Quetzal Guerrero sits at the back of the Wellington Opera House in New Zealand. He’s just come off stage with Dancing Earth – a contemporary indigenous dance company directed by Rulan Tangen [right of photo] who holds the belief that “to dance is to live, to live is to dance.” Rulan’s work is known for honoring key aspects of Native American culture. Concepts like matriarchal leadership, dance as ritual for transformation and healing as well as the process of decolonizing the body.
In this interview with SERUM we talk to Guerrero about connecting with Rulan and how his passion for movement and dance began with Hip Hop and break dancing. He also explains that in 1980’s America, hip hop provided a sense of identity for indigenous youth who were going through a loss of their own cultural identity. At the time their elders were making fundamental moves at the United Nations to even be regarded as human beings with human rights at all. I talk to Guerrero about his journey as a classically trained violinist, being the son of a political muralist and activist and growing up first nations in Phoenix.
“My father comes from the Coconino and Yaqui tribes of the South-West. He raised us with a lot of consciousness about the real history of the United States and what went down when it came to colonisation so we had awareness about our identity and who we are – we were taught not to be ashamed of being who we are and to embrace our culture and our roots. So I was always fascinated about Native American art, music and history. I’ve always loved studying as a kid and learning about it and I think that’s what also intrigued me about working with this company – because it’s contemporary and nothing like this really existed – this is one of the first Native American dance companies..We’re telling the story about who we are as Native Americans but expressing it through dance.”
Dancing Earth’s performance piece – among many other cultural groups from around the world, I noticed evoked a sense of deep pain, Quetzal elaborates: “The Native American community, we’re still healing from the devastation that comes with colonization – talk about genocide. Tens of millions of Native Americans were murdered, killed and wiped out by colonization so there is a huge scar, a big wound that has been slowly healing in the Native American identity and part of that healing is coming to terms with today. Letting go of the past and seeing that as a blessing in disguise – in the sense that we’re still here, we’re still present and we need to be aware of that and open to accepting today – the future and making something of it.
“A lot of colonised cultures are really affected by the new culture and social oppression that comes along with that so they suffer from a lot of debilitating social diseases like alcoholism, drug use, abuse – they suffer from a lot of these things cause they feel they’ve lost a lot of who they are and accessibility to identifying your culture isn’t there anymore so I think that’s why things like Hip Hop culture come into play.”
“For some it was more a means of escape and an identity. Hip Hop claimed a spot in people’s hearts because they could claim it as theirs’ in a time when how they felt, looked, thought and lived as indigenous people put their self-worth in question.”
Growing up, he remembers dressing way more gothic than the other kids; with leather studded jackets and mohawke hairstyles as opposed to the classic Puma suedes with a cheese cutter bboy look. “We were all brown, but we were all diverse.”
Remembered in many bboy circles for his alternative dress style Quetzal says winning second place in a battle judged by bboy legends like Ivan the Terrible and Style Elements Crew; receiving approval from people like this he says ‘validated’ their place in the bboy scene, making it all good to remain ‘alternative’ in terms of dance style and dress.
SERUM: Do you feel as someone that’s had that experience growing up indigeanous, with hip hop as an outlet, that there will be positive change for indigenous youth in the future?
QUETZAL: Oh yeah, definitely with the new generation of kids who aren’t tied to all that pain and trauma and who are able to access information so much more now and have more avenues to find themselves you know – it’s not so black and white as it used to be, it’s a lot more grey and you have a lot more ability to search and to find out who you are and what you’re into and really discover all the different aspects of life. When you were on the reservation 20 years ago you had nothing but at least now with the internet you can watch and see and learn by example – see things that can inspire you and take you out of that dark place you know.
He says “There are so many parallels with the Māoris here and with Native Americans in the United States first and foremost the respect of the earth and natural resources of the earth – and to know we are not owners of this land, we are shepherds of this land and we’re guardians of this land. I think every indigenous culture understands that because you have to have that mentality if you wanna be able to live for 1000 years. If you want to be able to survive you have to have respect for the earth because if not you’re essentially shooting yourself in the foot and I think this capitalist consumer culture that has been affecting all of the developing nations right now is very disruptive in the sense that it’s destroying everything that is good and wholesome in this world and that’s going to be able to last for lifetimes, that’s the biggest thing I noticed”.
