Historical Background

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 282

Contemporary Native American drama, like the drama of other American minority groups, was born in the cultural revolution of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as the success of the Civil Rights movement and the failure of the Vietnam War became apparent to most Americans. As the viewpoint of a single dominant racial group loosened its hold on the culture, the validity of other viewpoints was considered. Drama was a powerful tool in this cultural revolution. Black playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (pr. 1959) gave Americans an unforgettable glimpse of the dignity and self-defined agency of an African American family. Frank Chin and other Asian American playwrights established a theater group that would educate the United States about issues such as the atrocities of Angel Island, the heroism of workers on the transcontinental railroad, and the unnecessary humiliation of the Japanese American internment camps.

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The American Indian Theatre Ensemble, founded in 1972 and changed to the Native American Theatre Ensemble in 1973, took on the tremendous and exhilarating task of presenting, through drama, Native Americans in their own terms. The figure of the Indian in American literature, as in popular literature and culture of several centuries, was a misrepresentation, skewered between the misbegotten poles of the uncivilized “savage” and the romantic keeper of nature’s secrets. In a labor no less Herculean than that of African American dramatists, Native American playwrights tried to shake themselves free of centuries of stereotypes to create realistic characters conceived from their own personal experiences. The American Indian Theater Ensemble resolved not only to rectify the cultural image of the Native American but also to produce a body of drama intended primarily for the Indian community.

Hanay Geiogamah

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A key figure in the history of contemporary Native American drama is playwright Hanay Geiogamah . His work is well represented in two anthologies of Native American drama: Seventh Generation: An Anthology of Native American Plays (1999) and Stories of Our Way: An Anthology of American Indian Plays (1999). Of Kiowa and Delaware background, Geiogamah was active in the crucial founding years of the American Indian Theatre Ensemble, which produced his one-act play Body Indian (pr. 1972).

Body Indian is a difficult play and demonstrates the problems Native American playwrights face in creating a new, realistic drama based on contemporary Native American life. At first reading, the play seems to be about alcoholism (a disease that has disproportionately plagued Native Americans since early European settlers used alcohol as an item of trade), and its realism is intense and shocking. Bobby, in his thirties, is alcoholic; he has lost a leg in a drunken stupor on the railroad tracks. As the play begins, he arrives at his Indian “uncle’s” apartment with two of his aunts. The group gathered there has been drinking for some time, as have Bobby and his aunts. There is some socializing and more drinking. Then Bobby, who has hidden in his artificial leg some money he plans to use to enter a detoxification program, passes out. The group of friends and relatives move toward him, intent on finding some cash to restock the dwindling wine supply. Before the play ends, Bobby has been robbed a half dozen times; his money is gone, and his uncle is about to leave the apartment to pawn Bobby’s artificial leg.

The problem for a mainstream audience is the tone of the play: The intense realism seems to be the tool of social tragedy. In an interview in a special “Ethnic Theater” issue (1989-1990) of the multicultural literary journal Melus celebrating the first ten years of the New WORLD Theater, Geiogamah himself admits to being unsure of the play’s tone before he took it to a Native American audience. That audience’s reaction to the humorous side of the play made the playwright realize he had created a tragicomedy, one that not only successfully brought a social problem into the light of community attention but also emphasized the indigenous communities’ ability to survive the most hopeless of situations. The “sardonic smile” that the stage directions indicate Bobby is wearing as he surveys his final state in the play has been linked to the Coyote/Trickster character in Native American mythology: Have we been tricked into overlooking the humor of the play?

The play also functions at a symbolic level, as the title Body Indian suggests: Bobby represents the impoverished Native American population, bled of vitality to a level at which victims begin to victimize each other. Sound effects of drum and rattles compete with the sound of an approaching train and train whistle; stage directions indicate that the cast freezes at this symbolic annunciation of European modernity, the soulless culture that has terrorized the Native American population as it displaced them from their homelands.

Another play by Geiogamah is 49 (pr. 1975). This upbeat play deals with the kind of social gathering of primarily young Native Americans called the “49.” The event begins after midnight and lasts through the night; it is a social, sexual, and spiritual event during which young Native Americans discard their apathy toward tradition and sing the songs of the tribe. The vitality of a whole people flows back into them, and they actively resist police efforts to break up their gathering. The pace of the play is quick as scenes alternate between the choruslike prophecies of Night Walker, the ceremonial leader, and the looming confrontation between the young group and the police. The tone of the play is the polar opposite of Body Indian; the resistance and hope of the young people in the play reflect the increasing optimism and activism of the mid-1970’s.

William S. Yellow Robe, Jr.

