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American Indian Experience

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The figure of the American Indian is possibly the most stereotyped in American history. The stereotypes range from the early settlers’ descriptions of American Indians as childlike savages engaged in hedonistic lifestyles to exotic images of natural figures free of civilization, the numerous sensationalist dramatizations on stage and in film of the “seductive squaw” enamored of white men, the “Noble Savage” with his primitive leanings and awe of white superiority, and the sadistic “Savage Redskin.” These images have been accepted into popular American culture, supporting the myth of the Wild West, despite their insulting inaccuracies. The small body of dramas that honestly reflect the American Indian past and present have a major imperative to expose these stereotypes for what they are. Passing over dramas like the popular John August Stone’s Metamora (1940), which merely fed these stereotypes, this chapter considers plays that challenge limited images of the American Indian experience.


The American government has historically vacillated between two opposing policies toward American Indians: maintenance and abandonment. In the first they isolate Indians on reservations, keeping them apart from mainstream society; in the second they try to enforce assimilation. It was not until 1924 that American Indians were legally allowed to hold dual citizenship of both the United States and the tribe to which they laid claim, even while many of these tribes continued to be stripped of their sovereignty into the 1960s. Provoked by loss of identity, reduced government support, and abject poverty, American Indians staged sometimes-militant protests, from the late 1960s onward, over land acquisition and the economic strengthening of many tribes as gambling became a viable source of revenue. It is this social background that informs the plays in this chapter.

One reason for the paucity of realistic (as opposed to sensationalistic) American Indian drama is the small number of American Indian playwrights. Although performance has always been a central part of American Indian culture, it has not been in the form of scripted dramas in the linear Western mode demanded by most theatergoers. It is only in the closing decades of the twentieth century that we have witnessed the rise of American Indian playwrights, some working in linear forms, but others incorporating the more circular patterns of Indian ritual in their work.

Arthur Kopit’s Indians offers a historical narrative of how badly American Indians have been treated in their native country. Building his story around the exploits of Buffalo Bill gives Kopit’s play a focal point through which to tell its tale of broken treaties, degradation, and humiliation. The action of the play has Buffalo Bill relive his life in an effort to understand how he deviated so far from his original intentions. Past events from how the West was won are reenacted, and it becomes clear that the legend of the Western hero taming a savage land is a fraud; the West was conquered mostly by stupidity and greed, which have been mythologized to try to justify what was done. Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show” becomes emblematic of this deceit.

According to Coyote by John Kauffman is written in dramatic style, but as a monologue to preserve the sense of the storyteller’s art so dominant among American Indians. Not concerned with the history of white treatment of American Indians through the past centuries, Kauffman tells a tale grounded in American Indian culture, a creation myth surrounding the ancient trickster character of Coyote.

Hanay Geiogamah was the first published American Indian playwright, and the first to examine the contemporary American Indian experience, including the problem of alcoholism. His Body Indian shows the condition of American Indians in today’s society. Although white-influenced government has a mostly negative impact on these people’s lives, Geiogamah’s focus is on the American Indians he presents on the stage. Geiogamah is concerned about the ways in which American Indian communities often obstruct their own advancement by becoming too self-involved and lacking in concern for the “body Indian.” The tale of Bobby Lee is a parable of both social and spiritual dimensions.

Indians explores the relationship between our cultural images of Buffalo Bill, American Indians, and the “Wild West.” Through stories told by John Grass, Sitting Bull, and Chief Joseph, we learn much about what happened to American Indians during the later part of the nineteenth century, and it is a history of governmental restrictions, betrayal, and broken promises. The artifacts in the opening scene indicate that this was a period fraught with death and violence; however, we discover that the death and violence have been largely directed at the Indians rather than caused by them. Buffalo Bill rides onstage performing his “Wild West Show,” but Kopit ensures that we see the undercurrents surrounding this image. Buffalo Bill’s egotism and desire for fame  have compromised his values. Although he respects American Indians and their culture, he has become increasingly instrumental in their devaluation and destruction throughout America.