“It’s also the sense of family and welcoming. We’ve been staying at two different maraes since we’ve been here and to see that sense of family, tribe and love and heart for one another it’s really prevalent,” he says drawing parallels between Māori and First Nation ways of living.
In 2007 the Human Rights Council adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it is a document which emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations. It establishes an important standard for eliminating human rights violations against indigenous peoples worldwide and for combating discrimination and marginalization. Although not legally binding, it’s a document that took over 30 years to develop and have validated by the United Nations.
Interestingly, the Declaration was adopted by an overwhelming majority of the General Assembly, with 143 countries voting in support, 4 voting against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and 11 abstaining (Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Samoa, Ukraine).
Although New Zealand initially opposed this declaration, 11 years later at the UN General Assembly in September 2018 Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern acknowledged the vital contribution indigenous values offer the globe and humanity, as did Mr. Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, Cree Chief, Canada who spoke at the 2017 UN Press Conference.
In her 2018 speech Prime Minister Ardern points out as Mr. Littlechild did, the crucial urgency in addressing climate change and embracing indigeanous values like kaitiakitanga – a Māori concept of guardianship.
“For those of us who live in the South Pacific, rising sea levels presents the single biggest threat to security in our region the impacts of climate change are not academic or even arguable – they are watching the sea levels rise, the extreme weather events increase and the impact on their water supply and food crops.”
She said in New Zealand, “We will not issue any further offshore oil and gas exploration permits and have rolled out an initiative to plant a billion trees over the next 10 years”. She acknowledged these plans among others are ambitious – but the threat climate change poses demands it.
“We have a duty of care – for us that has meant action to address degradation like setting standards to make our rivers swimmable.. The race to grow our economies and increased wealth makes us all the poorer if it comes at the cost of our environment. In New Zealand we’re determined to prove it doesn’t have to be this way.”
In 2017 Mr. Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, Cree Chief, Canada spoke at the UN Press Conference – commemorating a decade since the Declaration was adopted by the UN:
“An elder asked the delegation of around 181 States ‘Which one of you is going to argue for my brother the fish? Who among you is going to argue for my brother the bird that flies or the four-leggeds that die so we can live? Who among you is going to argue for clean air and clean water?’
“That day marks the start of consciousness at the UN about environmental protection – the very thing that we’re faced with today with climate change discussions – that started with indigenous elders raising the issue.”
New Zealand has also been at the forefront of progression for indigenous rights historically. Chief Littlechild continued “If you remember in 1923 and 1925 when two indigenous leaders tried to get a voice at the United Nations – Chief Deskaheh in 1923 and then Ratana – a spiritual leader from the Māori – they couldn’t get into the League Of Nations as it was then known. From that time 1923 – 1977 there was no voice for indigenous people – no voice to be heard internationally.
“For me now it’s been 40 years since I’ve been on this journey. I also remember the day when we were actually – for the first time – we were recognized as human beings it was eight years of debate on whether or not indigenous peoples are human beings.”
He also points out the important contribution indigeanous peoples have offered the world; to operate holistically, acknowledging the importance of spirituality:
“A couple of very significant contributions indigenous peoples made during this history of debate at the UN – the longest debated declaration in UN history. Twenty seven years it took – so I remember for example being asked [by his elders] to go to the chairperson to ask if we could open the meeting with a prayer and to be told Mr. Littlechild ‘You know we don’t pray at the United Nations’ and I said well it’s not really a prayer it’s an invocation – we offer thanksgiving to creator for blessing us with a beautiful day like today”. Eventually she said yes. “To make a long story short the outcome of that was the the recognition of spiritual right’s. That there’s such a thing not only of economic, social and cultural rights or civil and political rights but also spiritual rights, it was our elders that offered that to humankind.”
Watch 1 hour press conference: