“This whole thing of who is more Indin, what we do to be Indin, or don’t do because it might make us look less Indin, is a sickness beyond any thinking.”
—Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, Act 2, Scene 1
I was a Lakota man/child in my twenties, hungry for work. A job search took me in the late 1970s from my home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to a solitary junction in northwestern Montana called Wolf Point. Located on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, home of the Assiniboine oyate (people), Wolf Point lives in my memory as an old service station/convenience store, where a framed but faded photograph hung prominently on a wall near the store’s entrance. The yellowed black-and-white print held a scene of frigid winter. Centered in the photograph, over deep snow, a stack of wolf carcasses rose about 15 to 20 feet high: if not a thousand, at least hundreds of wolves slaughtered in a single season. Beside the stack of wolves stood the proud bounty hunters: a few white men. I wondered how the local Assiniboine had fared in such a climate.
What I didn’t know was I had sojourned in the homeland of a then budding Assiniboine playwright named William S. Yellow Robe Jr. Today, when I read Yellow Robe’s plays, the sagebrush and coyote vistas of western Montana return. So, too, do the problematic shift and chant of Native culture in flux, whether it be Assiniboine, Lakota, Pequot or Mohawk. William S. Yellow Robe’s plays cast a sharp and unsentimental eye on modern Native life: all its broken-mirror reflections on identity, social and familial ties, the destructive fallout of chemical addictions, and, yes, the compassionate acceptance that we are what is left, and that that must be good, and must endure.
At the behest of American Theatre, I caught up with Mr. Yellow Robe in a coffee shop in Providence, R.I., this past midwinter. He was serving as a guest faculty member at nearby Brown University and also as playwright-in-residence at the estimable Trinity Repertory Company. With the support and cast of a local avant-garde troupe called the Perishable Theatre Company, his sharp-witted play Better-n-Indins had just opened in downtown Providence. Concurrently, plans were underway for a national tour of another new play, Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, staged as a co-production of Trinity Rep and Penumbra Theatre Company of St. Paul, Minn.
Grandchildren will premiere in St. Paul Sept. 15–Oct. 15 and will continue to tour widely through February 2006. According to Emily Atkinson, communications director at Trinity Rep, the production is noteworthy as “the country’s first fully mounted professional touring production by a regional theatre of a Native American play by a Native playwright.” The production is supported by grants from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts Regional Touring Program.
Former Trinity Rep artistic director Oskar Eustis, who has just assumed the helm of New York City’s Public Theater, speaks glowingly of Yellow Robe’s work. “I think William is really one of the great American playwrights—he has an extraordinary body of work created over the past 20 years.” Eustis first met the writer in Los Angeles about 15 years ago on the occasion of a production of Yellow Robe’s The Independence of Eddie Rose, a coming-of-age drama about a Native family torn apart by alcoholism and abuse. “I’ve taught that incredible play over the years to groups of non-Native students, and it’s interesting how powerful and revelatory—and upsetting as well—it is for those students,” avows Eustis. “It’s very exciting being able to introduce people to Bill’s work that way.
“My sneaking hope is that after Trinity Rep is through with Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, they’ll do Eddie Rose,” Eustis goes on. “It is hard to write a play that is so honest about such brutal things, but, nonetheless, hopeful at the end. It really has positive energy in it. This is the thing I love about Bill: There is a real sense of spirituality, and it feels like it’s hard-earned, in his work. It doesn’t make it seem as if things are easy or somehow automatic, like a formula. He has struggled to find what his connection to a higher power is, and what room there is for redemption.
“My hope is that the way we’re producing this touring production of Grandchildren will set a pattern for other Native American plays that could be produced that way, too. We are hoping to build an audience and employment opportunities, not only for Bill but other Native American theatre folk.”
Artistic director Lou Bellamy says he founded the African-American company Penumbra as part of the Black Arts movement, and though Grandchildren deals with the black community only tangentially, Bellamy believes the tenor and content of Yellow Robe’s writing is essentially in sync with the company’s mandate. “Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers is significant for all kinds of reasons,” says Bellamy. “There aren’t many Native American writers who have dealt with the history of the Buffalo Soldiers. What Bill has done is what artists do: He has personalized a very large issue and brought it down to one family. He knows what he’s writing about from a very intimate point of view, and it’s because of that that we can use this play to do further education and healing. That is why I think people like Bill and myself are in theatre—not for the bows and the curtain calls but because this is the way we exercise our citizenship, our humanness.”
From Wolf Point, Mont., to the footlights of theatres from Los Angeles to Providence, Yellow Robe’s journey has been a remarkable one. My interview with him is wide-ranging, but that is perhaps simply a reflection of the playwright’s work. Mr. Yellow Robe was gracious, generous with his time and patient—a true ikce wicasa, to employ a Lakota phrase. Which is to say: He remains a common Native man, with humility and humor still intact.
DAVID ROOKS: Your play Better-n-Indins just opened. How was it received by the critics and audiences in general?
WILLIAM S. YELLOW ROBE JR.: The first perception has been that the stories—the issues and themes—were coming from the Native community. The play is about issues that are present in various Native communities. The point is not that it is a quintessential spokes-vehicle for all Native groups—different Native people from different tribes could sit in the audience and say, “I can’t really identify with this,” or, “This doesn’t speak for me.” And they’re absolutely right in saying that. At the same time, there are other communities that would go, “This is what I’ve always wanted to say,” or, “This supplies me support, so I can say these things myself.” The Perishable Theatre itself is a realm that was formerly foreign to Native American audiences, so that made it especially interesting.
The critics that came were used to seeing plays that talked to them, tickled their fancies, dealt with issues they could comprehend and situations they have a shared experience with. In some ways, I think it was sad that many non-Natives in the audience for Better-n-Indins were uncomfortable, because they did not know whether or not to laugh. For them, it was seeing a part of America that was just up the street but that they were not even aware of. At one point, near the end of the show’s run, I was actually requested by Mark Lerman, then artistic director of Perishable, to add into the opening monologue of the play that while there is a difference between Indian humor and non-Indian humor, they both require laughter—so please don’t be afraid to laugh.
How would you define Native theatre?
If you look at it historically, there is no architecture for Native American theatre. In other words, it doesn’t have a home yet. Native theatre, for me, comes from one specific tribal community: It incorporates that tribe’s language, their history, their culture, everything. In another sense, there are experiences in Native theatre that everybody has shared. For instance, in Better-n-Indins, there’s a scene called “Hold Me Closer Tiny Fancy Shawl Dancer.” The young girl in the scene has been rejected by her peers and by her family. Coming home after years of being absent, she has to be reintroduced to the community and to her extended family. A lot of tribes have individuals who have gone through that very difficult experience.
So it’s not monolithic?
No. I would call what I do intertribal theatre, and I should explain that, too. I work with different tribal groups, making theatre that allows this exchange of tribal culture—it’s not based on race, it’s based on how well you know yourself. How well do you know your people, your community, your family and so on.
There are threads in much of your writing of longstanding feuds, cross-generational wounds and anger in Indian country. Could you speak to that?
When I wrote Sneaky at the University of Montana, I was trying to explain this concept—that sometimes generational anger can be held onto for a long time. Growing up on the reservation, you could be at a pow-wow [a formal social gathering of Native peoples for thanksgiving] and all of sudden you would get jumped. Then you’d realize you got jumped because you beat up so-and-so’s cousin when you were 10 years old, and this was payback. It might not be right now, it might not be tomorrow, but it’s gonna happen. That’s why in Better-n-Indins I wrote a scene called “Casino,” with, basically, a mocking mentality. I took it a step further by adding the language of a Martin Scorsese movie, with its Italians. I’ve got these Native guys talking like big-time gangsters in their casinos.
