s use of these characters not only strengthens the audience’s understanding of their significance to Native cultures and history, but it also tells stories about modern people.
Music: The play opens with the stage direction: “We hear panpipes from far off. The sound gets louder. Enter six women playing pipes” (Miguel et al. 155). In the scene called “Rape Story, Part One,” a drum signifies a woman’s heartbeat while she is attacked (176).
Ceremony: Dance to the four elements (Miguel et al. 155), chanting, as drum preparation, a Kiowa War Dance (185-186). The play closes with an Honoring Song (195).
To stage Power Pipes in multiple locations would further fulfill the authors’ mission.
It would “address cultural, social and political issues in the Native American and women’s communities” (“About Us”) by presenting them before an audience.
Productions would bring communities of people “together to examine the causes and effects” of issues (“About Us”).
Performances would challenge audiences to take action against the causes of problems facing Native people, including violence against women.
If the playwrights were to release the play to be produced in 2011 by companies with other actors, it would generate awareness in a wider range of audiences than it did in the 1990s.
Power Pipes would need to be produced by Native female actors and a Native director to ensure that the ceremonies, songs, chants, and other elements were presented correctly.
If the authors of the play would like other companies to produce the play this way or in another particular way, the company could issue a set of rules for groups who produce it (such as what Eve Ensler does with The Vagina Monologues).
Important issues pass through the arts on their way to other places. Storytelling elements help put issues like violence into perspective.
If we are to read Native plays or view Native Theatre more often and in more places, we can see the issues facing Native people and learn how to combat the problems we see presented in print or onstage.
Plays like Power Pipes can teach audiences of all ethnicities and challenge us to make strides toward ending the violence.