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.