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Another influential and prolific playwright is William S. Yellow Robe, Jr. , an Assiniboine Sioux from the Fort Peck reservation in Montana. He has been associated with the Sante Fe Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), where he taught playwriting for three years beginning in 1993. The IAIA had been running a training program in indigenous theater for several years at the time Yellow Robe joined the faculty. Like Geiogamah, Yellow Robe employs a social realism in his plays that is tempered with the moderating influence of memory and tradition.

Yellow Robe’s The Independence of Eddie Rose (pr. 1991) depicts a few days in the life of a dysfunctional Native American family. Eddie, sixteen, is torn between a desire to flee the reservation and a need to protect his younger sister from the threat of sexual abuse from his mother’s current boyfriend. Help and guidance are provided by his aunt Thelma, who retains the healing ways of the community. Eddie, only a teenager himself, forces his mother to sign papers documenting her boyfriend’s sexual abuse and signing over custody of his sister to his aunt before he leaves home. Eddie’s vitality and instinctive turning to healing ways mark a turning away from an attitude of helpless victimization.

Yellow Robe has been an articulate spokesperson for Native American theater. Interviewed for the special “Ethnic Theater” issue of Melus by Roberta Uno, an Asian American playwright and then artistic director of New WORLD Theater, the Montana writer spoke out on differing expectations of mainstream and minority playwrights. Although mainstream writers are seen as possessing individual voices, minority authors are seen as spokespersons for their people, he asserted. Commenting on his own choice to work on the East Coast rather than the West Coast, Yellow Robe pointed out that, for many Westerners, the idea of paying money to see Indians perform onstage is totally alien.

In his one-act play Sneaky (pr. 1987), Yellow Robe constructs a rebellion against the meaninglessness of modernity. The three Rose brothers, all in their thirties, steal their mother’s body from a funeral parlor in order to give her a traditional funeral and send her back to her people properly. A good deal of comedy ensues as Frank, the oldest and the mastermind of the plan, tries to convince the others while supervising Kermit, the youngest, who is in an alcoholic haze. The act pulls the three brothers together; in the final scene, their mother’s body is placed in a tree and, searching for an Indian way to pray, they create an “Our Father” prayer that deconstructs modernity.

Other Modern Playwrights

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Like every form of minority drama, Native American drama has to fight against indifference and lack of knowledge on the part of some mainstream audiences. The playwright must be aware that he or she is also writing for audiences who may not be aware that Indians still exist. This creates a double burden of the need to educate as well as to create vibrant drama, a heavy load for any playwright to incorporate into a single play.

Roxy Gordon and Leanne Howe, both Choctaws, demonstrated in their Indian Radio Days (pr. 1993) just how light that burden could appear to be. The play is structured as a radio show, with the narrator interviewing a flotsam of characters involved in key historical events, pseudo-events, or the fabrication of the many stereotypes surrounding American indigenous citizens. The pace of the play is light and fast, and the tone is bracingly ironic, building as the stranger-than-fiction events of Native American history race by. Performances of the play gain spontaneity as bingo cards are distributed to the audience, who play periodically and listen to the “Rez” (reservation) gossip of a Bingo Lady.

Other representative playwrights include the three Miguel sisters, founders in 1975 of Spiderwoman Theater, whose drama has done much to reincarnate the figures and themes of traditional native legends, and Diane Glancey, whose The Woman Who Was a Red Deer Dressed for the Deer Dance (pr. 1995) explores the theme of intergenerational conflict and the transmission of traditional values. As more anthologies of contemporary Native American drama are published, the astounding variety and creativity of the contemporary scene become more apparent.

Reconstructing a Lost Drama

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If history is examined beyond the removal and displacement of native peoples, the outlines of a living culture in which dance and drama were an integral part of a way of life can be glimpsed. Hints of what this drama was like can be found in the records of anthropology and in a few extraordinary documents such as Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, an account of the Oglala Sioux Horse Dance performed in the 1870’s by the nonnative poet John G. Neihardt that was first published in 1932. The story of this performance was told to Neihardt by Black Elk, the young visionary who transformed a private vision-dream into a healing performance for his nation.

Neihardt’s book contains an account of both the vision that Black Elk had as a nine-year-old boy and an account of the performance event that was informed by this vision, an event that took place when the visionary was seventeen years old. Neihardt’s rendering of Black Elk’s account offers students of Native American drama a rare opportunity to study the connection between private vision and community performance. It also poses a challenge to the typical European understanding of what drama is: The portrait of a hero or heroine struggling against society and its conventions is a product of nineteenth and twentieth century forces of modernity, forces that have increasingly focused on the individual and have seemingly exiled the spirit world from creative performance.

