The cultural sector is actively seeking alternatives to business-as-usual. This article is the third in the series, “Remember the Future: Culture and Systems Change,” co-produced by and NPQ. In this series, queer, trans, and BIPOC artists and cultural bearers reflect upon the unique role that culture has played and can play in activating and enacting structural change—and in building a solidarity economy.

This article offers a conversation between two friends, neighbors, and peers, Andre Strongbearheart Gaines, Jr. (Nipmuc) and Carlos Uriona, who collaborate with Double Edge Theater, a cultural cooperative and ensemble collective based in Western Massachusetts in the small town (population 1,695) of Ashfield, that “assumes responsibility for art making, visioning, and survival needs of the theatre,” and Ohketeau Cultural Center, an autonomous place for Indigenous culture that centers Nipmuc teachings.

Originally founded by a small ensemble of women, Double Edge Theater is now a permanent, cooperatively run company that engages in theater production and design, food systems, farming, administration, carpentry, music, dramaturgy, performing arts, and other interdisciplinary cultural endeavors.

The theater recognized, seven years ago, that they were on the unceded land of multiple tribal nations, and it made a commitment, through their relationships with the tribes, to giving land back. This led to the recent opening of the Ohketeau Indigenous Cultural Center, which is adjacent to the theater. The collaboration between the Ohketeau Council and Double Edge Theatre represents a practice of acknowledgement, repair, and reparations.

This conversation, edited for clarity and length, shows that the path to land back and decolonization is not a metaphor—it is rooted in everyday acts of power redistribution, knowledge reclamation, and solidarity with Indigenous peoples.

Carlos Uriona (CU): When did you realize that you didn’t want to live in this system where we live or how we live? How would you describe it, and then, what would you do now?

Andre Strongbearheart (AS): I don’t think that there is an actual time when that happened inside of me. But it took me a long time. I spent 17 years in the construction field, in the dog-eat-dog world, climbing up these particular ladders that are meaningless and create gentrification. There’s a lot that was going on inside of me. You know, what society tells me, “Oh, you’re moving up the ladder, you’re in a good class, you’re making x amount of dollars!” It’s the story of the frog, you know…

CU: Stay in the pot until the heat kills you.

There are a lot of things that happened, and for me, it was the ceremonies that woke me up.

AS: Yeah. Some years ago, I grew up around power. I grew up around my people, but I didn’t want to take part in it. I lived a crazy life when I was young. Then, when I got sober and in recovery, things started to get clear inside of me. And I think that’s part of it. What happened is that’s part of the system of drugs and alcoholism, like, it puts this cloud in our people’s minds.

I was trying to work full time, do side work on the side, and do all my traditional work somehow in between. I was probably just as busy as I am now, but somehow, also living society’s lifestyle, too. There are a lot of things that happened, and for me, it was the ceremonies that woke me up, being able to just break away and go to these ceremonies. These ceremonies started to unveil these things within me that were already lying dormant.

CU: What ceremonies are you talking about?

AS: Yeah, some of the ceremonies, I mean, are ceremonies that were illegal until 1978:  Ceremony of the Sundance, Ceremony of the Sweat Lodge, Water Ceremonies, Harpoon Ceremonies, these Pipe Ceremonies….All these ceremonies will start waking you up more and more. And I got to a point where things became really clear, and I didn’t know why I was walking and doing the things that I was doing. So, I started to gravitate more towards the things that fed my spirit, rather than the flesh and the monetary things that were created around me.

CU: How did COVID-19 affect you and your community?

AS: A lot of people were upset about COVID-19 and what happened here, but our people never had this fear of crossing over. We know that this journey is so short in our flesh, and that fear was a tactic for colonialists. Fear was a way for them to create a particular lifestyle for us. And so, we never feared taking that journey of crossing over. It was sad when our folks weren’t flesh anymore. But we had a whole understanding, a complete understanding about what happened to our people after we’re here in flesh.

And so, yeah, COVID-19 itself was really the icebreaker for me. When COVID came, I was in the midst of a divorce anyway. I had built up a four-bedroom house and Jacuzzi house and boats, and this, that, the other things, all the things that society says that make you the norm or the healthy person here. And then, I got to a point where none of that mattered.

Like I said, those ceremonies wake you up, and you realize all you have is your flesh and your hair in this world. That’s all you have. You actually possess nothing but that. Everybody thinks you possess these other things. These are just temporary things that come and go just like our bodies.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was what, what was true. I walked away from the job, walked away from the house, walked away from all these things that were trying to make me comfortable, and confronted all my truths.

So, when COVID came, and my job site shut down, I said, “All right, enough is enough. I haven’t been back to the [construction] union since then. This year will be three snows.” Basically, I went to our reservation and found an old ratty camper and gutted it out, put a woodstove in it, started splitting wood and hauling water. And it was back to basics for me, in the midst of the pain and confusion. The only thing that was healthy was the time of solace and hibernation.

It was right around November when I did that. And I was able to step into the winter. And for our people, that’s a time of storytelling. That’s a time of hibernation. And so, I was grateful that that happened at that time because I was able to step into that from there, and then wake up in the spring with a whole new outlook.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was what, what was true. I walked away from the job, walked away from the house, walked away from all these things that were trying to make me comfortable, and confronted all my truths.

