Tailinh Agoyo is an award-winning multi-disciplinary artist, TV and film actor, and co-founding director of We Are the Seeds, an organization that amplifies and uplifts Indigenous voices through the arts in an effort to reverse the erasure of native people in Philadelphia and the nation. In this candid conversation with host Khadija Mbowe, you'll hear about how We Are The Seeds is rooted in Tailinh's upbringing alongside her father's artistic career, her experiences attending an Ivy League college, and how she navigated a career in '90s Hollywood.
[1:58] Tailinh Agoyo is all of the things
[4:46] How early familial influences impact Tailinh today
[11:55] Ups and downs at Dartmouth
[16:09] Secret activism in Hollywood
[25:13] How Tailinh's acting career has evolved
[27:00] The root of We Are The Seeds and its growth
[31:20] Looking to the future
Music from this episode:
Links from this episode:
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s HearTOGETHER series is generously supported by lead corporate sponsor Accordant Advisors. Additional major support has been provided by the Otto Haas Charitable Trust.
[KHADIJA MBOWE VOICEOVER] Hello and hi! Welcome back to the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center Inc. This is a space where we hope you’ll find home in this art we all love. I’m your host, Khadija Mbowe and I describe myself as a socio-cultural content creator, classically trained soprano, and loving provocateur. And I’m here to facilitate some heartfelt, engaging, disruptive conversations with artists, activists, and everyone in between (that’s you!)
The music you heard in the intro was from The Philadelphia Orchestra cellist Udi Bar-David’s 2007 album, Voyagers. The track, performed with multi-Grammy nominee R. Carlos Nakai is Indigenous, Indigena.
Our guest today is not herself a musician, and we love her anyway.
Tailinh Agoyo is an award-winning multi-disciplinary artist, tv and film actor, and co-founding director of We Are the Seeds—a non-profit that uplifts and amplifies Indigenous voices through the arts. It borrows its name from the line by poet Dinos Christianopoulos; "'They buried us, but they didn't know we were seeds.”
The child of creatives and a graduate of Dartmouth’s Native American Studies Program, Tailinh’s own creative journey has been a lifelong exploration of Indigenous identity. Among her most notable works is The Warrior Project, an internationally noted collection of photographs depicting Native youth and their environmental stewardship.
But you know what, I won’t go on and on (even though I could). Let’s get to know Tailinh, in her own words…
Well, I'm a mother of four boys and those boys range in age from 11, to 14, to 16, to 18. And right now who I am is very much in transition. I am a professional woman. I, I'm an artist. I am a good friend. I am a good sister, a good daughter, <laugh>. Whatever good means, I think I am. I'm a supportive, kind, loving person that cares about the world and the people around me, but I am very much in transition right now. I have one son who just went to college. I have worked very hard all of my life in a lot of different areas and I enjoy doing that, but I also feel like my time here on earth is, it's really important to value and honor the fact that I'm here and that I, it's important that I do the work that is meaningful to me so that I can leave this world better than I found it for my children and their children and their children that come after that.
So I'm a lot of things. I think a lot of times I'm a stress case, but I also believe that I know when to stop and look at the trees and examine a flower or take a deep breath. I'm someone that falls, who likes to love things very deeply and passionately, whether that is in friendship or with delicious food or a beautiful glass of wine or just taking the moments and looking around. Finding the beauty in the smallest things I think is really important for our brains and our souls. So I make sure I do that all the time, I think, and sometimes a mystery. I also think I'm very transparent and I'm a pisces, so I'm all the things.
Thank you for that because you succinctly, yet in a very detailed way, just told anyone who has never known you, I think, a very holistic representation of who you are in this moment and what has led you here. So thank you for that.
I wanted to ask you, because I am somebody who comes from a large family and I was raised not just by my parents, but I also had an aunt who was a really big figure in my life. And when I was learning more about you, I noticed that you also had something similar, your grandmother. And so I wanted to ask you, what parts of your personhood do you feel that you've been able to receive from those parental figures in your life?
