Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Family of blended heritage takes center stage at museum

Siblings of Native and African-American ancestry struggle through a process of acceptance in “Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers”

Photo by Katherine Fogden, Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian Leila Butts, as August Jackson, hands a bundle of sage to David H. Sawyer, who plays her uncle Craig Robe in the production “Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
By Kara BriggsAmerican Indian News Service

Washington, D.C.—“Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers,” a play that explores racial ostracism and redemption, is being performed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Photo by Katherine Fogden, Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian Leila Butts, as August Jackson, hands a bundle of sage to David H. Sawyer, who plays her uncle Craig Robe in the production “Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Playwright William S. Yellow Robe Jr. draws a story of adult siblings, descendants of an African-American Civil War cavalryman and a Native woman, who find themselves driven apart by their mixed feelings about their blended heritage.

At its core, “Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers” is a love story. It begins with the grandparents, who find love and leave their respective peoples to start a family together, and continues with their modern descendents, who renew their love for each other and themselves.

“Whenever you hear a story about the Buffalo Soldier, it becomes that the Indian woman was raped,” said Yellow Robe, 50. “There is no conception that these people might have been in love and that they were leaping into new relationships.”

Indian tribes in the West have a complex history with Buffalo Soldiers, who were all-African-American units in the U.S. Army. Tribes gave them the name “buffalo.” But the soldiers were assigned by the U.S. government to subjugate tribes, making them enemies to many. Still, in some instances, Indian women and African-American soldiers married.

For their descendants, prejudice isn’t only historic, as eldest brother Craig Robe explains in the play: “I saw myself through eyes that weren’t mine, then I got on my own and saw myself different.”

Yellow Robe, like his characters, is Assiniboine and also descended from these African-American cavalrymen.

The production is presented by the museum in conjunction with its exhibition, “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.”

“This is an opportunity to provide our audiences with greater insight into the IndiVisible exhibition, and to allow the local African-Native American community to share their story on stage through Bill’s words in the play,” said the museum’s Vincent Scott, who is directing the play.

Scott began reading Yellow Robe’s plays in the early 1990s when Scott was teaching at Fort Peck Community College on the reservation in Northeastern Montana, where the playwright is from. Since then, Scott has wanted to direct Yellow Robe’s work because of its themes of heartache and hope. Now Scott said the museum can bring these stories to the public.

“For myself it is an ongoing process of acceptance; there are moments of good and bad,” said Yellow Robe, who divides his time between writing and teaching literature at University of Maine.

Yellow Robe finds forgiving a necessary part of dealing with history, without forgetting the unique ways his family blended traditional Assiniboine and African-American culture. That synergy gives texture to his life and work like bannock and pork-neck bone, or corn soup and spare ribs, or R. Carlos Nakai and Duke Ellington.

At the museum, the play has inspired sharing among the cast and crew about the universality of knowing and respecting one’s family ancestry, said Scott. He hopes that will resonate with audience members, too.

“Discussions during break times often occur among cast and crew that allow opportunities for company members to share their own experiences of living with mixed heritages or being tribal members,” Scott said.

While the characters in the play confront the different ways in which they have dealt with their mixed-race heritage, there is one character, a young niece, who embraces her whole identity, proudly dancing in regalia, and giving her family hope.

“There are a lot of Native families in Montana who have come up to me and said, ‘That’s our story,’” Yellow Robe said. “The play itself is now reaching communities where people are now facing this reality, because to live in denial is the worst.”

Yellow Robe, who hopes someday to move home again to the Fort Peck Reservation, reflected, “It’s like the old people used to say: We are related to the world.”

View the “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas” exhibition online at

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Costume Designer Interview

Costume Designer’s Interview – Valerie St. Pierre Smith
By Jacqueline Lawton

Jacqueline Lawton: To begin, tell me how long you have been a costume designer.

Valerie St. Pierre Smith: Longer than I think. :) I studied fashion and theatre while an undergrad and have been designing ever since. Guess that adds up to about 15 years.

