Morgan Ridgway is a historian, poet, and dancer. Their work focuses on urbanity and Indigeneity in the Mid-Atlantic United States. They are writing a book about gathering.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
FM: You’ve been teaching a History and Literature seminar, History and Literature 90FL: “Indigenous in the City.” How did you decide to create and develop that course?
MR: So I’m from Philly, my mom’s side is Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape, and we’re an unremoved community, so we’ve been in our homelands forever, so that’s New Jersey, northern Delaware, eastern Pennsylvania, New York City, and upwards into New York state. It’s pretty large, but for me, I’ve always understood Lenape experiences and Native experiences as being really urban.
I think there is the prevailing notion that Indigenous people and urban spaces are incompatible, which has a lot to do with the way that Americans are taught history and are taught, if they are taught at all, about Indigenous experiences.
FM: You’ve written about settler multiculturalism within Philadelphia. Do you feel like that understanding or those frameworks shift within the context of Boston or Cambridge or Harvard, now that you're here?
MR: Part of the way that money comes into the city is by thinking a lot about diversity. Philly being the “City of Neighborhoods,” it’s actually very important, and has been for a very long time, to showcase the kind of cultural melting pot that Philadelphia is.
But Pennsylvania has no recognized tribes. Lenape people are not recognized. Philadelphia is not recognized by the state or by the federal government as being Lenape territory. And so my question is always: How do these conversations around multiculturalism and where we come from and history and the past and this melting of cultures, does that rely on Lenape people continuing not being recognized? And if that’s the case, how do we actually engage in a political conversation?
Boston has a similar but also different relationship. I think part of it is that Philly and Boston are both really performative cities. There’s a lot of investment in aesthetics, and particularly aesthetics of the past, of things that seem particularly old, and wanting to preserve that in particular ways. But also, Boston is Indigenous territory in particular ways that they may or may not have jurisdiction over.
FM: I had the chance to look over the syllabus of the seminar a little bit, and I was curious about both the digital mapping project that happens throughout the course, as well as the final project.
It felt like they were maybe challenging what is typically expected of an academic assignment.
MR: When you think about a map of Indigenous America, if you can even have one, the ones that you’re given, mostly the East Coast is going to be vacant. People are going to be allocated to places in Oklahoma, places in the Southwest, and dots in places in the Plains. That’s the kind of image that you’re going to get from an American textbook, right? And the goal for the class was to say, ‘What if we actually made a different map? What would that look like?’ Because we’re surrounded by images of Native people all the time, even if we don't know.
The map that we did together as a class was really exciting because we had pins all over the country. We had places that people didn’t think there would have been reference to because they think, ‘Oh, there’s not a reservation there, so there’s not a Native person there.’ And that’s actually not at all the case.
It’s helpful to actually be able to visually confront that. We can talk about this all day, but to actually see a map and see how drastically different it is from the things that you’re given in these other textbooks is really powerful.
FM: In addition to being a historian and academic, you are also a poet. And first I just want to ask, do you have a favorite poem?
MR: I have recently gone back to Billy-Ray Belcourt’s “This Wound is a World.” I’ve been going back to that collection because I’m co-teaching a class in which we’re reading his memoir, “A History of My Brief Body.” I’ve been thinking about his poetic life and thinking about genre-bending — I write poetry as part of my scholarly historical work, and I blend those genres.
FM: How do you see your interests and knowledge as a historian informing the rest of your poetic work?
MR: In my poetic life, I’m obsessed with the past and how that is constantly informing what I think is possible for me in the future. And I think a lot about loss and grief as these things that are never actually past.
I think what happens in my poetic life informs how I understand the archive, and the archives that I use, because I think less about events happening sequentially, and more about these moments of aspiration: People that are already informed by things that they’ve experienced — that are not in the archive — and are shaping what they hope to exist.
So all I have is this moment in time in which something might be possible. And part of the work that I try to do, historically, is to say, ‘Okay, how do we read this thing? How do we read this debris that was left behind, of something that did and also did not happen, right? And how did that shape people’s lives? I think in my poetry that’s much easier for me to access.
FM: I see your poetry and maybe also your historical work as challenging the notions of linear time and causation that we generally try to attribute to understanding history.
MR: I tell my students this too. Linear time isn’t real. It’s not, and even though you are taught that it exists, that is an imposition, and you don’t actually experience your life that way.