I have a lot of people in my life, grandmas, aunties who just, elders who have influenced my life. I mean even those that I haven't met have influenced my life and it's I think really important to me to recognize that I bring them in the room with me every day and they're there. My grandmother on my mother's side, we didn't have necessarily a close relationship. She took care of us a lot when we were younger and she passed a few years ago and only since then did I really start to understand the meaning that she had in my life. Because when you're younger you want your grandmother to be like, you see people baking cookies on TV and you're like, Oh yeah, that's what I want. And we never had that right? She took care of us and now that I look back, I'm like, she didn't need to do that.
She took care of us and she came over here, had an arranged marriage. She came over here from China. She was maybe 15, 16 years old through Ellis Island and she had a life. But there are certain things that I remember about her ‘cause she was kind of rough and harsh to us when we were younger and there was a language barrier, so that makes it seem worse. But there were things that I remember about how stylish she was and how no matter what, she always just had so much pride in how she looked and how she carried herself. And one thing that she did was there was a time where she used to work in a factory, sewing factory in Chinatown and that's like you get paid 10 cents a piece for sewing an elastic or something. That's how those factories are run. But she would get on the bus with a Calvin Klein suit, skirt suit, have that Revlon Green, I don't know if you remember this, but there was a, Revlon had that green color lipstick, Emerald Green put that lipstick on and I remember she had that hand handheld mirror and she'd sit on the side of her bed and put on the lipstick and she'd have this gorgeous, tailored proper suit, get on the bus, go to work, change into whatever she had to change into change back, get on the bus, come home.
And I just always remembered how beautiful she was and that she always knew that her value, whether or not she was here under her circumstances of her life, whatever brought her here, whatever jobs she had to do here that were different than her life in China, I think she came from a more wealthy place in China. And so I think that carried to me in a lot of ways because in my life, being 51 years old now and having been through a lot really good, bad, hard and different economic statuses that there's always you and you can always push forward. I think that strength and resolve definitely carried on through everything that I do. Not just my work, but through how I raise my children and how I choose to live my life.
And what about on your dad's side? Because as I understand, your dad was the artist.
Correct. My father's an artist and he still works with me at We Are The Seeds. His name is Tchin, and when I was, I would say two or three years old, he went to RISD. And so I grew up from very, very young and I remember what his studio was like at home. I grew up going to classes with him and at one point he went from RISD to do an exchange at Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. And our whole family went and they would let me be in class and I have little funny beadwork things that I would make and the professors knew us. And so that, him being an artist and a growing artist and a developing artist and now being an elder artist, it, it's been really an interesting experience learning from him and just being by his side that whole time.
I used to go to art shows with him when I was very young and help him set up and help him with the customers that came by. So that was very much part of my world, which in hindsight I'm like, well obviously that's why I do the work I do because I saw the struggles he had as an artist trying to make his way and also doing certain shows where there maybe the marketing wasn't quite right or you barely make your gas home. And it really has impacted how I do my work now thinking about what we want our artists' experience to be and the idea which is, should not be a new idea that artists should be absolutely valued and lifted in whatever way we can. And we're a nonprofit organization and when we started out, I didn't take pay for maybe four years or so.
The funds always went to artists and maybe it wasn't much at first, but as we grow, it's always important. We're always careful to make sure artists are paid their value and what they're worth as far as we can do it based on our own budgets. But being with my father, he's just brilliant. I mean he's a jeweler, he's known for his jewelry all over the world, but he also was a sculptor. He made all of our regalia growing up. So he sewed and just gorgeous outfits that were so special. He plays the native courting flute, he teaches, he's taught in different schools and he's an incredible storyteller and he's the kind of guy that you need something, he'll just make it right. My mom wanted this gorgeous system in the house where she could put shelves and all this stuff and you walk in there and it looks like, I mean it's just phenomenal and precise. His work is, there's no one like him. He's very special and I appreciate the fact that we get to work together now that he doesn't have to look to other people to try to have a platform for the work that he does, that I understand how phenomenal he is and at this point in his life, that I can do as much as I can to make sure that he has the respect that he deserves and also that he's honored in the way that he deserves to be.