It’s such a rage—that whole thing of honor, keeping it within the family. You know, we might be able to sit down and bad-mouth so and so, but he’s our cousin. Nobody else can do that but us. You don’t talk bad about so-and-so to anybody else but a family member. That’s how it’s always been.
But what about rage at the white man—how is that depicted in your plays?
Part of that anger is an ongoing process, because a lot of things have not been taken care of. We’re all [in this country] supposedly on a level playing field, and that’s perhaps the biggest misconception. Sure, we’re all on a playing field, but it’s never been level. I’d like to say everything’s fine and dandy. But, no, we still have high unemployment in our Native communities; we still have problems with basic physical needs such as housing. Environmental conditions? Rivers are polluted. We have need for medical assistance, because we have such high rates of diabetes and heart and liver ailments. Now cancer is growing. In three generations, it hasn’t changed.
But I take the opportunity as a playwright to show that you can put the anger to the side rather than use it as a destructive force. It will still be there on a day-to-day basis. You know, I go into Providence and people come up to me and say, “Hey, you’re a real Indian.” I don’t get mad. It just amazes me that in this day and age, it still goes on. You don’t see someone go up to a black man and say, “Hey, you’re a real black man.”
Is there a casino on your reservation?
No. We have a small bingo palace called the Silver Wolf. They have video slots, but nothing in comparison with the Mohegan Sun or Foxwoods Casino.
When you write about casinos, how cynical can you be, especially when it’s how many tribes support themselves?
They’re economic band-aids. They’re not going to solve the problems, they’re a service industry. I don’t know how long they’re going to last, but people should try to make as much money as they can because you never know when they’ll go belly-up.
Part of what I feel about casinos is this: First, Native communities can’t exploit their resources, because they’ve already been exploited. A lot of tribes can’t nurture their timber industry, especially when their timber has been almost wiped out. A lot of the natural resources that traditionally gave sustenance to the tribes are gone. We have a situation where there is really no economic development happening. There are now places where tribes are harnessing wind for energy, but the days for exploiting coal or oil are almost over. On my reservation, we have a large deposit of lignite coal, but, culturally speaking, you just can’t tear up the land. Training and education are so desperately needed on the reservations right now. A lot of these kids don’t see a future from where they’re standing. And what they’re being taught in school has no relevance to their community.
Do Native American youth assimilate popular culture like most other kids?
Oh, yeah. But because the traditional culture has always been attacked from the outside, a lot of kids haven’t been raised with any knowledge of their own culture. Their culture is not being validated in the school process. I mean, you turn on the radio and you don’t hear the Badlands Singers, you don’t hear the Black Lodge Singers, you don’t hear a traditional drum group. On almost every FM station you hear U2, you hear rap songs, you hear 50 Cent.
It’s interesting, though, how we can take on stereotypes, too. You know, we’ve appropriated other cultures. For a while, there was such negativity against African-American culture—but then you had fry bread being presented as Indian soul food. You had the Temptations being blared out by these Native fancy dancers, who began adding R&B; and hip-hop to their tape collections.
From my perspective, there seemed to be an excessive amount of self-congratulation among non-Indians for their “wonderful” treatment of Native peoples in movies like Dances with Wolves. Will there be anything like that attached to Buffalo Soldiers?
No, there’s absolutely nothing like that going on. With this play we’re trying to develop a strong educational component, so you’ll have a reference list of materials where you can go to learn more. We’re establishing a website where you can download information written by Native people concerning the topic of the Buffalo Soldiers. We’re going way deeper.
We did a panel discussion following a reading of Buffalo Soldiers at Brown, and one student asked: “What are Buffalo Soldiers?” And this African-American woman stood up and said, “Well, the Buffalo Soldiers were honorable, trustworthy, loyal”—she noted all of the good things from the African-American perspective. And so I said: “That’s one definition. From a Native/Indigenous perspective, they were brutal, violent, vicious men who did not respect surrender. They fought you till the enemy was wiped out.”
Do you sense doors are opening for Native Americans in theatre?
