It’s like a Death Dance: An interview with Demian DinéYazhi´

Death Dance honors indigenous and brown punk energy during TBA on Sept. 16

Death gives way to life, to regrowth, and to rebirth, but there is a certain nuance to the dying that has much to tell us about the times, observable in the particular ethos of destructionbe it environmental, social, or political. For Demian DinéYazhi´, a Portland-based indigenous queer artist born to the clans Naasht’ézhí Tábąąhá (Zuni Clan Water’s Edge) and Tódích’íí’nii (Bitter Water), ideas surrounding a death have become the lynchpin of an evening he has curated to honor “the labor and intelligence of indigenous and brown punk energy.” Set to take place Sept. 16 and happening as part of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Arts Festival, it will be a Death Dance.

Rebecca Jones, lead singer of WEEDRAT

A person of many practices, including poetry, visual art, curation, and organizing through R.I.S.E.: Radical Indigenous Survivance & Empowerment (of which he is founder and director), DinéYazhi´ is no stranger to culling a variety of mediums into one compelling happening. However, the name of the event was originated by another indigenous artist from the region, Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos and American) in a pivotal conversation with DinéYazhi´ after the 2016 national election. “This is a conversation that I was having numerous times with primarily indigenous and activist-based friends,” DinéYazhi´ explained, noting their pervasive sense of being overwhelmed by the burgeoning of white supremacist momentum in the United States and its perpetuation by the government.

Through these conversations, DinéYazhi´ was seeking clarity. “Of course this makes sense,” he reflected. “These people will be out of power. They stole this country. They will be out of power in a few generations, and this is just one of the last attempts to maintain and assert that power, and really just f*ck people over as a way to hang on to this archaic heteropatriarchal, settler colonial mentality.” DinéYazhi´ was discussing this mode of thinking with Siestreem during a visit to her studio, when Siestreem made the connection: it’s like a death dance, like the morbid movements that salmon do as they are in the process of dying—the final throes.

When invited to curate an evening of performance for TBA, DinéYazhi´ explained, “I was just really interested in continuing this idea of the Death Dance, but while also trying to support indigenous and brown artists, indigenous and brown communities, that continue to be largely underrepresented within the Portland contemporary art scene, the Portland music scene, but also the theoretical and critically engaged communities who are really trying to dissect race politics, you know, death and survival politics. All these communities are, I still feel like, ignoring indigenous and brown bodies.”

DinéYazhi´ expressed the belief that the only ethical path forward for the United States, particularly in locations that hold a deep indigenous history, means direct acknowledgement of indigenous peoples, “both for their erasure, but also for the fact that they have maintained certain areas, what settlers or colonizers consider pristine, natural land.” Gesturing back to this notion of death, DinéYazhi´ described what he called a “heteropatriarchal, ‘big boy’ fantasy of destruction in order for there to be any sort of regrowth.” This mentality stands in stark contrast to the care for the death and regrowth cycles, exemplified by the way indigenous peoples had historically cared for the health of the land in the Pacific Northwest through controlled burning before the government took over. A contemporary repercussion: the Eagle Creek fires. “We’re living in a very fragile ecosystem. We’re living in a very fragile sociopolitical system as well,” he said, “and indigenous people, at the end of the day, are pushed into the back seat.”

With this in mind, and with a strong impulse to both amplify and support underrepresented communities in Portland, while bringing people to the area to engage in conversation, DinéYazhi´ set about to bring two punk bands to the Death Dance: Weedrat, an “angry pop punk” trio from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and FEA, a riot grrrl chicano punk band from San Antonio, Texas. DinéYazhi´ explained that he especially wanted to bring in Rebecca Jones, the lead singer of Weedrat. “Apart from the music, she’s also doing some really rad things in her community,” including working for Planned Parenthood and promoting safe sex by giving condom demonstrations on a reservation in her area. “This is a way to sort of honor that,” he said.

When asked about the presence of indigenous and brown punk culture within Death Dance, DinéYazhi´ contextualized it with a series of revelations from his personal history. First, he recalled his upbringing as part of a big family with a resourceful father who could fix anything. “Within the reservation, or within my own community, there’s always been this DIY mentality. And so growing up, I didn’t really realize how much that had affected me, until I started to get really interested in riot grrrl….and I was seeing this overlap of how it was coming out, more in terms of responding to some sort of political injustice.”

Later, during a period of personal research, DinéYazhi´ began to more deeply consider the 1960s hippie movement and discovered a link to indigenous culture: predating the “peace and love” rhetoric of the hippie movement, Red Cloud, chief of the Oglala Lakota, had used the words love and peace, “during the same time period where (he) and his tribe were facing assimilation, genocide, erasure.” The abbreviated quote is as follows:

Look at me. I am poor and naked, but I am the Chief of the Nation. We do not want riches, we do not ask for riches, but we want our children properly trained and brought up….we cannot take away into the other world anything we have – we want to have love and peace.Chief Red Cloud

“The differences between peace and love between the hippie generation and the differences between peace and love for an indigenous tribe trying to hold on to their tradition throughout North America are two completely different set of circumstances,” DinéYazhi´ remarked. With more consideration, he concluded, “if indigenous peoples helped to influence the hippie movement, which, in turn, helped to influence the punk movement, then indigenous presence, indigenous bodies, indigenous traditions and intelligence, all of it is also very much tied to this punk rock energy because…from the very foundations of America…It  has been resisting heteropatriarchy. It has been resisting this idea of a nation state.” He continues, “If you want to talk about the origins of the punk movement within the United States, you have to talk about it in terms of indigenous people.”

Death Dance will uphold and amplify this history. The event will include local poetry, video projections, and live printing, in addition to music from the bands. “Initially, I was thinking of it as like a (IBQTPOC) prom,” said DinéYazhi´. “I want there to be slow dancing. I want people to take a moment from all the hysteria, all the weird sh*t, and just find someone close to dance with, and be intimate with…and just celebrate being close with someone.”

Perhaps this impulse toward slow dancing is a metaphor for a critical part of the regrowth cycle, invoking a sense of care within the Death Dancecare for others, care for oneself, and care for the fragility of the systems that hold us all.


Death Dance will take place at 10:0 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16 , at 15 Northeast Hancock. Tickets are Sliding scale starting at $5 (All Ages).


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