Sounds like y'all are very close.
We are close.
So I wanted to actually ask you then, growing up in this artist environment, seeing artists and then going to Dartmouth <affirmative>, what was the decision for that? Kinda did it? Oh okay. This is an audio platform and there was an eye roll, <laugh> <laugh>. So I'm gonna let you explain that.
Well the decision was this is the best greatest school that you got into and you're definitely going there and you don't have a decision. And I get that. And I wasn't fighting it. I mean actually Dartmouth is really a wonderful school because I don't know, it's a complicated story, but supposedly it was originally supposed to educate native people and they started the school and no native people were educated. And so I believe in the seventies, Dartmouth started to uphold that charter saying that they were going to make sure that native students were educated there. So there's a Native American program. So that's what I was part of. Now that doesn't mean it was free. Everybody who went to school paid for, that's a big misunderstanding that we get all the time. We all have student loans but that they make an effort to make sure that, there our native people represented.
And even if you look today, cuz my kid went through this college process, the numbers are very pathetic. The other schools who are on native land should absolutely be making efforts to have native students. It should not be 0.01% represented. There's one Ivy League school that I looked that had, has two people in their freshman class. That's unacceptable. Anyway, Dartmouth does a very good job of that. So there were a lot of native students there and we had a Native American house and support and they have a really great Native American studies program. So that was really from being from Brooklyn and then being so far from home, at least I had that. But it was really a culture shock. Freezing, freezing New Hampshire is like you walk outside in the winter, your hair freezes off, it's just bad. And then there was a whole fraternity scene and it was very
Stifling, my God, the fraternity way.
They were very privileged people who would, I just remember going to parties where they just thought they could touch you. It was gross. And then as a seven, and I was a young freshman, I just couldn't get it. I just got depressed there really quickly. But now looking back, so many great friends from the native program and so many of the people are doing incredible work and some of our work crosses over, which is so cool. And I'm so grateful for those networks and friendships that I have. So there definitely was value. It was just hard to navigate as a young person with so many drastic changes.
[KHADIJA MBOWE VOICEOVER] Indeed, Tailinh has gathered an impressive group of contemporary collaborators around her. Next up, you’ll hear a clip of Oblique, the title track from the new album by Native American Music Award-nominated singer-songwriter Zachariah Julian, who has been the digital media and artistic producer for We are the seeds since its inception.
Now, I also discovered or learned that you were doing some acting for a good portion of the nineties. There's this Christopher Columbus discovery movie, <affirmative>, there's some Walker, Texas ranger in here. There's something called my Indian Summer short TV series. And when I was looking at them as an outsider, I was like, Oh, here we go, <laugh>. Exactly. Well firstly I wanted to start positively, your time in Hollywood.
What...were there some positive moments or experiences? Were there some pleasant surprises or some moments of community at all?
Sure, there's a lot. I went to L.A., actually, I was still in college, but I went there on a semester off and it was right after Dances with Wolves. That was the big movie at the time. Where it’s the white savior guy, but it was the first time you ever saw natives speaking in their own language. Some of the wardrobe was pretty accurate. It seemed like there was a lot more input. There were actual native actors, not white actors playing native people. So it was a really exciting time. I mean if you look at it now, it's obviously a different lens, but at that time it was a big deal. So when I went to L.A. out of the success of that, of course L.A. is all about money and they're like, Okay, let's make all the native movies. So there was a movie called Lakota Moon, it was a Fox pilot to our pilot, and I booked it right away.
It was my first audition in L.A. cuz I had auditioned a bit in New York and taken some classes and I booked it. And so then I put school on hold. I did this thing, we went out to Wyoming, it was cheesy and it was a period piece. So then it was one period piece after another. And most of the period pieces are basically battle scenes. They're like westerns. And then once in a while you get a woman in there with a couple lines and she's the girlfriend or the wife. And that's basically what happened, right T&T did a series of native leaders, Geronimo, Tecumseh, Crazy Horse. So I was Geronimo's wife and Tecumseh’s wife. I loved that one piece even though it was a period piece, Geronimo, T&T's drama, not the one that was in the theaters, because they showed why Geronimo was hurt and angry.