To maintain popularity, Buffalo Bill kept changing his show. What had begun as an effort to convey an accurate portrayal of American Indian life, to give audiences a better understanding of this native culture, gradually became an inaccurate, sensation-seeking spectacle. The influence of the writer, Buntline, is insidious, as he mythologizes Buffalo Bill into a symbol of a Wild West that he thinks people want to believe, and has Buffalo Bill play the swaggering role he creates. Kopit illustrates how little whites understand tribal ways, and how they reduce a multifaceted culture to simple, insulting stereotypes. Buffalo Bill’s “Show” has been instrumental in this, exhibiting a caged Geronimo, who is made to describe acts of rape and murder against whites, or Buffalo Bill’s stories about defeating fifty drunken Indians on his own. Such fabrications inspire ignorant hatred of American Indians to the point where men get the bloodlust to kill as indiscriminately as Duke kills Spotted Tail.

At Buffalo Bill’s Presidential performance—a sensationalistic play filled with evil Indians who get slaughtered, and the character of Uncas declaring white superiority and insisting that Indians deserve death—he no longer even employs Indians to allow the tribe to gain some revenue, but casts non-Indians in their place. Even fellow showman Wild Bill Hickok becomes sickened by such inaccurate melodrama, and acts out by behaving as the Indians have been unfairly accused of doing, indiscriminately killing Buntline and attacking the “virgin maiden”(who ironically turns out to be fairly willing). However, the audience ignores the satire and equally applauds both displays of violence. They were never interested in being educated as Buffalo Bill had originally intended, but simply entertained.

Sitting Bull is desperate to bring food, clothing, and hope to his people, and though he initially saw Buffalo Bill as an ally, he accuses him of selling out. One example is how Buffalo Bill kept shooting buffalo for his “exhibitions” and helped to virtually eradicate this crucial tribal food source. While Buffalo Bill brings senators to see the poor conditions of Indians on the reservation, taking partial responsibility for what has happened to them, the whole exercise becomes futile. The senators alternately make excuses and feign innocence, or exhibit outright disdain for the state of the Indians. Neither side understands the other; each argues from a different premise, and with different sets of values. The Indians want to live as Indians, the whites think they want to live as whites, and it becomes increasingly obvious that their meeting will solve nothing; the government representatives view Sitting Bull as a nuisance rather than an equal. Soon after, Sitting Bull and his people are wiped out by government forces at the Wounded Knee Massacre.

In the play’s finale, Buffalo Bill talks to the spirit of Sitting Bull, who excuses him, suggesting that what the whites did to the American Indians would have happened with or without Buffalo Bill’s intervention. Buffalo Bill declares his   continued support of his country’s Indian policy, but his speech only exposes the terrible way in which Indians were treated—a series of forced removals, diseases, destruction, and greed. Indian spirits rise to speak about their deaths in counterpoint to Buffalo Bill’s attempt to justify what whites did as Manifest Destiny, further underlining the unfairness of the way American Indians were treated. Buffalo Bill finally admits his guilt, even as he continues to perform his show, illustrating his inability to change, despite full knowledge of what damage he causes.

John Kauffman wrote, directed and performed According to Coyote , having created it out of stories told to him by his Nez Percé grandparents and other tribal members. Intended as children’s theater, the play is complex enough to be performed for any age. In a series of short episodes, Coyote takes us through the creation of the world initially populated by an Ancient People shaped like animals, to the point where they are divided into their human tribes. Coyote assists humanity with important gifts of fire and tribal identity, but remains an animal at the close of the play.

To emphasize the American Indian origin of these stories, the play’s staging draws on traditional motifs of the Plains Indians. A circular floorcloth in red and blue with a symbolic representation of the coyote at the center is center stage. Encircling this are animal footprints and human handprints, encircled in turn by symbols for mountains and fire. Though Coyote begins in contemporary dress, he adds makeup and Plains Indian clothing as the scenes progress, while authentic American Indian rhythms and sounds punctuate each episode. In the first story Kauffman weaves together biblical, scientific, and Nez Percé creation stories to show the equal validity of each, thus building credence by association for the American Indian version.

