The Native American Theatre Ensemble + La MaMa

Native American Theatre Ensemble in front of La MaMa on East 4th Street, 1972.

This week, La MaMa catalogers are working with materials related to one of the troupes that found a home at La MaMa in the 1970s: the Native American Theatre Ensemble (NATE). The Ensemble was established (as the American Indian Theatre Ensemble) in 1971 by a 26-year-old, Oklahoma-born, Kiowa-Delaware man named Hanay Geiogamah. (The group changed its name in 1973.) “The project,” according to an article published in Akswesasne Notes in 1972, “got underway in January [of 1972] with Geiogamah and associates undertaking a nine-month course in theatrical discipline and techniques at the eminent center created by Ellen Stewart in New York.” (Vol. 4, No. 4)

A program for NATE's production of

A program for NATE’s production of “Foghorn” and “Coyote Tracks” at La MaMa (1973) in which the group explains their recent name change. La MaMa Archives.

The troupe worked tirelessly over the next several years to create and perform original plays “for and about Indians” in a wide range of venues across the US and elsewhere. La MaMa’s collections– which include several cubic feet of posters, programs, photographs, correspondence, clippings, scripts, organizational records, and audiovisual materials created by and about NATE– document the Ensemble’s early years in-residence at La MaMa, its creative development, its domestic and international tour schedules, and the philosophy that drove its work. One document, entitled “A Proposal for a Tour of Indian Country by The American Indian Theatre Ensemble” (1973), notes that NATE’s goals included: 1)producing and presenting plays “about Indians” and reaching, with these plays, “every one of the 850,000 Native Americans, from reservations to urban ghettoes”; 2)contributing, with this work, to “the over-all effort to achieve freedom, equality of life and true self-determination for American Indians”; and 3)combating, eliminating and replacing (“as quickly as possible”) the “negative and defeating imagery which the media employs to portray Indian people.”

A letter to NATE from Rough Rock Community High School, March 1973. The writer explains that NATE's performance there was

A letter to NATE from a Rough Rock school teacher, March 1973. The writer explains that NATE’s performance was “one of the nicest things that has ever happened at Rough Rock.” La MaMa Archives.

Both in New York City and on tour, the troupe found enthusiastic audiences– of all ages. Fifth- and sixth-graders from the Rough Rock Demonstration School in Chinle, Arizona, sent the troupe a packet of thank-you notes after a 1973 performance. The New York Times ran a succession of articles about the group’s work, and positive reviews of NATE’s performances appeared in local papers, specialty magazines, and political newsletters. After a benefit performance at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis– the proceeds of which were donated to the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee— the Minneapolis Star called their work “sophisticated,” the acting “boisterous and engaging,” and the “message…unabashedly political.”

Materials documenting NATE’s work are now cataloged and will be findable through our digital collections portal, which is due to launch in Fall of 2015. There is one set of objects that we’ve cataloged but can’t, yet, offer up to researchers: a collection of 1/2 inch open reel videos documenting NATE’s performances both in New York and on the road. These videos are fragile and difficult to play back. We’re hoping to digitize them in the next phase of our Pushcart Collection project, so that we can begin to make them available to scholars and students interested in late 20th century Native American culture and politics, political theater, and the artistic communities that have been nurtured by La MaMa.