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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 47

Since the 1970’s, Native American theater groups—dance theater groups, stage companies, and radio theater companies—have been performing throughout North America. In order to achieve their goal of familiarizing non- Indians with Native American culture and values, they often perform in schools and in smaller communities.

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Dance Theater

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Native American groups such as the American Indian Dance Theater travel throughout the United States, singing, dancing, drumming, and storytelling to express their native heritage. Some dance groups perform a wide range of Native American dances; however, other dance groups choose to specialize in the dance, music, and legends of only one of the four geographic groups of Indian nations: the Eastern Woodlands, the Northern and Southern Plains, the Northern Pacific, and the Southwest. A dance theater that specializes in the Eastern Woodlands tribes would present the music, dance, and legends of these tribes and wear the traditional clothing favored by groups such as the Seneca and Mohawks. Some dance groups specialize in the dances and legends of a single tribe or Indian nation.

Because Native American music and dances are part of the tribes’ spiritual heritage, some Native Americans believe that only Native Americans should dance ceremonial dances. In fact, some purists believe that people should dance only the ceremonial dances of the tribe to which they belong and should follow tribal standards as to whether a man or woman should dance a particular dance. However, others believe that anyone who is interested in the spiritual aspects of the culture should be able to perform all Native American dances. Certainly the Native American dances serve as wonderful theater, illustrating both the stories and the spiritual concerns of that culture.

Stage Performances

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The Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s helped inspire Native Americans to strengthen their sense of identity and to preserve their right to self-determination. The multiculturalism of the 1980’s and 1990’s encouraged Native Americans and other people of color to identify the unique aspects of their cultures and to attempt to share them with other cultural groups.

In North America, theater groups were formed to give Native Americans a chance to appear on stage in productions that are written by Native Americans and that explore and convey Native American values. One such theater group, the Center for Indigenous Theater, was started by James Buller in Canada in 1974. The purpose of this theater is to train Native Americans in Western acting techniques that they can combine with native dance, song, and oral history to create original theater productions. Over the years, this theater has presented many original Native American plays. Each year, the James Buller Award is given to a Native American playwright for an original play that uses Native American culture and exhibits Native American values.

One of the best-known Native American theater groups is the Spiderwoman Theater, which offers story weaving and storytelling on themes relating to Native American women. Another well-known group is the Red Path Theater Company of Chicago, which produces the works of Native American playwrights who create original dramas from the history of and issues surrounding native people.

Other Native American theater groups include the Algonquian group in Connecticut and Albeza, the Native American Art and Film Institute Theater, in California, which dedicate themselves to the creation and production of plays about Native Americans. Albeza created the American Conservatory Youth Theater Company, which helps Native American youth create and present plays based on Native American legends in schools, on community stages, and in radio performances. One of the most popular of these plays, Every Skin’s Day in Court (1998), uses the traditional mode of a trickster tale. However, in this modern-day tale, the coyote, the trickster, is a high-priced lawyer who has to face his own day in court. A 1997 play by Albeza director Diane Way, Tiospe (which means “extended family” or “band” in Lakota), explores the life of Indian children in a boarding school at the end of the nineteenth century. Way, of Lakota/ Cheyenne heritage, won the Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop Award for this play. The Sin’Klip Native Theater performs in elementary schools throughout British Columbia, dedicating itself to passing on the cultural values and legends of native peoples and also to encouraging native youth to stay in school by giving them a sense of identity.

Radio Theater

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The radio stations on Indian reservations are owned by the tribal governments. These stations play both traditional and contemporary Indian music and present radio plays, written and performed by Indians, that explore Indian themes and legends. They also present local programming and news. Their broadcasts present the Native American culture to everyone within their listening area.

Core Resources

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Scholastic Encyclopedia of the North American Indian (New York: Scholastic References, 1996), edited by James Cument, offers four hundred illustrations relating to the legends, ceremonies, dances, theater, and customs of 149 North American tribes. Charlotte Heth, well-known ethnomusicologist and director of the National Museum of the American Indian, offers information about Native American ceremonies in Native American Dance: Ceremonies and Social Traditions (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of the American Indian and Fulcrum, 1998). Roger C. Echo- Hawk, Pawnee tribal historian, explores Native American oral traditions in Hawk Kara Katit Pakutu: Exploring the Origins of Native America in Anthropology and Oral Traditions (Boulder: University of Colorado, 1994).

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