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  • Video
  • 5 mins
  • Level 1: Introductory

Indigenous rituals

Updated Monday 5th February 2018

Professor Graham Harvey considers how rituals have been explored in television and film, and how they relate to theatrical performances. He explores how rituals can enable indigenous groups to engage with global audiences and aid understanding between peoples.


How do we define rituals?

Rituals are everywhere but some of them are less familiar than others. Sometimes we encounter them as intrigued outsiders or as baffled passers-by. This has encouraged some people to think of ritual as a separate kind of activity from theatre and other performances. Some interpreters have insisted that rituals only involve committed participants while theatre audiences passively observe. Some have insisted that rituals change people while theatre only entertains. These and related contrasts miss some important points. In particular, they mistake the attractive and captivating nature of religious rituals while failing to appreciate that entertainment involves commitments of time and energy that shape lives.

In my research, I often focus on activities that everyone would agree are rituals. For example, I have spent time with groups who celebrate the winter and summer solstices by wearing distinctive regalia, chanting invocations and sharing special foods and drinks as the sun rises or sets. However, I also research among people who employ traditional customs in creative performances on festival stages or in theatres. They too might wear distinctive clothes and employ special sounds and movements. For both ritualists and performers, there is pleasure and transformation, entertainment and education in their activities. Their clothes, food and actions may identify the membership of particular cultures and invite others to share their commitments to particular practices and/or values.

Exploration of "rituals" in film and television

The BBC “Rituals” series showed us people doing dramatic things in many places. Some of these involved displays that attracted large audiences. Even the more initiatory and more specifically “religious” rituals gained an audience: first the camera crew and then us. Did that convert such events from rituals into entertainments? There will be many different opinions on this. It’s a question that’s central to the following series of short films related to the Border Crossings’ ORIGINS Festival of First Nations, held in London every two years. The festival brings Indigenous performers, artists, scholars, film directors, activists and others together to display, discuss and share their cultures and knowledge with each other and with UK-based audiences.

The first film, “The ORIGINS Festival Opening Night”, is a great place to begin. The festival organisers make sure that the three or more weeks of events begin ceremonially. Each year, an indigenous community who live in London offer a welcome to other participants. In 2017, the opening night involved an Ava ceremony led by the Samoan GAFA Arts Collective. In this film, Sani Muliaumaseali’i (GAFA’s director), Michael Walling (Artistic Director of Border Crossings), Andrew Thomas (a Diné musician and teacher), and Heath Bergersen (an Aboriginal Australian didgeridoo player) talk about ritual and related topics. The film also presents excerpts from the second half of the evening, following shared food, in which we witness some highlights from the rest of the festival programme. The film encourages further consideration of the relationship between rituals and other performance activities.

Rituals and relations

2017 marked the 400th anniversary of the visit of Pocahontas to England. During Border Crossings’ ORIGINS Festival, several events commemorated her life as well as acknowledging her death and burial in Gravesend in 1617. Our second film is about a ceremony conducted by three women from different Indigenous nations: Sierra Tasi Baker (Kwakwaka’wakw), Stephanie Pratt (Dakota) and Gabe Hughes (Wampanoag).

At a place where Pocahontas stayed, Syon House, they created a ceremony following private conversations about the protocols and traditions of their peoples. Out of respect for those protocols and traditions, the ceremony itself was not filmed. However, photographs from the day provide a backdrop to interviews with Sierra Tasi Baker and Michael Walling (Border Crossings’ Artistic Director). These expand our understanding of the value of rituals for changing people, conditions and the world. They emphasise that remembering Pocahontas is not an end in itself but a step in a process of healing and reconciliation which could change relations between colonial and indigenous communities.

In addition to informing us about the ceremony, the two interviewees offer important perspectives for understanding other rituals, histories, cultures and our relations with ancestors. Sierra Tasi Baker talks about the creative processes used in improvising a ceremony respectful of inherited customary practices. Michael Walling notes that English theatre originated in rituals – such as “Quem Quaeritis” mystery plays and courtly masques – which enabled each generation to understand themselves in relation to the honoured dead.

Our third “ORIGINS Festival” film is about a ritual Scissor Dance, an aspect of Quechua culture from the Peruvian Andes. We witness José Navarro’s performances in London and in the Andes, and hear him and Michael Walling talk about the significance of the dance. Once again we are presented with a challenge to distinctions between ritual and other kinds of performance. We are also told that a profound act of thanksgiving to Mother Earth (Pachamama) for her gift of everything needed for life and livelihood also involves courage, courtship and comedy.

Credit to Hing Tsang and Victor Amadeo Zarabia Almanza

For the OU film of the 2015 ORIGINS Festival, see here. 


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