He lost his family and they showed at least a little bit of that story. They showed scenes with me and him. He leaves and I'm with the baby and then I'm killed and then he's done. So it's okay to have a period piece when you're actually telling the story, when it doesn't just start after the fact and everyone's just fighting each other. It's kind of ridiculous. And that's the typical thing. So I did appreciate my role in that even though there was difficulty with the directors and it was always interesting having to navigate and stay confident on set and make sure that you are not being exploited. That was a big thing. And sometimes the language that they use in the scripts was really, and still is really goofy, backwards English and very poetic and no one really talks that way. And to try to make that sound conversational, that was to me as a native person, that felt like that was my responsibility.
So this is written really terribly, but I'm gonna still try to figure out how to say it. So it sounds like I'm having coffee with you because that's how it would've been. So there was just so much, there were so many layers to every experience that we had and there were few and far between, obviously because we were women and brown women. But when we did get the opportunity to be on set, I felt like myself and other actors, actresses were secret activists on set. And the director would be ‘say it like this’ and I would just not listen and say it the other way and then he'd think I was a bad actress but I don't care because he didn't get it. So there were things that you have to, little tricks that you had to do to make sure that you're protected. I feel like when you're, someone else might feel a different way, but when you're born in this world, in this country, you show up and you don't have a choice.
I feel like you have to arrive.That responsibility’s on your shoulders and you don't get to just live a life that you don't have to think about what's going on around you and how everything around you impacts you, your family and the next generations. I feel like every day you go outside and there's something you're fighting for. And even if that's a simple thing, going to dinner and being sat by the bathroom, which happens way all the time, too much and saying, I'm not gonna sit by the bathroom. And just taking those extra steps with those microaggressions that come at us every single day. So we don't have the privilege of going to an acting job and just having fun and acting. There's so much more to that because it, it's repre– There are so few now. Now there's more. And that's beautiful. That's really great that we're coming to a point where there's reservation dogs and all these other and natives in the writing room and all of that. But that wasn't always the case and we didn't have the privilege of being able to tell our own stories. So we had to find ways to be creative where we could make sure that, like I said before, that we were protected and that we were not a complete embarrassment. I mean let's be real. There's some things I'm just not completely proud of, but there's nothing I'm so mortified about in my life because that was the world then and we were all caring so much.
I even think when you said to not be embarrassing, I think back to Viola Davis recently talking about the help and how she was like, ‘Not my finest moment’. And I'm like, I get it though. You needed the gig. If you're acting, you need the gig. But I appreciate so much of what you're saying of to even ask about activism and maybe we can talk about this, maybe it's kind of absurd, not absurd ’cause people aren't a monolith, I should rephrase that, but maybe for a lot of us it can feel absurd to be asked about activism when it's like, well I'm just in this body in the world and I don't have a choice. So you're saying I show up, I wonder is that a way to, I don't know how I'm trying to word this question <laugh>, feeling my way around
It, but is it fair?
Yeah, maybe it's just that, is it fair? Even though I know the answer myself, but is it fair?
I don't, don't know. In a way it feels like an honor, right? I don't like the junk, the nonsense we have to deal with all the time. But at the same time, do I wanna trade with someone else that never has to think about anything? No.
I said this to a friend literally a month ago actually. I was just like, yeah, I've often asked myself if I could be born in a different type of body. Unfortunately it's always gonna be with a bit of melanin and all the extra fixin’s. I’m just saying y’all. No offense. You would pick it too. Okay, rephrasing. It sounds like it's a lot of pressure though too, because when you're the few in a space, you have to be the representation of, as we were saying before, not everyone's a monolith, but when you're the one of your ethnicity or race you are that representation <affirmative>. So did that pressure ever get to you at all? Did it cause you to kind of take a step back from acting or was it just like, Well I have no choice, I have to show up?
