- Uneasy ReckoningsA Response to “The Theorist and the Theorized: Indigenous Critiques of Performance Studies” by Stephanie Nohelani Teves (TDR 62:4 T240)
The differences between us necessitate the dialogue, rather than disallow it–a dialogue must take place, precisely because we don’t speak the same language.—Sara Ahmed (2000:180; in Mazer 2015:87)
From the title, “The Theorist and the Theorized: Indigenous Critiques of Performance Studies,” it seemed the article by Stephanie Nohelani Teves would make a distinctive, positioned contribution to a long-standing, rapidly expanding conversation about the colonizing effects of performance ethnography.1 As a Native Hawaiian scholar, Teves would be taking advantage of the platform provided by TDR to speak truth to power, including to its editor, Richard Schechner, in ways that promised to be provocative and compelling. In this, as the subtitle “Indigenous Critiques of Performance Studies” suggests, she would be engaging with and building on critical work of Indigenous scholars, including perhaps Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s landmark book Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (2012) or Chadwick Allen’s equally essential Blood Narrative: Indigenous Identity in American Indian and Maori Literary and Activist Texts (2002) and Trans-indigenous: Methodologies for Global Native Literary Studies (2012). While these texts are not specifically set in relation to performance studies, they are critical touchstones for the study of Māori and Indigenous performance. Her article would demand a reckoning, or two. As TDR readers we would be required to see ourselves reflected in her excavation and examination of examples of scholarship by and about Indigenous performance—from this journal’s pages, in particular. In putting those of us who are non-Indigenous theorists in our place, she would also point toward the alternative, authoritative paradigms offered by Native Hawaiian and other Indigenous academics working in performance studies and related fields.
Instead, the article is largely devoted to representing and explaining an incident that took place in Rarotonga during “Fluid States”—one of Performance Studies international’s geographically dispersed meetings in 2015:
During a seemingly routine conference presentation, a Pakeha (Euro-New Zealander) scholar based in Australia presented on the various uses of haka. She historicized haka and contextualized its current use by the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team as an [End Page 195] example of the commercialized performances of haka, in addition to discussing other performances of haka that are sponsored by the tourism industry or the government.(131)
The account that follows is of the emotional and corrective response by “a Maori scholar” in defense of the haka’s “cultural and spiritual significance,” followed by a further summation of the explanation offered by the rather hapless “Pakeha scholar” in several parts over the subsequent pages, culminating with an indictment of sorts:
As the Maori scholar articulated her anger over the mis-interpretation of the commercialized haka as performative or inauthentic, the Pakeha scholar appeared not to understand why the Maori scholar or “the Native” in general needs to hold onto our culture as “authentic” or “real.” The Pakeha scholar did not seem to realize that this desire to hold onto “the real” is imperative to our ongoing existence as Indigenous peoples [...].(132)
The story of this uneasy encounter becomes the basis for the author’s case for Indigenous resistance to the colonizing effects of performance studies. Periodically she returns to the scene, embellishing her account of how “the Pakeha scholar didn’t get it, how could she?” (134, emphasis in original). She revisits the question asked in TDR (2006): “Is Performance Studies Imperialist?” and, using the story as evidence, answers the question with an emphatic “yes.” The article closes with an admonition: “If the Pakeha scholar had couched her arguments in the idea that Maori people perform haka as a form of Indigenous agency in the face of a colonialist settler culture, the reaction to her presentation might have been different” (138).
Thing is, that was exactly the point of the paper, which was published with little change in Performance Research a year later:
From waka to haka, we see a people pulling together against tremendous odds, repurposing pieces of the past to build a collective identity as Māori...