Storytelling is key to the American Indian culture, which considers myths as tribal treasures in which the telling demands many rules and restrictions. Entertaining characters and events often mask the moral core of the story, and According to Coyote belongs to this tradition. The figure of the trickster appears in the mythologies of many cultures, but is particularly prevalent in American Indian culture, where he is depicted as an invincible scoundrel who continually bounces back from disaster. His resilience in the face of adversity emphasizes human possibility as much as it suggests the likelihood of divine intervention, and makes him an apt metaphor for American Indian survival as a whole. Coyote is such a trickster, whose failings and limitations often result in his demise, but who matures through his experiences to become a heroic figure by the play’s close. Yet Coyote remains an ambiguous hero, a mix of the benefactor and the wastrel.

As wastrel, we see Coyote tricked, chased, and pitched down, usually through his own arrogance, irresponsibility, or sheer foolishness. He teaches lessons in humility, sensibility, and manners by negative example in a series of episodes. He takes back the blanket he had given to the rock as a gift, then insults the Nighthawks who initially save him from the rock’s vengeance, so he gets crushed by a rock in punishment. Aiming to get the best name at the naming ceremony, he oversleeps, arrives late, and must remain Coyote. Dancing off with a star with which he has irrationally fallen in love, he drops back to earth to form Crater Lake. Diverted from his plan to eat Rabbit, he dreams about the better meal suggested by the rabbit, when he should be paying attention to Rabbit’s plot, and he gets burned to death. Finally, he fails to follow the Death Spirit’s directions and loses his wife. But despite these all too-human flaws, he is also an immortal who can be brought back to life after each failure, who gives fire to mankind and creates the tribes.

Coyote’s role as benefactor becomes evident when the Creator names him chief of the New People and commissions him to teach them how to live. Soon after, Coyote steals fire from the Skookums at the top of the mountain and, with unusual forethought, manages to relay it along to Wood, who can absorb it and prevent it from being recaptured. He then teaches people how to draw out the wood’s fire by using two sticks. Killing the Monster of Kamiah is equally ingenious, as he allows the monster to eat him, then cuts its heart out from the inside, and his creative force is again underlined as he designates tribes related to the monster’s body parts.

In the play’s final scene Coyote is allowed to climb to Spirit Heaven, but the rope he climbs is cut by people he has tricked in the past and he falls to earth, becoming the coyote animal we know today. On the surface his immortality appears lost, and yet it continues in the stories we still tell of trickster figures, be they in the storytelling of American Indians or in the cartoon figure of Wile E. Coyote.

Body Indian instantly dispenses with romanticized images of American Indians in its opening scene, set in an enclosed, dingy apartment with two drunken couples lying there asleep. Bobby Lee enters, also drunk, and on crutches because of losing a leg from a train accident after passing out on the tracks. He struggles into his Uncle Howard’s apartment, on one final binge, in search of emotional support for his plan to enter alcohol rehabilitation. What he receives at the hands of his friends and relatives is unrelentingly harsh, as they steal money from him each time he passes out, even pawning his artificial leg. Bobby sees what they have done to him as he wakes to find his money and leg vanished, and is forced to relive the horror of losing his leg.

Geiogamah writes for an American Indian audience, presenting what he sees as realistic American Indians—free of European-American stereotypes—who struggle for dignity, identity, and hope in a hostile contemporary society. Geiogamah’s concern that these characters be played realistically is conveyed by his notes on accent and pronunciation to ensure authenticity of speech. Unconcerned with historical caricatures of American Indians or the blame that must be assigned to whites in their treatment of this cultural group, he looks at American Indians in the present. When images of past injustices appear in his   work, they are only there to emphasize the nature of cause and effect, and how such events impact on the present. Geiogamah depicts Indian life with a brutal honesty, with all of its problems, not as a call to arms but as a call to introspection. He wants American Indians to think about their actions and consider what can be done to sustain a culture he insists is worth saving. Body Indian is concerned with the way American Indians mistreat each other, rather than any external prejudice they face.