I did leave acting cuz I got frustrated with the period pieces. And also just that it also felt like to me that the men who got hired, and this is not everybody, so whoever's listening don't be offended. But a lot of times men would get on set and they'd be doing this really stoic kind of, I'm a warrior kind of thing. And they were awful. And then the directors be like, ‘That was greeeaaat’. And cuz they'd, it was every fantasy from Cowboys and Indians when they're little and then you know, have the one line as a woman and you're just like, Are you freaking kidding me? That was so embarrassing. And I just got sick of it. I really got sick of it. I got sick of the garbage that you had to deal with. So I went corporate and I started working at a consulting firm.
So I've done so many things, but I did come back to acting when I moved to Santa Fe because they were building the film industry out there and they had to hire local people. That was kind of the agreement they would bring in. The big parts were for LA folks and then the cop, the nurse, whatever, would be local people. And so that was really cool. I loved it because I am an actor in my soul, but that doesn't mean I have to be doing Hollywood. So I would go to Albuquerque and it would be the funnest day just to do the audition and take a break for myself, go have a nice lunch and then I'd go back and I wouldn't even think about if I was getting the job. And that was the best approach. And then I worked a lot. I worked a lot and I didn't play any native roles.
I played a nurse, but there was one job that I did on a show called Manhattan and it was about the making of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos and how that whole town started and the making of the atomic bomb. And so I was brought on and I stayed, I think I was in four or five episodes. And that was a lot for our New Mexico job. And it was wonderful. It was really great. And when I really started to appreciate, even though there were small parts, although Manhattan was pretty good, the work, the Hollywood work, the L.A. work was just like, ugh. But in New Mexico it was really so much fun. And then here in Philly, I actually do commercials and some print work.
Speaking of work, can you talk to us about We Are The Seeds.
TAILINH AGOYO: We Are The Seeds is an indigenous arts and culture organization based in Philadelphia. We've been around since 2017. Co-founders are women, including me. Woohoo. And I'm their director. And we well we first started actually with a big show in Santa Fe, New Mexico with over a hundred indigenous artists, stage performances, all day food, interactive art programs. That's why we, The Seeds was founded because we were asked to build that show in Santa Fe. But I was living in Philadelphia at the time and I was pretty new here, even though I'm from the east coast. And I realized there was an active and ongoing erasure of native people here. And this place is the so-called birthplace of America or the United States. And there is no reflection of whose land we're on. And that's purposeful. And even if you go to what the chamber or the tourist center on Market Street, there isn't nothing, we are not part of this city's narrative.
I think it's changing a little bit thanks to the Work Seeds is doing and other native organizations are doing. But when I got here, it was very quiet. I will acknowledge that there had been a native center here a few decades ago, and there are some very active native people doing work in the city, but it still wasn't being reflected in the ways that I would like to see going forward. So we started putting most of our focus on Philadelphia work and over Covid we decided not to continue the Santa Fe show. So we are the seats, Philly, which is a very small version of our Santa Fe show. This year will be our third year of doing that. So it's really exciting. But aside from that, we partner with organizations like the Barnes Foundation and we help build their programs. We worked with UPenn and go to a do different assemblies at schools or just visit classrooms just to share that we're here, but also to, I like to show images and video of native people, incredible fashion designers that are, and musicians and contemporary native folks doing their thing. I love that. And so while we go in to these programs telling a lot of the truths, we also make sure that we are in celebration and that we focus on joy
And Oh, thank you for saying that too because that's the other part of it. I think there definitely needed to be a reckoning of all kinds when the civil rights started, that started, and then all these movements started coming out of that. And more and more people were fighting for their rights and we kind of saw something similar in 2020. But it felt very traumatic too. <laugh>, I dunno if enough people were talking about that. And I think not enough people talk about how being visible can be that way, but also being invisible can be that way. Because specifically, and not to speak over you or anything like that, but I hear you when you say there is an erasure of native people. I grew up in America and Canada and the difference of having never seen a native person in Georgia when we have things called the Chattahoochee River <laugh>, like all of these different names.
