By Vickie Ramirez, member of the 2009 Emerging Writers Group
I’m about to lose a lot of friends with this one but here we go!
Most Indian* people believe that only Native writers should write about Indians. This applies to plays, films, literature and television. I’m about to get in serious trouble when I say, with qualification….I’m not one of them.
There are many reasons why Indian people reject the idea of outsiders telling our stories. We were aggressively colonized, Nations were eradicated, populations decimated and many lost tribal lands, languages, traditions and identity. Lest you think that I’m whining about the past, I would like to remind you that the residential schools, famed for their policy of “Kill the Indian and Save the Man,” were active until 1969. Children were taken from their homes, hair was cut and they were beaten if they showed signs of “Indianness” (e.g. speaking their language, or practicing ceremonies, etc.). Many of these kids are still very alive and part of modern Native society. My own people, the Haudenosaunee, still have clashes with both the Canadian and U.S. governments over land claims. When I say clashes, I’m talking about physical confrontations with armed government troops. The most recent of these clashes happened in 2009*. Last year, our lovely Mayor Bloomberg suggested that Governor Patterson “get a cowboy hat and a shotgun” to explain the law of the land to the Seneca Nation. Colonialism is a very tangible and immediate reality for all of us.
When a member of an invader culture picks up a pen to write about Indians, it gets very dangerous very quickly. The pen IS mightier than the sword and we know this because storytelling has a long-standing and revered place in our societies. It’s hard not to feel under attack when others pick up a pen in our name. Especially as many folks cherry pick the parts they like (ceremonies and way-cool buckskin accessories) and forget about the parts they don’t like (poverty, racism, highest suicide rate of any ethnic group in the Americas, etc.) Insulting pieces (Sitting Bull in Annie Get Your Gun) have evolved into paternalistic (Christopher Seldon’s adaption of Black Elk Speaks), prop-like (Johanna in August, Osage County) or historically inaccurate and offensive (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson). We’re like a seasoning – if you want a little tragic flair, a little “magical” flair, toss in a little bit of NDN.
So why do I believe its okay for non-Indians to write Native plays? Well, each of the above-mentioned plays inspired plays to answer them. The pantheon of Native plays is richer for the dialogue. This is the essential nature of theater, is it not? It’s how I started writing.
I would go to “Native plays” and not recognize anyone. I started writing because I wanted my people to have a chance to speak. I have some nameless writer with very little awareness about Native culture to thank for this.
I’ve written white characters. I’ve written black characters. I probably got it wrong, but they’re out there. I have yet to write a Latino, Arab or Asian character but if their voices creep up in my head, I’m gonna write ‘em too. I don’t expect any other playwright to do otherwise. Maybe it is my traditions but I believe artists are given their stories the way they are for a reason. Whether “Good Mind” or “Bad Mind” inspires you, your play is there to shed light on the human condition. We can’t be afraid to offend, nor can we be afraid to be offended.
However, I’m not saying call yourself “Running Deer” and you too, can write a Native play! I’m saying if you write a Native play – be ready. We will respond.
Sherman Alexie said it best:
“Well, artists can follow whatever path they want to, but they should also realize that they’re gonna be held to close scrutiny by the people they’re [making] work about. They have to expect it, but it also should be seen as what it is. When non-Natives write about Natives, that’s colonial literature. It can be great literature…it can be wonderful, amazing, but it’s still colonial literature…I think the United States forgets it colonized the Native Americans, and you know, I should say, by and large, it’s white liberals that forget that. I think white conservatives are happy they colonized Native Americans, but white liberals forget that and don’t think of themselves as being colonial.”
Let’s see if the dialogue can flow both ways.
*Let me apologize, I have to lose the “P.C.” label – I have no emotional connection to the phrase “Native American” so I find it difficult to use when I’m writing
* See Seaway Bridge dispute and Caledonia/Six Nations land claim dispute
Vickie Ramirez is a Tuscarora playwright,a member of the Emerging Writer’s Group 2009 and a member of Amerinda Theater and Chukalokoli Native Theater ensemble. Her play SMOKE, will be produced in April 2012 by Mixed Phoenix Theater Group in New York City.
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.