John Hay Library Acquires Archive of Spiderwoman Theater

Archive of legendary Indigenous theater furthers distinction and depth of Brown’s holdings in multiple interdisciplinary areas of study

First East Coast Pow Wow in New Haven in 1945, Spiderwoman Theater Archive

Providence, R.I. [Brown University] In 1976, when Muriel Miguel, her two sisters, and a diverse group of women founded Spiderwoman Theater in Brooklyn, NY, their aim was to interrogate and challenge anti-feminist narratives of the 1970s through high-caliber theatrical content written and performed by Native American women. A director, actor, playwright, choreographer, and educator, and member of the Kuna and Rappahannock Nations, Muriel — the Library’s connection to this incredible trove of materiel — is the Artistic Director for Spiderwoman Theater, and director for each of the 20 plus Spiderwoman productions. She and the Spiderwoman company draw on Indigenous storytelling traditions to create works that integrate art, dance, and music with humor and pop culture, simultaneously entertaining and educating. 

The archive is an indelible record of Spiderwoman’s history and the lives of Native American women onstage and off, and it brings extraordinary depth to the John Hay Library’s collections on Performance & Entertainment,  Global Lavender Voices, and more. Avery Willis Hoffman, Artistic Director, Brown Arts Institute, describes the impact Spiderwoman Theater and Muriel particularly have had on the practice of performance and the scholarly potential of her archive at Brown: “Muriel Miguel’s lifetime of contributions to the field of theater and Spiderwoman Theater’s mighty expansions on the realm of theatrical creativity is immeasurable; I have no doubt that the Archive will provide inspiration and a wealth of fruitful discoveries for future generations of students, faculty, visiting researchers and artists.” 

Recognized by Indigenous women in New York and beyond in the 1980s as a powerful representative of their voices and concerns, Spiderwoman Theater has since been globally renowned as an artistic force in the advancement of Indigenous women, artists, and cultural artisans. Its productions exist at the intersection of Indigenous life, sexism, classism, and violence in the lives of women — and at the vanguard of contemporary Western theatre. According to D. Rae Gould, Executive Director of Native American and Indigenous Studies, Adjunct Professor for American Studies, Affiliated Faculty in Anthropology, and Faculty Associate in the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice:

This collection will help to support and strengthen the new concentration in Critical Native American and Indigenous Studies that will launch in Fall 2022. We are grateful to have Spiderwoman Theater’s work at the University for future generations of students, faculty and other scholars. It will serve as a foundational collection for further development of the Creative Expressions area of the concentration, in particular, and expand our knowledge and understandings of her contributions to the field of Indigenous Theater.

Muriel Miguel, Co-founder, Spiderwoman Theater; credit: Shawn McPherson

In September 2019, Muriel presented Muriel Miguel: A Retrospective for the Brown University Library’s 15th Annual Don Wilmeth Endowed Lectureship in American Theatre, during which she shared the fascinating journey from her roots in Brooklyn to her landmark contributions to the contemporary feminist and Indigenous theatre movements in the United States, Canada, and around the world. Amanda Strauss, Associate University Librarian for Special Collections, reflects: 

Hearing Muriel speak in such an intimate setting and spending time with her since the lecture, learning about her life and her collection, are experiences that I will always treasure. I’m proud of the enduring relationship that the Hay has built with Muriel and, through her, Spiderwoman Theater, and am thrilled that we can be a gateway for the researchers, students, performing artists, and community members who will immerse themselves in this collection and draw from it inspiration and knowledge that will generate new scholarship and art.

The Library was honored to host Muriel, and is proud to preserve and provide broad research access to this unique collection. Once at the Hay Library, the materials will have an immediate and lasting impact on many areas of study at Brown, including Native American and Indigenous Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Theatre Arts and Performance Studies and the Brown Arts Institute, where Muriel’s daughter Murielle Borst-Tarrant (Kuna, Rappahannock), Artistic Director and Founder of the Safe Harbor Indigenous Collective, is currently a visiting Professor of the Practice. Sarah dAngelo, Assistant Professor for Theatre Arts and Performance Studies, knows Murielle well and states, “Murielle is a third generation New Yorker, and carries her family’s legacy as an Indigenous theatre artist, activist, and cultural change maker. The Brown community is incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity to engage with her as one of the most vital and accomplished storytellers working in the American Theatre today.” Access to the Spiderwoman Theater archive and Murielle’s knowledge and experience will offer Brown students and faculty deep and authentic knowledge of Indigenous theatre specifically and the art of theatre writ large.

Muriel and her wife Deborah Ratelle are currently preparing the large archive for retrieval from their home in Brooklyn, NY. The Library anticipates that it will be at Brown and available for study in late spring 2023.