Columns

Indian through American Eyes

In late June, my husband and I went to Ashland to see Between Two Knees, the first play by the 1491s, an indigenous comedy troupe made up of Ryan RedCorn, Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo, Migizi Pensoneau and Bobby Wilson.

The 1491s have created a play that ranges across Indian history including massacres and boarding schools with the zany, goofy boy humor that has made them famous. The richness of the play comes from the weave of a Native view of history interwoven with American attitudes toward Natives.

Ashland, Oregon is six hours from our home in SW Washington. We drove south through the green Willamette Valley and into the Rogue River Valley, west of the Klamath Basin, to a sunny landscape stitched with vineyards in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains. Ashland is a city with deep pockets, more posh than the last time I’d seen it.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival began in 1935, founded by a teacher from (what is now) Southern Oregon University. It has grown along with Ashland and produced 11 plays this year from Macbeth to Hairspray to Between Two Knees.

We follow well-heeled white folks and a few Native families into a small theater in the round. Images of Indian sports team mascots and the Land of Lakes Indian maiden are projected around the room. Cher’s voice sings “Half-Breed” in a play list that includes Johnny Preston’s 1959 hit “Running Bear.” Written by Jiles Perry Richardson, it includes uga-uga chanting and the refrain “Runnin' Bear loved little White Dove,” which keeps sounding like “running bear loves little white girl” in my head.

A recorded announcement explains that a land acknowledgment is “where we tell you that Shasta people and a bunch of other Indians used to live here and blah blah blah, but you space out and learn nothing about the original people of this land.” A printed land acknowledgment listing nine Oregon tribes is inserted into the program.

The play begins with a narrator “with a traditional Indian name,” that is, Larry, played by Justin Gauthier, Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, orienting the audience to the material. Larry is a steadying force, explaining the action between scenes, bridging the distance between a largely white audience and the story. “It’s okay to laugh,” he says, at the same time he sends a large coffee can through the audience for reparations. “Don’t worry you’ll still own everything anyway,” he says.

Gauthier is a former classmate of mine from the Institute of American Indian Arts where he graduated with an MFA in Screenwriting. Though he’s new to acting, the play relies on his gravitas, his ability to bridge the horror of Native history with humor.

The knees in the title refer to the first Wounded Knee Massacre and the occupation of Wounded Knee in the 1970s, which doesn’t initially sound like subject matter for a comedy, but it’s fertile ground for the1491s. The play focuses on Isaiah (Derek Garza) a baby rescued from the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, now depressed from years in a boarding school, where he meets Irma (Shyla Lefner) a strong Indian woman who challenges the system and helps him escape. Irma and Isaiah reappear as elders, played by April Ortiz and Wotko Long. The stories that thread through the pyrotechnic comic book battle scenes ground the play, creating a moving human story; at the same time America’s distorted vision of Native people hangs above the play, present and unavoidable.

Director Eric Ting manages a cast of professional actors playing many roles, adding to a free-wheeling sense of being loosed from a straight chronology. The choreography of fight scenes and the special effects—cod pieces that shine with LED brilliance when actors unbutton their pants to show the effects of circumcision—lighten the moments when a US Army officer arrives with scalps on his belts.

It’s cathartic to see Lefner play a strong female indigenous character stepping out of the too predictable victim narrative, before the play slides into a zany video game or comic book-inspired battle with ninja nuns, called nunjas, in full habits. The nunjas are one of the many laugh aloud moments I carry home with me. The play slides between an unpleasant history that we know too well and a kind of enjoyable sacrilege.

At the talk back after the play actor Rachel Crowl described how furiously the playwrights worked up until the last minute to complete the script. The impact varies on audiences, she said. Some people leave at every show, but performances often end in standing ovations, as ours did. I watched three white men in the front row sit with their arms crossed through early scenes, while white women whooped and waved their arms wildly as they sang “So Long, White People” in the finale.

When we left Ashland, we drove up Mt. Siskyou to see Mt. Shasta, then east toward Crater Lake on Dead Indian Memorial Road, which crosses Dead Indian Creek toward the Upper Klamath Basin. According to The Oregon Encyclopedia, Dead Indian Road was named in the 1850s for two Indians found there, although details vary about the event. After years of protest, “Memorial” was added to the name in mid-1993. We drove Dead Indian Memorial Highway toward home, still laughing.

Between Two Knees opened in April and runs through Oct. 27 at the Thomas Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore.

Also, on July 19, the 1491s (minus Ryan RedCorn) discussed the play on Native America Calling, describing their intentions for the play and its impact on audiences.