Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today
Grammy Award-winning performer Ty Defoe, a citizen of Oneida and Ojibwe Nations, has joined a campaign that is uniting creatives from around the globe to explain what peace means to them during the coronavirus pandemic and protests for racial justice.
The New York City-based Peace Studio launched “100 Offerings of Peace” last month. The campaign is supported by world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and others.
“This is our response to a world beset by COVID-19 and protests,” said Thomas West, executive director of The Peace Studio, an organization that produces theater works, summits, documentaries and community-based artistic collaborations and events with known and emerging creatives.
“The stories from artists can be inspiring about what peace and living in that state mean to them now,” he said. “This starts conversations and creates connections from an array of voices – we have over 20 countries represented here.”
Defoe is a writer and interdisciplinary artist. He won a Grammy in 2011 for a song he had on a compilation CD called “Come to Me Great Mystery.”
He takes an interwoven approach to artistic projects with what he refers to as “social impact, Indigeneity, indiqueering and climate justice.”
A Robert Rauschenberg artist in residence and Jonathan Larson Award recipient, Defoe lives in New York City and is a member of the All My Relations Collective.
"In shape-shifting, through the arts and social circles, I aspire to bring those who aren’t usually heard to the table,” he said by phone from New York.
Defoe said he strives to challenge the formulas of privilege and infrastructure to build a “new nation of theater.”
“In my trans/Two Spirit communities, we can use theater-making tools to express, to heal, to celebrate and to tell our stories on stages,” he said. “There is a teaching I received when I was given a sacred hoop dance. It was that we are all connected in this great circle of life. The symbol of the hoop is important because it unifies all living things. In a circle there are no corners in which to hide, and in this circle unifying all living things, we must stand next to and across from each other as equals. Healing, celebrating, telling together, though our stories differ. A new nation of theater."
The work he created is a performance art piece called “CIRCLE.”
Defoe said he thought of the circle for the peace project while delivering census forms to elders and working with the Indian Community House in New York City.
He took hoops to various locations in the city to show “being in proximity of the great circle of life.” The piece was filmed at abandoned buildings and on rooftops.
“Manhattan is originally Indigenous territory so the outdoor locations made sense to connect with,” Defoe said.
He credited collaborators including Katherine Freer, for editing and cinematography, along with his family and his mentor Kevin Locke.
“The circle is a story about how we are all connected, two legged, four legged, wing’d, rooted, and finned, interconnected to all living things, from water to stone, from earth to sky, from river veins to wampum, from blood to earth, on foot, linked arm in arm.
“The circle is made of red willow foraged in the Great Lakes, soaked and then wrapped around and around and around with sinew, animal tendons dried and tied to hold the shape together. Learning to move in and out of design, in and out of spaces — in and out of danger. Not too fast and not too slow for my own safety and yours.”
Defoe noted putting together the piece during the pandemic was challenging.
“How can we be together when we are not and still move forward? I work mostly in theater as I am interested in narrative and stories, but with theater shut down, video is another media to use. As it is now, it seems to be the best way to get the message out to both Native and non-Native people as this includes BLM and other groups.”
As for winning a Grammy, Defoe can count himself lucky as Best Native American Music Album was only a dedicated category for 10 years before it was folded into Roots Music.
“It was a real thrill to be a winner for that album,” he acknowledges.
His next project is a play about the stars that brings together science and sacred knowledge. It’s a theatrical play that will be performed live in various locations.
Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and has produced three films on Native musicians.