Yes, and this has to be mentioned. The thing about Oskar [Eustis] is that he took a big risk by actually allowing me to be a playwright-in-residence at Trinity Rep, beginning with the Four Directions playwrights festival in 2002. Oskar has opened a door for Native people on the East Coast that hasn’t been open for a long time. I think the last guy that did it on the East Coast was Joseph Papp. He worked with Hanay Geiogamah and the Spiderwoman troupe. The big fear I have is: Will other doors open? And is this door going to close? That’s what scares me the most—you realize you’re the first one here, but at the same time you want to make sure the door always stays open for others to come through.
Buffalo Soldiers opens with a silhouette of a cowboy and a Native woman. Then it moves to the same view 100 years later, but with a contemporary couple replacing the originals. How much has rapid change affected Native societies?
Oh, it’s central. Things have changed so drastically. I remember the day when my dad was first trying to start a new record machine we just bought. Dad had gone to JC Penney because my mother had all these old Canyon Records, with recordings of all the local drum groups. He tried to put on the album, but he didn’t know how to do it.
I can see that image of my dad, with his T-shirt and his jeans, trying to turn that thing on. There are moments like that where you’re happy that he’s doing it, but it’s so sad that you want to cry. It hurts you in different ways. My father spoke fluent Assiniboine when he was young, and when he died I looked at his birth certificate and until the age of seven he was known as Old Rock. No Christian name, nothing. That was it. The other thing is that he was not an immigrant—he didn’t come from Italy, he didn’t come from Russia. This was his homeland; and he became a stranger in it.
A friend of mine, a Native colleague, used to say: “Bill, do you know how to start a fire? If 10 of your relatives came over, would you know how to feed them?” It’s a good question. You see, this is information that’s not being shared nowadays. Do you know how to drink from a stream? Do you know the way the ancestors used to test water to see if it was drinkable?
All ethnic groups have had to absorb technology into their ways of life. Has this been particularly troublesome for Native Americans?
Yes, because we’re not an ethnic minority. We’re indigenous people. This is our homeland. You can’t lump Native people as ethnics, we’re not ethnic, we’re indigenous, we’re aboriginal.
I kind of feel guilty sometimes because I’m not a full practitioner of many of my tribe’s cultural aspects. And I feel angry about that, because when my mother and father died, that was a link to the culture that is no longer here in this world. I feel regret that they’re not here. But that’s me—it’s not a general statement about how others feel.
Do you feel our young people are often angrier than other kids?
Once a woman who was Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho came to me and said: “Mr. Yellow Robe, can you talk to my son? He’s so angry and it scares me.” That kind of anger turns into self-hatred. It also turns into the need to escape into something else other than one’s self. We’ve allowed that to happen. It could be alcohol, it could be drugs, it could be a whole disassociation with Native culture. But for me, there was writing and theatre. Theatre was a way of dealing with the anger, and a way of presenting these problems. One of the things about this Euro/colonial art form known as theatre is that if Native people can form a relationship with it, it is a way for communities to develop their own Native language, to practice it, to teach it, and to share their culture within their communities—to basically, share their history. Theatre is a way for a community to empower itself.
How much were you a part of what went on in the ’60s and ’70s, that whole restoration of Native culture thing?
Because I was pretty young, I was mostly an observer. I remember when I was in high school I was elected president of our American government class, and there was a bill introduced by a Native woman to terminate the reservations, and we had to debate it. Some people I grew up with refused to partake, because the debates got really emotional and heated. They were raised with the idea that Native people aren’t worth anything. But I was up there debating this—even then, I was politically and socially active within the community at Wolf Point.
I had always asked the question: What is the catalyst for change? I read a lot of essays by Martin Luther King Jr., and after college I read Malcolm X’s autobiography. At the end, he said: “You know, when I actually went to Mecca, I realized that I can’t make generalizations any more. I can’t condemn anybody with a broad stroke.” And I really believe that, because you have to go beyond color. Judging people based on color is a luxury I have never had. With Martin Luther King it was civil rights; with Malcolm X it was human rights—the right to be ourselves. I don’t want to be your equal, I want to be myself. The recent generations have concentrated on making us equal. In the old tribes, they were themselves. We had Iktomi (Spider) stories, Coyote stories—Coyote turned himself into a mouse, a rabbit, a duck. The moral was: Be yourself!
