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Visiting Native American scholar dances through the hoops of life

Ty Defoe sees Denison professorship work going beyond CMU

Contact: Dan Digmann


​Don't tell Ty Defoe that the close of the semester ends his service as the Denison Visiting Scholar of Native American Studies at Central Michigan University.

To the Grammy-winning interdisciplinary artist, his Denison-related work will continue.

Defoe expresses himself through flute playing and hoop dancing and often uses the circle to demonstrate how people are connected to each other and to events throughout their lives. He stresses the power of listening with the art of storytelling as well as indigenous protocols and shared leadership with personal values and how this relates to community.

"Like the circle, it doesn't end. I feel like this is just in the circle, and that circle is always beginning and never ending — it's a continuum," Defoe said. "I feel like my calling when I leave here is to let people know about this incredible opportunity that can be a model for other people.

"It's also a calling that I get to interface with other tribal nations about the incredible work that's being done at the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways as well as by some of the teachers and students here who are doing such amazing work around equity and inclusion," he said.

The Denison visiting professorship was established in 2007 to enhance the CMU Native American Studies Program, which was designed to increase understanding of the historical experiences, cultural traditions, and innovations and political status of Indian peoples in the United States and Canada.

Defoe is a member of the Ojibway and Oneida tribal nations, and he aspires to use artistic practice to challenge the formulas of privilege and improve racial and cultural diversity. Defoe won a Grammy in 2011 for the album "Come to Me Great Mystery: Native American Healing Songs."

"I didn't set out and say I was going to do this artistic path," Defoe said. "I think of myself as a student for life in that I'm constantly learning and trying to expand myself vertically and horizontally. I truly feel that the arts allow for someone like myself to do things like that."

 

Defoe gives back to help others thrive

Defoe said he was "over the moon" when he was asked to serve as the Denison visiting professor. In this role, he led classes related to race, religion, myth and folklore; facilitated workshops; and hosted presentations to increase people’s understanding and appreciation for Native American culture and experiences.

Defoe spent time connecting with the people and resources at the Ziibiwing Center on the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Reservation. Such work helped him delve deeper into Anishinabe and indigenous culture, he said.

In addition to working with students on campus, Defoe visited classes at area public schools. This included hosting presentations for the Niijkewehn Mentoring Program, a partnership between CMU and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe designed to increase the number of Native Americans graduating from high school and going on to college and earning a degree. He said that when he looked around the circle of students in the Niijkewehn program, he also saw his family and himself.

2017-122-20 Ty Defoe Denison Scholar CHSBS sj.JPG"I think about the people who gave me the opportunity to really thrive in the world and there is nothing like reciprocity of giving back," he said. "There's a certain kind of humbleness with that, a certain kind of great design that you are contributing to."

One highlight of Defoe's presentations was his hoop dance, which he said he uses to channel his energy and express himself. He also sees it as a kind of prayer and a kind of communication without words that connects imagination, arts and culture.

"This hoop dance has been with me throughout my life in terms of identity, and if I have one thing I know I can count on, it's this dance," he said.

From 2013 to 2015, Defoe completed a two-year fellowship with the Theatre Communications Group's Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Institute, focusing on efforts to establish a baseline and develop action-oriented programming in racial and cultural diversity. He received a Master of Fine Arts in graduate musical theatre writing from New York University in 2013, a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Goddard College in 2012 and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the California Institute of the Arts in 2010.


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