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.
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.