How much does the average American really know about Native American women? Famous Indian women in the history books, like Pocahontas and Sacagawea, are only notable because of their heroic acts to save white men. Very few people can name any Native American females who have made a difference on behalf of their own culture.

The Spiderwoman Theater troupe makes a difference. Founded in 1975, the New York-based troupe was initially made up of three Brooklyn-born sisters of Cuna/Rappahannock descent–Lisa Mayo, Gloria Miguel, and Muriel Miguel–and early on included European women, African American women, and Asians. As members dropped away, the focus of the company changed, and the current group is entirely Native American. In addition to the three sisters, there are Gloria’s daughter Monique Mojica, Muriel’s daughter Muriel Borst, and Elvira and Hortensia Colorado (sisters from the Chichimec nation).

At 16, Spiderwoman Theater is one of the oldest feminist theater companies in the country, having toured both this country and Europe with its mixed-media theatrical creations. The women’s views concerning feminism vary, but all claim their opinions have been shaped by their Native American heritage.

“Our history as Native women in the Americas is very different from the history of white European women,” says Monique. “We are coming from a history of genocide that is very close to us. There are different things we are struggling for. Within our culture there has always been a recognized women’s circle and men’s circle, women’s knowledge and men’s knowledge, and those two are often very separate.”

But that doesn’t mean the group ignore men in their work. “In Europe, people would say, ‘Do you deal with men?'” says Lisa. “We said, ‘Yes, we deal with men.’ ‘Then you’re not a feminist,’ one woman said. ‘I’ve come to see your show, but you’re performing for the enemy.’ I said, ‘Who, the Germans?'” She laughs. “She said ‘Men,’ and I thought, Oh! Well, I’m very involved with my nephew, my husband, my son, my father, my uncles. I can’t separate them from my life.” Fittin’ Room, a show they do about social categories and how they limit and distinguish people, “came out of a situation like this,” she says.

“Yeah, the theme was one size does not fit all,” her sister Muriel chimes in.

This variety is echoed in the multiple pieces the troupe has performed. Sun, Moon, and Feather is autobiographical, depicting stories from the three sisters’ childhoods in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. But not all of their shows deal directly with Native American themes; they range from modern versions of Lysistrata and Wuthering Heights to works about new-age spiritualism and beat poets. The company often combines dance, spoken word, song, and live music–sometimes on Indian instruments–to create what has been described as outrageous, hilarious, and provocative theater.

“Spiderwoman” is the name of a Hopi goddess who taught weaving to her tribe; the company adopted it because it seemed to represent their unique method of “storyweaving,” where stories from each member’s experience are blended together to create an evolving work.

“Opening night doesn’t mean a piece is done,” says Muriel Miguel. “Power Pipes, our current work, will still be a work in progress, far from really finished.” There are times when they know a piece is done, she says, and then there are times “you can take a show that you haven’t done in a long time and come back to it, change it, and make it better.” Suddenly someone from the group bursts into song. “Old shows never die!” she croons.

The group’s current show is indeed a blossoming collaborative effort. They don’t like to talk about what’s going to happen onstage, but healing is the topic. The women are far from unanimous on the inspiration or meaning behind the work.

“You have a cut, you spit on it!” Muriel states, spitting on her arm for effect.

“The world is shit–it’s chaos, the environment, ecologically speaking,” Gloria adds. “There are so many things wrong and we’re heading for the edge. If something isn’t done about it, there will be no future. We have a spiritual power as women with our gifts, to try to heal the earth. And save not only the world, but the Indian people also.” She feels strongly that Native Americans continue to suffer from the destruction wreaked by white invaders going as far back as Christopher Columbus.

“How can it be a good thing for someone to come into someone else’s place, to someone else’s home and say I’m here, I want this, I need this, this is for me. Oh, is someone here? Sorry, get out of the way. And in 1992 [the Columbus quincentennial], to not address this and say, forgive me, I honor you, you were here first, you’ve given me a lot?”

“Not really much has changed in 500 years, only the tactics,” says Monique. She mentions that the government still has control over Indian territory, and that Indians continue to fight for fishing rights, water rights, mineral rights.

When Spiderwoman Theater isn’t traveling around the world performing and lecturing, it maintains residence at the American Indian Community House in New York, where it acts as an agent for other Native American performers and often hosts visiting ethnic groups indigenous to other countries. The three sisters are seen as influential elders in their community.

“We are role models for young women,” Lisa says proudly. “In the theater community, in our Native American community, younger groups are starting their own companies. Many, many women have written about us for their PhD theses. I think we’ve done something, either as Natives, or as feminists, or as women, or as older women.”

Spiderwoman Theater will perform Power Pipes at 8 PM Thursday through Sunday, October 24 through 27, at the Edgewater Theater Center, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr. The show is produced by the Randolph Street Gallery. Tickets are $12, $10 for students, Randolph Street Gallery members, and Chameleon Productions patrons. Reservations are suggested; call 666-7737.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.