Who Should Tell What Story, Amended

by Larissa FastHorse

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Who Should Tell What Story, Amended

Since I am a half Native American and half white playwright, I advocate for the freedom to tell any story.  I don’t want to be limited to stories about half-breed NDNs from South Dakota who become ballet dancers that retire to a life of writing.  I’m already commissioned to write that story (thanks Peter Brosius), but if that is all I am allowed to write, I’m going to have a short career.  However, I want to add an amendment.  You can tell any story, but if you choose to write about a specific Native American culture, take the time to represent them accurately.  The United States has a very long literary and cultural history of misrepresentations of Native people.  (I suspect the following applies to any culture not your own, but I only have first hand experience with Native cultures.)

Doing this will mean extra time and work.  I do not mean reading a bunch of articles or books by non-members of that tribe.  Then you are simply repeating information from another outsider’s point of view, information coming through a cultural filter that has nothing to do with the people you want to write about.  You have to actually contact the specific tribe.  You laugh at how obvious this is, but trust me, it is rarely done.  Or is lamely attempted, with scant consideration for cultural differences that require adjusting your approach and timeline.  Even though Native American tribes are sovereign nations with separate languages and cultures that are very different from the mainstream and each other.  This is why you want to write about them, so be patient and do your work.

I do this work every time I write about a new tribe.  Lakota culture gives me no insight into the Kumeyaay or Eastern Cherokee.  Being Native does give me a stronger sense of trust from other tribes, but it is no guarantee that they will work with me.  However when I approach a tribe I keep these often repeated issues in mind:

1. No one likes a mooch.  You know that friend who always forgets their wallet or asks for favors but never gives anything back?  Don’t be them.  Remember that you are asking the tribe to do a favor for you.  And writing a play about them is not a gift.  It is not something they should be grateful for.  All tribes have their own storytelling traditions that they have held on to for thousands of years. They don’t need you.  You need them.  Ask nicely, with humility and find a way to give something back.

2. Theatre is not life and death.  Life IS life and death.  Don’t expect people to be on your time line.  These people have jobs and families and tribal issues and cultural obligations that are far more important than theatre.  Many rural tribes do not have access to regular cell phone or internet service or even electricity.  You are asking a favor, be patient about it.

3. You may be asking for things they cannot give.  One tribe I worked with does not allow non-Native people to speak their language on stage.  So they are not going to translate something for you when they cannot control who says it.  Some things are not meant for public viewing.  These things are writer catnip, but if you want further cooperation from the tribe, do not go there.  If you want to respect another’s spiritual culture, don’t go there. If you don’t care, go there, but don’t whine when people protest your play or get the artistic director to cancel it.

4. Too little too late. As writers we often have things worked out the way we want them to be in our head.  Too often writers make first contact with a tribe when they already know the role they want the Native character to play and come looking for validation.  This will lead to problems between you and the culture because this is not listening to learn.  By really listening you may not get the answer you want, but if you want to write about a specific cultural character, take them as they actually are or make someone else up.

5. Native people have no reason to trust you.  They have centuries of legitimate reasons NOT to trust you.  You are asking for something very valuable from people who have had, and continue to have, nearly everything taken from them.  If you feel any resistance remember, it’s not them, it’s you.  I don’t care how well meaning you are.  It’s not them, it’s you.  If you keep that phrase in your head, you will find opportunities for you to learn.

I do hope you tell a legitimate Native American story with accurate characters because we need them in the canon.  Native American actors need good roles to play.  The United States needs a tremendous amount of education about Native cultures.  Or you may find you are not the right person to tell this story. Either way, it is your choice to be part of the problem of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation or embrace the opportunity to be part of the solution.


Larissa FastHorse is a playwright and choreographer from the Sicangu Lakota Nation.  Her produced plays include Average Family, Teaching Disco Squaredancing to Our Elders: a Class Presentation, and Cherokee Family Reunion.  She has written commissions for Cornerstone Theatre Company, Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis, AlterTheater, Kennedy Center TYA, Native Voices at the Autry and Mountainside Theatre.  She developed plays with Arizona Theater Company, the Center Theatre Group Writer’s Workshop and Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor.

  • http://theautry.org/whats-here/theater-native-voices Jean Bruce Scott

    Thank you for this Larissa!

  • Kavelina

    Lovely, Larissa!

  • Marissa Chibas

    Thank you Larissa. Your guideline is very clear and I hope writers and theaters take it to heart. It is important that we write not just what we know but also what we are passionate about from a place of authority, respect, sensitivity, and imagination. Knowing the details and customs of the cultures we are portraying is essential. Thank you for that reminder. it is the generalizing of cultures that is so painful to witness.