You have spoken eloquently about the need to just be yourself among Native peoples.
How soon we forget that. That’s the reason why, when I first came to the East Coast and lectured at colleges or universities or social gatherings, I would say: I am honored to be in the home of the Narragansett, or, I am honored to be in the home of the Wampanoag, but I am Assiniboine from Montana. I don’t want to be a Narragansett or a Wampanoag or a Navajo. I want you to know that. I am honored to be with you, but I am not trying to be one of you. I’m Assiniboine, and I’m proud of it.
The reason I say that is to show these people I respect them. I respect you, I think you people are strong, I think you people are good, but I’m not trying to be like you. You see a gopher come across a deer, the gopher doesn’t all of a sudden try to grow antlers, the deer doesn’t all of a sudden try to go in a hole.
I am an Assiniboine playwright, not a Native American playwright. I can speak on some level to Native Americans in general, but when I write a play I’m talking from my heart, and that heart is Assiniboine. And sometimes there are good things and sometimes there are bad things, but I can’t really control that.
There seems to be a fierce need by certain non-Native people to embrace Native culture. Why is that, do you suppose?
My feeling is there is really a lack of fulfillment in their own humanity, in their own spirituality, in their own culture. They’re just looking to fill the void. It goes back, I suppose, to the question: Why did non-Natives feel the need to come to the so-called New World? You didn’t hear about a bunch of Sioux getting together to build a monster canoe and paddling to France. I go back to what Chief Red Stone said when he signed the Fort Peck Treaty: “Just listen, we don’t want you to get mad, we don’t want you to feel this way or that. Just listen. That’s all we want.”
On our homelands, you don’t have the grandchildren-come-latelies that you have here on the East Coast. The grandchildren-come-latelies exist in the more urban areas, but they hide; they don’t show up at the pow-wows because they know if they do they’ll get called out on that. This means they’ll be asked to stop simulating ceremonies because they’re not Native, or they don’t know what they are doing, and that it’s basically insulting. Instead of bringing honor and respect to yourself, you’re bringing disrespect.
Here, they show up at pow-wows in some of the strangest outfits, some of them pretty suggestive. I had a lot of East Coast people ask me: Does that happen out West? And I said: No! At our pow-wows, we have the whip man—you start going around bare-ass-naked dancing, he’ll throw you out. If you don’t have an outfit, they’ll suit you with an outfit so you can go out and dance. You see people trying to adorn themselves with all these respectful entities and eagle feathers, eagle claws, and they’re trying to appropriate a look without knowing anything of the culture. Ultimately, you know, you can’t get mad, you can’t laugh at them, because in the end they’re pitiful. They just don’t know any better.
When I came out here, I made the mistake of all western people coming out to the east. I made fun of some of the dance outfits. They were pretty funky. I went to a pow-wow here and I was watching a girl dance, and I was saying: Wow, that’s really a clingy buckskin outfit—she must have thrown that deer hide in the wash a couple of times to get it to shrink and shine like that. When I got up close, I realized her deer hide was made out of vinyl. There was another woman I used to call Dances with Pelts. She had all these damn pelts—when she’d get going in pow-wow, all the kids would come up and pet her pelts.
I felt bad for making fun of that, so for all this I had to apologize. That’s the reason I wrote, in their honor, the “Hold Me Closer Tiny Fancy Shawl Dancer” scene in Better-n-Indins. In it I show that some of them are just really trying, in a good way, to respect Native culture. I mean, who the hell am I to disrespect them? I’m not even from here. I can’t judge them.
How do you see this bleaching of tradition affecting Native spirituality?