Friendly on Bobby’s entrance, once he passes out, his relatives turn menacing as they roll him for cash on a pretext of needing more wine. They do not even stick together in their treatment of Bobby but attack in subgroups, accusing each other of hiding their findings. Even when delirium tremens sets in and they do need more wine, no one will admit to having cash to pay for it, which is why they take Bobby’s leg. While Geiogamah tempers his message with humor, his desire for American Indians to help themselves by treating each other better comes through as an urgent one if the American Indian is to survive.

Bobby’s character is indicated by his decision to pay $400 for his alcohol detox treatment, when he could get it for free; this marks him as a man of dignity and nobility, despite his current condition. He does not want to be dependent—on alcohol or government handouts—and is trying to help himself with his own money gained from leasing an allotment of land he owns. Sadly, his friends and relatives are too wrapped up in their own needs to offer any support; indeed, they actively work against him by stealing his money. This is a troubled group and Geiogamah does not blame white society for their weakness. He suggests that by their failure to work together, their automatic assumptions of the worst, and the way they give in so readily they have brought much of this misery on themselves. Instead of supporting Bobby, they undermine his efforts to be self-sufficient, and by this they undermine their own community. Bobby’s final cry can be seen as a frustrated acknowledgment of his own foolishness for trusting such weak people, people too fearful of getting close and too concerned with their own superficial needs, but it is a cry that should never have been allowed to happen.

On the surface this seems to be a play about the terrible effects of alcoholism and the stress of living in an uncaring society, but it is more than that. Geiogamah explores the way all people, but, in his view, particularly American Indians, tend to abuse, degrade, and hurt each other and themselves in their efforts to survive. This is endemic to American Indian groups not just because their struggle is so drastic, but because they are so bound together. The community we see in Howard’s apartment may be flawed, but it is a tight-knit community nonetheless, where all are related to some degree and they provide testament to the vitality of the “body Indian.”

The action of each scene is similar, but not repetitive. In every one we hear them talk, see them drink, Bobby passes out, and the others steal from him. However, each scene focuses on a different aspect of these people’s lives. While   the first scene establishes relationships and the pattern for later scenes, the next two scenes focus on the plight of the men and then on the women. The fourth scene offers the perspective of the younger generation, and the final scene shows the outcome. We learn that the men mostly drink to escape the indignity of their lives, and the women, whose representation appears a little more positive by their ability to at least sympathize with each other, live lives filled with drudgery and poverty. In an unusual twist, the younger generation in this play offers little hope, as they display the same problems we see in the older characters—no money, a lack of hope, and a sense of moral dislocation, as they engage in shallow and meaningless pursuits. Young and old alike take advantage of poor Bobby.

While Bobby is the only one on literal crutches, the other characters all use alcohol as a crutch; they are constantly in search of the next drink to ensure that they do not sober up enough to look too closely at their condition. Drinking for these people has become a kind of ritual, sadly replacing former rituals which were far less self-destructive. Unable to find jobs, they spend what little money they get from the government on alcohol. Money is a major issue here and, though they joke about it, we see that their poverty is not temporary but a permanent condition, one that wears away at their very souls and lies at the heart of their desperation. Yet their moments of song and dance indicate a desire for happiness, and the fact that they remain a living culture, despite their poverty, offers hope for the future, in spite of the play’s disturbing conclusion.

American Indian Movement (AIM) - AIM’S BACKGROUND, EARLY AIM ACTIVISM, AIM AND ATHLETIC MASCOTS, EXPANDING THE AIM MISSION [next] [back] American History X (1998) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

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