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A Walk in the [New England] Woods

a tiny choreographies dance film and statement
melinda buckwalter

Using the postcard imagery of iconic New England, A Walk in the [New England] Woods re-signifies its quaint white churches, farmhouses, sugar shacks, and wooded hills through elision and awkward silence, reminding watchers of a violent colonial past and re-inserting a Native American presence in its place(s). In taking this tactic, the dance film follows after Leanne Betasomasake Simpson who, in As We Have Always Done, calls for a radical resurgent presence of indigenous nationhood (10). According to Betasomasake Simpson, invoking indigenous presence is “physically disrupting settler colonial commodification and ownership of the land through the implicit assumption that they are supposed to be there” (152). The white narrator of the film plays the role of colonial “unsettler” by welcoming the viewer to the territory of the Mahican (formerly New England). Betasomasake Simpson makes it clear that Native peoples don’t need white allies (245). However, in light of global climate change, the stakes are high. I see no choice for myself but to be an uninvited white ally.

 

In Land as Pedagogy, Betasomasake Simpson speaks of learning from and with the land. She tells us not to strive for land-based pedagogies; “The land must once again become the pedagogy” (160, original emphasis). To this end, the colonial unsettler engages in a dance with sky, color, and tree. Perhaps the land will accept an ally as pupil; the dances could be considered a supplication / application / apprenticeship. Indeed, the lessons from the land are numerous: it is everywhere uneven; it doesn’t follow cardinal directions; snow piles are dangerous; it has perfect timing; it is a patient teacher; vision comes slowly. The film echoes Mel Y. Chen’s idea of a “slippage” of animacy hierarchy (24). Is the bear-like creature lumbering up and down the hill a human animal or an ani human? Is that a cyborg tree that sprouts an arm? Post-modern dance improvisation scores blur body with environment through figure/space inversions, fragmentation of body, and stop action.

 
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Finally the colonial unsettler engages in enactment, calling out “This is the land of the Mahican” (specifically, the Stockbridge Mahican Band who were removed to Wisconsin) as the sun sets. Betasomasake Simpson says, “Kinetics, the act of doing, isn’t just praxis; it also generates and animates theory within indigenous contexts, and it is the crucial intellectual mode for generating knowledge” (20). What knowledge is invoked here remains to unfold—discursive danced analysis disciplined by the wood?


The selfie film, shot on a mobile device, is tiny by virtue of fitting into a pocket and requiring a production crew of one-in-the-woods. Its haptic camera techniques are multisensory in their inclusion of the visio-kinesthetic modes, implying an ecology of senses. The film’s transgressions are tiny for sure, but iterative reconfigurings matter, according to Karen Barad (142). Uploaded digits allow for broadcast circulation, and in this way, we remind each other whose woods these are.

 

Whose woods these are we think we know.

Her house is in Wisconsin though;

She will not see me stopping here

To watch her woods fill up with snow.


Our little horse is queer

And there are no farmhouses near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.


They give their harness bells a shake

To see if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.


The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But we have broken promises to keep,

And miles to go before we sleep,

And miles to go before we sleep.


–Adapted from Robert Frost without permission

 

Watch the Film

 

References Cited

Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Chapel Hill: Duke University Press.

Betasamosake Simpson, Leanne. 2017. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Chen, Mel Y. 2012. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Frost, Robert. 1923. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The Poetry Foundation. Last modified 2018. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42891/stopping-by-woods-on-a-snowy-evening.