Around here, everything is sacred. I used to do this routine during rehearsals of Better-n-Indins: “Now I’m going to sit down and drink from my sacred cup, and drink my sacred coffee, and if I get really gassy, I’ll go and release to the god what is there in a sacred way.” You know, when everything is sacred, nothing is sacred—it loses its meaning. We had this kid reading poetry one time: “Aho for the bears, Aho for the water, Aho for the bleachers, Aho for my car….” I thought: Gee, “Aho for this verb, Aho for this conjunction, Aho for this adjective, Aho for this pronoun…Aho for my dentures that came early from the Indian Health Service this week, AHO!” (Laughing) “Aho for the fact the dentist had the Novocain on a swab and not on a needle.”
They say everything is so sacred around here. I say if you’re going to do it, use the real thing. Don’t try to pass off these painted feathers as eagle feathers.
What could be an example of how to understand if something spiritual is the real thing?
The real thing is when you have an awareness and a clarity of what you’re doing. You’re doing it not because it will make you look good or make you feel good, but because you’re willing to sacrifice something of yourself. That’s the big difference. You’re not always thinking of yourself, you’re thinking of those around you—your family, your loved ones. That’s the reason I do what I do. When I do a play, it’s not really about me. For some reason, that can be hard to grasp for non-Natives. But we must be able to do our work without having to explain everything. Neil Simon doesn’t have to write a glossary in his plays to explain everything that might have something to do with Yiddish. O’Neill didn’t need a glossary to explain something that might be peculiarly Irish.
From Victor Mature to Kevin Costner, the popularity of Native people seems to wax and wane in the public imagination. Unfortunately, what seems to happen is new stereotypes get grafted over the old. Do you see that in theatre?
Yes, in theatre we have the same situation. I always tell people: If you’ve come [to one of my plays] expecting the magical mystery tour, you’ve come to the wrong play. If you’re expecting to see friendly, happy brown-skinned people, you’ve come to the wrong play. But if you want to see people celebrating life—this is it.
Are your characters celebrating life? A lot of them seem to be trapped in really traumatic situations.
Well, yes. But for a lot of the characters, they stop just trying to survive and they actually begin to live. They’re no longer just trying to get through, they’re actually living. People have always asked me: “How did you get out of this stuff?” I say: “I never left.” I never got out. It’s still with me. It will always be with me. But you can’t explain that concept—you can’t explain it to the people who don’t know. You can’t expect them to understand.
Could you define “this stuff”?
I grew up with so many different misconceptions of my people and myself. There was always that big myth that, you know, the only thing Native people can do is beadwork, the only thing they can do is drink. To be Indian you were required to accept this list. I remember one time my late wife, Diane, lost two hundred dollars. She felt so bad she cried. I told her not to panic, and I went downstairs to look for it in the car. After I was gone, the landlord came up to my wife and asked her outright: “Did he beat you?” And she said: “No, I lost this money and he went to go down and look for it.” But, see, the landlord had already decided because she was crying that I beat her. Part of it is gaining the acceptance of oneself—just being able to recognize the truth from lies.
As a staff writer at Indian Country Today, I had a non-Indian editor who told me Native/Indigenous people could not be racists. As an Oglala Lakota, my experience told me different. Buffalo Soldiers treats a very sticky issue in Indian country—Native on Native racism.
I always talk about this in my classes when they ask me about me being part black, because I’m five-eighths Assiniboine, three-eighths black—I was called “nigger” for the very first time when I was in the third grade by a very good friend of mine. So I went home and asked my mother: “Am I part nigger?” She looked at me, shook her head and said: “You know, Billy, you’re part colored, but I didn’t raise you to be part colored, I raised you to be Assiniboine.” And that’s the way I conduct my life. My late wife, who was the catalyst for Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, wanted me to write about this experience growing up on the reservation. I was sort of isolated—I couldn’t run to the white community like some of the other breeds. Those who were part white, if they got the Native community mad, they would run to the white community, and if they got the white community mad, they could run to the Native community—they would hide in both places. I couldn’t. There was no African-American community to hide with. But within that process, I had a chance to see both sides, and I’ve never hated either. I know a person who actually hated that he was part black. He launched himself totally into the Native culture. When he was a freshman he dropped out of high school, yet he could speak five different Native languages, including our own. He could look at a piece of beadwork and say, “That’s Crow, that’s Northern Cheyenne, that’s Blackfeet, that’s Cree.” That’s how good he was. But he hated the fact that he was part black. In fact, at one point he wanted to change his name. I would never do that, because I was proud of who and what I am.