From there, I’ve never really looked back. I look back in the sense of acknowledgment, but I never looked back in the sense of, I need this job, or I need this benefit, or I need this health insurance. No, I don’t need that. What I need is…traditional food to eat. I need to be able to hunt. I need to be able to be in the forest and acknowledge all these medicinal plants. These are the things we actually need here. And every year and every day, it gets clearer and clearer.

CU: So, what did you start doing then? When you stopped working, you go to the camper in the reservation. You create a new place. Because you started to create things.

AS: So, what happened was, the Creator is funny in the way things all worked out and the time that the Creator allows you to free yourself from the bondage. My cousin had developed a relationship with Double Edge Theater. And they had been talking about remodeling some space. He asked me if I wanted to do some construction for the tribe or for the people in general, Indigenous folks. And that gave me a new mindset, like, “Oh, maybe I can use my skills just for my people, that will be okay.”

And so yes, we began to build a cultural center, a little social spot, and named it Ohketeau, which means to plant a seed to grow. And what happened was, my brain started to grow; that seed that got planted, I was able to have the freedom of building. Things have just started to work in place. When you walk in a good way, things just work out. And it’s hard. It’s not easy. It is because I walked away with all the same bills that society says that you’re supposed to pay.

CU: And you pay them?

AS: Yeah, and I have for three snows now. And it’s hard to explain the way it worked.

CU: Let’s name a couple of things that happened (more than a couple). So, you have been using your skills to create the building for Ohketeau, which is now a center. And many people use that. It’s a resource for the community. So, you have then started using your skills and you have the knowledge, ancestral knowledge, hunting, tanning. You developed a lot of things that you have been doing, from burning the mishoon to leading workshops.

AS: Yeah, I can speak a little bit on that. So, with this newly developed relationship and space, I was asked about what it needed to grow. And there were answers to that. It was like, “Oh, I need to shop to make my wampum jewelry and other things that I work on. I need to be able to tan hides and teach this traditional knowledge that I have.”

CU: And you’re teaching that.

AS: Yeah. And I’m teaching that. And so, workshops have been put in place. And I’ve started to organize myself with the help of others at Ohketeau and Double Edge. It’s hard to explain. Some workshops generate revenue. I hate to even talk about this because money in general is ridiculous. But we live in two worlds here. And so, there are workshops I do. I’m a paddle maker, a jewelry maker. I sell the skins that I make as well. Peto cans, drums, from water drums to hand drums. Various types of traditional tools and weaponry. Things like that, that a lot of our people that dance traditionally need to buy.

I also teach how to butcher and hunt. And recently, I’ve started doing cultural inventories in our traditional homeland.

CU: That’s amazing.

AS: That was a huge one. Coming into some of the agreements with these land trusts. But it’s doing the walk for us, in showing up when people aren’t going to take care of you right away. A lot of people are like, “Oh, I want this to show up.” It’s like, no, you need to go walk the land and create relationships and see where it goes. And people have a problem with that, but I do not. I will show up anywhere.

CU: You are in a lot of relationships.

AS: Yeah, a whole lot—from the Hilltown Land Trust to Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust. And these particular places really understand what it means to work with Indigenous folks. It’s been really an interesting journey.

CU: You’re operating like a connector also, with different communities, not just your initial community.

Why is it that our kids have to go to these public schools that teach them about Christopher Columbus and Christmas, rather than [the] ways that we moved just a few hundred years before the history books that they started printing?

AS: Oh, absolutely. I move through Shinnecock [in upstate New York]. I spent time in Narragansett [in Rhode Island]. I mean, we’re interrelated as well, in a lot of ways if you go back in time. I’ll be in Akwesasne next weekend, raising money for their emerging school, the Freedom School, on their reservation and sitting with them, talking to them, talking about how we can implement some things back into our communities.

CU: And you were telling me last night about dreams, like creating this school to learn the language and to learn about the culture.

AS: A lot of our folks have thought about these things, but nobody has executed it. But why is it that our kids have to go to these public schools that teach them about Christopher Columbus and Christmas, rather than [the] ways that we moved just a few hundred years before the history books that they started printing? These things are important to us, and they should not be looked at as barbaric or pagan or whatever society calls them.

When they came here, they said, “Oh, they have rituals,” and they just created a whole lot of discourse about how our people were diabolic. They had a way of making us look like we were some sort of animals. Soon, I’ll be bringing a bunch of Nipmuc youth over to the museum, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, so they learn about our peoples.

And so, it’s about rekindling the fire inside of our people because, unfortunately, a lot of our folks are in cities. So, a lot of our folks also haven’t seen wetus. They’ve never been in a mishoon. They’ve never eaten a fiddlehead. They’ve never actually seen maple syrup, sap turned into syrup. Or tasted it fresh. In the cities, you ask them to go get syrup, they’re going to bring it back from Aunt Jemima fructose syrup, that’s not even real. But they don’t know. It’s not their fault. It’s what society and assimilation did.