To understand the Oglala Sioux performance of the Horse Dance as described in Neihardt’s account, it is important to imagine a dramatized version of Piers Plowman, the medieval poem in which the dream-vision of a young man helps him construct a way of healing for his people. Here the focus is not on the individual but on the communal; the imaginative act of the visionary becomes the treasured road that will redeem his people from annihilation.

Because the language used to describe theater performance is tied to the conventions of European drama, there are no categorical terms to describe the kind of performance Black Elk describes; “pageant” may be close to the reality of the enormous communal effort, one that took place outside in a space approximately the size of a football field. At the center of the field is the Rainbow Tipi, the site of the drama’s beginning when the young visionary enters the tent and encounters the Six Elders, who present him with gifts for his journey.

Outside the tent, at the four corners of the compass, teams of horsemen wait, mounted, for the slow, clockwise rotation around the tent that enacts the events of the vision. In the tipi, the Elders draw a sacred circle on the ground and paint on it to show a red road from north to south and a black road from east to west. They beat their drums and sing verses about each group of horses, which rotate with the chanting.

It becomes increasingly clear in the narrative of the performance the extent to which the horse is at the center of the pageant; this is an important point, for the Horse Dance is a celebration of the horse during which human beings cross over the border of creaturehood and dwell in the skin of the horse, seeing creation with the eyes of a fellow creature.

The Japanese writer Yuko Tsushima has commented on the narrative art of the Ainu people, the indigenous hunters displaced from Japan’s main island by agricultural immigrants from Korea some thirteen hundred years ago, praising their narratives for an unusual shifting of point of view: In the tale of the bear, the bear is the first-person narrator. This very quality, which Tsushima prizes in Ainu tales, is at the center of the Horse Dance; at the moment of the shifting point of view, humankind is back under the skin of grace. At the point of the shift, Black Elk reports the neighing response of the horses as he sees again in the sky the vision that had troubled him as a child.

The procession of horses and riders makes a complete revolution around the field. As the second revolution starts, spectators join in the procession, both on horseback and walking. At the end of the procession, the sacred circle in the Rainbow Tipi is examined; the earth there now shows the marks of tiny horse hooves. Right relation has been restored by crossing over into the creaturehood of another being. Tales of healing begin to pour in to Black Elk.

Although Neihardt’s record presents an unusual opportunity to participate imaginatively in a lost form of Native American drama, it is not the only such source. Works like Cherokee Dance and Drama by Frank G. Speck, Leonard Broom, and Will West Long (1951) also reconstruct some of the drama-pageants of Native Americans, most of which involve a similar crossing over to an animal point of view.

Exploring the records of the lost drama-pageants heightens appreciation of contemporary Native American drama and other genres. Spiderwoman Theater’s Power Pipes (pr. 1992) is a modern dance-drama featuring characters such as Wind Horse Spirit Warrior and Owl Messenger; the play is performed on the borders of myth and reality. Such an investigation also deepens understanding of the dramatic narratives of Leslie Marmon Silko: Ceremony (1977) and Storyteller (1981) exist at the moment of crossing over from the modern to the mythic, from the fragmentation of the contemporary to the wholeness under the skin of creation.


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Black Elk, Nicholas, and John G. Neihardt. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. 1932. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. A key work for penetrating beyond the loss and erosion of Native American culture to recapture part of the mystery and power of the pageant-drama. Contains helpful illustrations.

Geiogamah, Hanay, and Jaye T. Darby, eds. Stories of Our Way: An Anthology of American Indian Plays. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles American Indian Studies Center, 1999. Geiogamah has written an informative introduction for this anthology that outlines the history of Native American playwriting since 1970. Contains a wide variety of representative Native American plays from the last three decades of the twentieth century as well as the text of Lynn Riggs’s Cherokee Nights (pb. 1936).

Gisolfi, Mimi, ed. Seventh Generation: An Anthology of Native American Plays. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1999. This pioneering anthology brings together many of the best plays from representative Native American playwrights. Valuable information is included about each playwright and the production history of each play. A useful introduction invites comparison between indigenous sand paintings and Italian sawdust paintings, symbols of an art that is destroyed to give a sense of healing.

Lundquist, Suzanne Evertsen. Native American Literatures: An Introduction. New York: Continuum, 2004. An essential research tool for study of Native American literature. Includes both a broad overview of the history and scope of Native American literature as well as studies of individual authors and works. Includes excellent resources for further research.

Speck, Frank G., and Leonard Broom, in collaboration with Will West Long. Cherokee Dance and Drama. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951. This work preserves many of the seasonal dance-dramas of the Cherokee. It succeeds in placing the drama within the context of Cherokee life. Diagrams of dance patterns are included as well as photographs of dance masks.

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