If you were to prescribe a good way for Native peoples to accept modern life, what would that way be?
There are two misconceptions. The first is that we Native people have to reach out to the world. No. The world has to come to us. The world must continue to come to our nations. Columbus came here, the British Empire came here, the German Empire and the French Empire—they all came here and they stayed. Show me in any world history book where a boatload of Sioux went to China, or a boatload of Blackfeet went and set up a colony in India.
The second misconception is that being a “breed” is just an issue of being white and Indian. There are black Indians, Asian Indians, Chicano Indians—we’re related to the world now. We have relations with the world. We are traditional people, but whoever honors Indian people has to recognize that being Indian has to include being able to absorb change. Change doesn’t necessarily mess you up. It’s the hardest thing for a lot of people: to receive change. But that’s what we need to do to survive. Craig Robe in Buffalo Soldiers has changed when he comes back to the reservation. He realizes after he meets his family that he still has a lot more changing to do. The question is: Can he deal with it? If he’s going to get on with life, he’s going to have to.
In the final analysis, why do you write plays, and could you comment on other Native American performers or writers that you admire?
I do plays to show the Assiniboine are still alive, and that we are a part of the great Lakota Nation [according to oral tradition, the Plains Assiniboine separated from the Lakota Nation some time before 1640], and that I honor and celebrate the fact that my people are still alive today. The other reason is I try to create opportunities for younger people. The ultimate thing is to make it easier for the younger ones who are up and coming. The main responsibility I have is to make it easier for the next generation so they can step up and do it. In order for indigenous theatre to survive, it has to be generated by indigenous people. It has to be developed with tribal people; it can’t be from the outside.
There are a lot of Native American theatre artists I admire. I really enjoy Hanay Geiogamah and his work as a playwright. There’s Phyllis Bryson—she’s a Fort Peck Sioux who’s a director and actress. She’s from my reservation, though she’s originally from Poplar, Mont. There was John Kauffman, a Nez Perce, who passed away in 1990.
One of the main things hindering the movement for Native Americans getting into theatre is the lack of financial resources. One reason for that is that we get homogenized with “ethnic theatre,” and we’re not. Even the term “Native American theatre” lumps all these nations together, and that’s kind of dangerous, too. The cultural differences can be incredibly distinct. But there are some Native groups that are doing really good stuff: There’s Tulsa Indian Actors Workshop in Oklahoma; Red Eagle Soaring, out of Seattle; there’s the Project HOOP at UCLA that’s providing a lot of good information for Native communities. Thunderbird Theatre at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kans., is still going strong; and there’s a host of other community groups doing their best on nonexistent budgets.
What do you hope your plays accomplish for non-Native audiences? And what do your people think of you back in Wolf Point?
To answer the first part: That they’ll listen. And that, listening, maybe they’ll realize they don’t know all the answers. Because we don’t know them, either.
As for the second part of your question: It’s mixed. Some people remember my family, and my father, and they don’t like me—you know, old tribal politics. Sometimes, the biggest fear I have when I do a play is: What if back in Fort Peck they don’t like it? You know, for Native people you can go home again, but the biggest question is: Will they want you? In the end, if you were raised within the circle of your people, you are never out of the circle, no matter where you are.
David Rooks, a tribal member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, is a journalist living in southwestern South Dakota who reports regularly on issues affecting indigenous tribes of the Western Plains.
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