  • Lynne Wheeler

    There was an amazing young actor, we met when he was 16, he was half Native American we helped him with his teeth, we are in dentistry and actors need great smiles, he worked hard in Community College and I helped him get a full-ride scholarship to The USC Theatre School! He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and I was so proud of him! He starred in many plays, cinema and dance too!
    I will be attending the TCG Conference with The Globe.
    Lynne

  • fromabq

    Everything you said is correct and right, but as a white, Jewish, Russian/Polish/French woman who wrote a play about two women, one an escapee of the Russian pogroms and a woman battling General Grant’s General Order II in 1863, and the other a Cherokee and a survivor of the Nunna dual tsuny, I ran into a stone wall with every Cherokee (both East and Western tribes) I talked to or wrote to. Once I phoned the reference desk in the main library in Albuquerque, and when I asked where the Cherokee settled at the end of the Nunna dual tsuny, in the Oklahoma Territory, I was shouted at “YOU DON’T NEED TO KNOW THAT!!” and hung on. Some of the Native American culture you can find people to talk about, and others are sacrosanct. I understand – as a Jew I’d be prickly about a gentile writing about the Holocaust, but if I felt the writer was honest in their approach and research, then yes, write about my culture, but in the case of the Cherokee and the Nunna dual tsuny, you’re going to hit a wall unless you are one of the 5 Tribes.

  • Larissa

    I just saw your posting. I am sorry you had that experience, but please remember that the Cherokee are several tribes of thousands of people. Generalizing about them all as one negative experience isn’t going to help your project.

    I can tell you that I am working on my second play about the Eastern Cherokee and have and nothing but amazing support from them for the things they are able to share. I respect that there are things not meant to share and do not try to talk or write about them.

  • Larissa

    Typo “..Cherokee and have had nothing…” Can’t find an edit button here.

  • Stephanie Ansin

    Thank you for this, Larissa. It’s very concrete and useful. I wonder how you might answer the questions that are now bopping around in my head — How do you know when you know enough? How do you know when it’s time to take the leap? We can never know everything, and one could easily get trapped by the I Don’t Know Enough Yet Syndrome and never act, never write. And there will always be people out there looking for the flaws. How do we know when we’ve fully achieved our responsibility to know and understand before interpreting and creating?

  • Larissa

    Fantastic questions Stephanie. I struggle with those as well. For myself, there is not a separate research then write period of time. I do a crazy amount of person to person research up front so I know I have resources to go back to as I write. I continuously ask questions as my characters make choices. But I also allow for two things, my characters are flawed people who probably do not know everything and I am going to make mistakes. I also have my closest research collaborators from that community read my play first and make changes as requested. I do not consider myself an expert in any tribe I have written on and someone will always disagree with a depiction, but as long as I have stayed true to a POV from my tribal contacts I feel I am accurately representing that person’s tribal experience. Which is all one character can do.

  • fernando calzadilla

    these kind of projects have an obvious overlap with ethnography and anthropology. In any case, theater and anthropology are not that distant from each other (see between theater and anthropology schechner 1985). Since the marcus/clifford critique of anthropology in the 1980s (anthropology as cultural critique 1986, the predicament of culture 1988) interpretation became the keyword in relation to the ethnographic work, that is, anthropology is subjective and not a hard science. The question of depth in the fieldwork remains open. I quote marcus in ethnography through thick & thin 1998 “if it is the traditional malinowki model concerning the virtues of depth in fieldwork, the specific terms in which this is defined is to attain a functionalist knowledge of another way of life by a complete outsider who goes through the process of “passing,” of becoming a fictive native through achieving “rapport” with those among whom he lives in order to eventually convert information from the native’s point of view into a form of professional knowledge. However, after the critique of the 1980s, depth is no longer the modality for getting a certain agreed upon functionalist topics such as kinship, ritual religion, etc. Rather, depth is understood a interpretations of cultural experience—ideas about subjectivity, personhood, the emotions. This is a much more demanding sort of depth required of ethnography—one that goes beyond the ability to respond in detail to the “notes and queries” inventory that defined classic ethnography. It is a kind of depth that challenges sensibility ; knowledge and understanding of experience in a particular way of life become much more intimately entwined.” I agree with marcus but, still how to achieve that depth, which are the ethical concerns when approaching a different culture? do we go “native”? ethic is a distance between what is and what ought to be. in the encounter we can’t be other than what we are hence we have to allow to be seen for what we are. there is no observation, no “learning” of the other. there is exchange, encounter, and in best case scenario, celebration.