Certainly from a Native perspective, and I would also say from a Black perspective, that’s not how time works. Like, that just is not true. And I think it’s important for us to figure out the language that we need to describe that reality. Poetry is a really, really beautiful space to do that, because it already is given that linearity is not the precedent.
FM: In addition to being a historian and a poet, you are also a dancer. I’m wondering if you could talk about that. What kind of dance do you do, and how long have you been doing it for?
MR: I’ve been dancing for over 10 years now. My strongest training, or most intensive training, is in something called Umfundalai, which is a contemporary African technique that was started by the late Dr. Kariamu Welsh, who was also at Temple University in Philly at the time.
It’s this fusion, like Western African, sort of Southern African particularly, and modern dance techniques. I started that in college, hit the ground running and never looked back.
FM: Have you danced professionally?
MR: I have performed in companies and I’ve performed in festivals.
I did a performance art piece as part of my dissertation research and as part of my defense. The book project is talking about performance as a site where we can do a lot of this political imagining. I also do a performance art piece as part of that work. And so, dance as itself a genre of history writing is something I’m still thinking about.
FM: Have you not picked it up as much post-Covid?
MR: Covid was stressful and continues to be. I had done this performance art piece — it was a site-specific piece, when I was in residence as a fellow at the American Philosophical Society in Philly.
It was sort of a combination of dance poetry and mixed media art creation that was thinking about rest and exhaustion and stamina, and thinking about the stamina that’s necessary for Native people to survive in lands that are also theirs, and what does it mean to dwell in that space forever? What does that actually feel like, and how do we imagine the places in the future where we can rest? And so I did this this piece with a with an inflatable mattress above the museum–
FM: Wait, sorry, with an inflatable mattress?
MR: Yeah! I did a poem series on rest that I printed out, like museum-labeled exhibits, to put next to portraits in this room. And I had built two maps that were coming from the archives. If you look at these archives, like this colonial archive, this is the version of the city that you see related to Native people. If you look at this archive that actually talks about Indigenous people in the city, this is the version of the city that you would see, right? So how do you have both of these two things at once, right?
People were experiencing the room, going around, and there was music playing — it was kind of a mix of “Dreams” from the Solange album “A Seat at the Table,” and some psychedelic rock instrumental stuff, to build this claustrophobic soundscape. And then I came into the room with this inflatable mattress and did this 15-minute solo piece that was an attempt to get back to this mattress, and I ended up collapsing on it. Everything is silent, and I let the air out of the mattress and it becomes this moment, two and a half minutes, where I become this hypervisible person who has moved themselves to exhaustion. And what does it mean for you to witness the only Lenape person in the room, the only Black Native person in the room, moving into exhaustion?
It became part of a conversation with the historical texts that I was writing, around, like — there are people who are coming to the city to build community together, and it’s exhausting. It’s really hard to be Native in Philly. It’s very, very difficult for a lot of different reasons and requires an incredible amount of stamina. And there are people who are witnessing, in the city, this community of people struggle, and they’re not helping. What does that mean, and how do we contend with that?
FM: So you see archives also as being something that you are contributing to with your work.
MR: I think that that’s one of the most powerful things that has not actually been taken from us, despite everything that has happened in this country. We still have the ability to catalog our own lives, to understand and make meaning out of our own lives, even if the state says it doesn’t exist.
FM: Your current project deals with gathering as a practice, and I’m wondering if you could talk about what meanings that holds.
MR: The core of the book project is Indigenous gathering practices, and the power of Indigenous social life being a sort of political stance. For me, gathering is kind of critical to our life ways, because there are these ephemeral moments: You come together and then you leave, but in that brief moment, you have the opportunity to imagine what the future might look like in which you are more possible.
I think a lot about gathering really broadly. We’re gathering to eat, or gathering to dance, or gathering to play, but we’re also gathering for community meeting. We’re gathering for a lecture, we’re gathering because someone is teaching us something — all of those things are moments in time where the future is not this current present in which it is so difficult to live. This future is different.
FM: When you imagine the future, what does it look like?
MR: Freedom, for me, is actually having the ability to do the things that we want and to take care of ourselves, take care of our communities, and take care of our people, to have the ability to do that without threat.
The future is a future in which we’re free, and meaningfully free — that’s what I want.
— Associate Magazine Editor Bea Wall-Feng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow them on Twitter @wallfeng.