And even I understand in Philly, I guess there are names that you find that in the West coast you find that all over <affirmative> Street names everywhere. But I kid you not, and I'm sure if the audience, y'all better just be honest with yourselves. I did not see a single native person or was told about Native history until I moved to Canada and it was still, and even in Canada, there's still a lot of misses. But I wanted to ask you, because I live in Canada now and we have something called Truth and Reconciliation. And I wanted to ask you, as someone living in America and seeing other parts of the world, even talking about other indigenous organizations and groups of people, are there places that you think are doing a better job of combating that erasure?
I think we're starting to see a change Well, let me go back. I agree with you. In Canada it's different. And even looking at the arts and the way native people are reflected in the media or what grants are available for native art, it's so different here. I mean, Canada does have it's own problems, absolutely. But there's such a difference where there's not, it's a, it's different <laugh>, but what you are talking about walking through Georgia and not having any reflection of that is native land. That there are native people, there are native people everywhere. It's just that we're not, the towns and the cities are not lifting us. They're not creating the centers where people can gather and come together and take up space. So you may have seen a lot of people in Georgia who were native, but you wouldn't have known it.
And people come to Phil, where are all the natives? And there's 14,000 natives in Philly, but you're not gonna walk through Old City and see any representation of that. As far as people doing, who's doing a better job with the internet, There's good and bad about it, but it really did offer a platform for native people to tell their own stories, and especially native folks who are in really rural communities. And there's some beautiful content coming out of native communities. And that has really changed things I think, that has really educated people. TikTok, there's a whole native TikTok where people say, This is my homeland, this is what we eat, this is what grandma looks like, this is, or just fun things, just native folks live in life like everybody else does. And for people to just get to see that is something that maybe wouldn't, wouldn't have happened without these platforms. So I feel like with that opportunity to just be in the internet, you can just claim your own space. You don't have to wait for someone to give it to you. And so we're doing that job best ourselves. On the other hand, indigenous folks all over the world are encountering the same issues and it's shameful. And I hope it's changing. And I hope that us being able to have these opportunities to get online and tell the truths will help. Definitely does seem like there's a positive shift
It based off of just everything we've talked about today so far, it just seems like you're someone who carries a lot of integrity and so that means just honesty as much as possible in any given moment. From my perspective, it just seems like you're like, well, it's just the work. You just do the work. <laugh> I, yeah.
Yeah. Thank you for saying that. I really appreciate that. And I feel like I try to be as true as possible and I'm always checking myself and I'm always questioning myself, Why'd you do that? What was the real reason? Because I think that's important, especially as a leader of an organization and when you are representing so much because people do come to me, it's a huge responsibility. People do come to me and think I have all the answers and I don't, right. But to understand, to make sure what I'm putting out in the world is honest and reflective of me, that's all I can do. And then I can can pass the mic to those who have the answers of whatever is whatever the person is asking or asking for. I think it's really important to take a backseat as a leader and let everyone else make sure that everyone else is speaking for themselves. So in that, there's a lot of work because it could be easy for me to just be like, Oh yeah, and then just say all the things and do all the things. But behind the scenes I'm calling people, making sure that they can be somewhere wondering about their schedule, can creating different opportunities and platforms and seeing who's the right fit. And so there's all this negotiation going on behind the scenes that people don't see, but that's what makes the work like multilayered and beautiful.
KHADIJA MBOWE VOICEOVER: I don’t know about you, but I felt incredibly energized by that conversation. Check the links in our description to learn about how you can support Tailinh’s important work.
And, if you’d like to hear even more from TAILINH AGOYO, check out our episode BONUS, “In-depth lightning round”. Then, be sure to check out her show, “From Here with a View: A We Are the Seeds Philadelphia Podcast" which amplifies the voices of Indigenous artists, performers, educators, and change-makers.
Until next month, I’m Khadija Mbowe and this has been the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center Inc. As we close, I hope you’ll enjoy a clip from season 1 HearTOGETHER guest, Gabriela Lena Frank. This is Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout, performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra.