Supporting Scholarship with the Arts: English Graduate Students Attend World Premiere of all-Native Musical, Distant Thunder, at First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma by Jordan Traut

Supporting Scholarship with the Arts: English Graduate Students Attend World Premiere of all-Native Musical, Distant Thunder, at First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma   

By Jordan Traut  

Over two years ago, just prior to the pandemic and global shutdown, I read an article from a small newspaper based in Oklahoma about an all-Native musical set to perform at the historic Lyric Theatre in Oklahoma City. This was the summer before my first semester as a graduate student and I was working with faculty to develop a shadow program in Native American Literary Studies. I had some experience applying for grants in undergrad, but never anything as involved as planning a trip across the country with a group of multidisciplinary English students, however, I thought to go for it because the influence of contemporary “fight back, creative” cultural pieces (to borrow from Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o’s terminology for Indigenous performing arts), like Distant Thunder, might open me up to being a more informed, better scholar-activist in my field of studies.  

Never did I anticipate, through all the setbacks and the years in between when I first read that article in 2020, how deeply profound the experience of attending this premiere on location would be in a semi-post-pandemic world of 2022. It has informed nearly every aspect of my graduate experience at every level of my studies and has opened professional and academic doors I never considered. I am grateful to the Ware Center’s Wickersham-Burrowes Fund for Excellence in the Arts as well as the Noonan Endowment for funding this creative project at over $4,500.00.

Also important, I was able to share the experience with two highly intelligent English graduate students – my friends – whose own fields of study were touched by the trip. Distant Thunder illuminates how critical learning experiences outside of the traditional classroom setting are for Arts Humanities and Social Sciences students. Our scholarship needs to be informed by the modern discourses and given purpose through advocacy in our personal work.  

As a result of the pandemic, Distant Thunder was unable to perform at their original venue, and instead, kicked off at the First Americans Museum during its first calendar year of full operation, making the show a once-in-a-lifetime cultural and artistic event. The kind that sparks historical movements and will be included in the textbooks of next generations. The Native American Cultural and Educational Authority (NACEA), which was established to create the museum in 1994 and eventually included participation from all thirty-nine tribal communities in the state, needed thirteen years to heal the land before construction commenced. According to a placard at the museum, the land, at one time, contained fifty-seven oil wells and was polluted with the remnants of the petroleum industry (“Site Remediation” n.p.). Distant Thunder performed there, in the outdoor festival space March 23rd-27th, 2022. 

Hayley Billet, Jadon Barnett, and I were there, representing Millersville University and the English and World Languages Department. Being a part of this historic experience – as an audience member in the sacred performance space, hearing the words and the songs as the first cast spoke them intentionally, eating the traditional Native American foods at the pre-show dinner, meeting the cast at the post-show talkback, and knowing the significance of the “now” for Indigenous grassroot activism and scholarship – I am not sure if I have yet fully grasped the profoundness of having participated in the moment.  

Jadon Barnett, a first-semester graduate student interested in game-based learning and Spanish linguistics, described to me how, beyond the play itself, the performance location was “one of the most enriching museums I have ever visited. I learned so much about the cruel history of our country, things that I was never taught in school.” The all-encompassing experience, he says, inspired him to “apply for more grants to further my education outside the classroom.”  

The show was written by Lynne Taylor-Corbett and her son, Shaun Taylor-Corbett, who also starred in the production as the protagonist, Darrell Waters. Darrell, whose father is Blackfeet American Indian and mother European American, returns to his reservation as an adult. Inwardly struggling with the traumas of his childhood, he re-identifies with his Native roots and distant father. He ultimately answers the call to help preserve the Blackfeet language and history in Browning, Montana, illuminating a way forward for the youngest generation of Indigenous youth on the reservation who are also searching for their identities.  

The Performing Arts encourages all forms of human expression in dimensions far beyond what words on a page or actors on a movie screen can evoke. This is only in part due to the performer’s words and body working together to create a specific energy; The power of the physical space of the production, the engagement of the present audience, and the performance’s orientation in the contemporary cultural and historical discourse of its period accomplishes something undeniably special for humanity.  

“Travelling to the First Americans Museum and seeing Distant Thunder really showed me how important experiential learning is,” Hayley Billet echoes mine and Jadon’s thoughts on the impact of non-traditional and creative educational environments. As a graduating student with plenty of insight in feminism and women in gothic literature, she expressed how “being at the museum and hearing the experiences and hardships of Indigenous Americans first-hand struck me more than it ever has in the classroom.” 

I believe Distant Thunder will be recognized as one of the great American theater productions, continuing to be performed long after its debut at First Americans Museum. Speaking with Shaun Taylor-Corbett after the performance on Friday night, the show became somehow more moving. We learned its title – Distant Thunder – is in fact his name, I’pyooktsitsikoom, in the Blackfeet language. The essence of restoring and celebrating Native languages in the United States to empower authentic Indigenous identity construction is incredibly involved at every level of the show. Distant Thunder’s form and message will change the world, illuminating a decolonial way forward for our nation to honor its First People and their ever-evolving contributions to American culture through both traditional and artistic methods rooted in the sacred oral practice of the land.   

For this reason, I have worked closely with the Ware Center and am extremely pleased to share with English and World Languages that the university has agreed to fund Distant Thunder’s travel and production in Pennsylvania. Of course, securing the show is work-in-progress. However, I have a sense of accomplishment graduating in May with the knowledge my university is committed more and more to supporting the incorporation of Native American literature and art on campus, including with the AHSS Dean’s Office agreeing to permanently display the final red dress exhibit from my Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Girls Trans and 2 Spirit (MMIWGT2S) project in McComsey Hall indefinitely. I hope both the installation and the potential of Distant Thunder’s presence on campus may inspire and inform other students as it has inspired and informed me.   

Citations & Additional Information:

“Site Remediation.” Community Gallery. First Americans Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 2021. Visited and photographed by Jordan Traut 25 March 2022. 

Wa Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ. Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. “The Language of African Literature.” James Currey Ltd, London, 1986. 

Learn more about AAUW & Jordan Traut’s MMIWGT2S project on the ENWL website: 

**Excerpts from this post will appear in the Ware Center’s Annual Report with permission by the author and Director of Office of Visual and Performing Arts**