JL: Next, have you always wanted to work in fashion? Who are some of your style icons and inspirations?

VSPS: Though related, costume design is very different from fashion. I studied fashion in college and it is a whole other world. I follow it, and it is a hobby, but an industry that working in as a stylist and model was plenty for me. I don't really have style icons, since every season I'm intrigued by different designer's collections. That being said, I've always loved the vintage styles from Dior or Balenciaga to name a few. Next time I attend an awards show I'm hoping to score a vintage gown.

JL: How did you first get interested in costume design? Why did you decide to get into theater? Have you worked for television and film?

VSPS: Theatre found me while I was in college. I began studying museum studies, only to discover the school I was at was eliminating one of the majors I needed to create that course of study. And the new major that they suggested bored me to tears. I've loved sketching fashion and costumes since I was a kid- anyone remember the Ice Capades?- and took an Intro to Costume course more as a break from my studies. While in that class, I realized I was spending copious amounts of time on the design and sewing, both skills I knew to a relative degree, and was loving every minute of it. Thankfully my alma mater allowed a student to create an independent major, as long as it drew from two existing programs. So I combined the fashion program with the theatre program. I put in so many hours with the theatre program that I would up with a BFA in Theatre.

During and after grad school, which I attended for costume design, I did work in television and film. I've also worked for theme parks, independent photographers and as a fashion stylist. It is one of the things I love about what I do- I can actually work on a variety of projects that are never the same.

JL: What excited you about designing costumes for Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers at the National Museum of the American Indian?

VSPS: First of all, I am of Anishinaabe descent and the museum is one of my favorites. I designed costumes for the first show produced by NMAI Mall museum last year, The Conversion of Ka'ahumanu, and really enjoyed the working environment. It also allows me to blend the passion I feel for representing and telling the stories of our native people with my love of design.

JL: How did you prepare for the costume designs for Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers? What was your inspiration? How much research goes into it before you even sketch your first drawing?

VSPS: There is an incredible amount of research that goes into every show you design. One such as Buffalo Soldiers especially, as it represents a very specific place and people. Even if we were doing a period Shakespeare play, a designer needs to not just look at pictures or paintings of what people, but needs to know why those styles, fabrics, colors, trends were popular. Our clothing represents not only our personalities, but a lot about our culture as a whole. It is like being a social anthropologist, psychologist and fashion designer rolled into one. For this show my inspiration was the modern reservations of Montana and traditional Pow-wow dress.

JL: In your experience, how true is the final costume to the ideas you get during or right after the play reading? If changes do occur, how much of this has to with how the actors may feel about their characters? Also, does the set or lighting impact your design at all?

VSPS: Theatre is a collaborative art. Any work done by anyone on the team- designer, director, actor- in some way will affect the whole production. The director is ultimately responsible for maintaining a cohesive vision, but everyone else is part of that process as well. Very often my first impressions of characters are like those of any person. From those personalities is where I begin to visualize them. More often than not, if my interpretation of the character matches that of a director, my initial designs don't change that much. It is still very much an organic process, so sometimes an actor will come up with a "bit" for their character that I need to incorporate. Perhaps someone wants to have a nerdy pair of glasses to play with and emphasize their character. Or the set will designed in such a way that my initial concept for a character, say wearing 4 inch heels, has to change because there is a ten foot tall staircase they have to descend. It can be as much about organization as it is about creativity.

JL: What was your biggest challenge in the overall process?

VSPS: It is too soon to tell. Possibly remaining true to the costume demands, such as needing dance regalia, on a limited budget. There are also some scenes where characters need to change costumes, or look like they've been in a fight, yet have no time between scenes to change clothes. Making that look believable can always be a challenge.

JL: Finally, what advice would you give a young person interested in becoming a costume designer?

VSPS: Be ready to work and work hard. This business is an exciting one, but a grueling one as well. Study as much as you can, open your mind up to possibilities since you never know where inspiration will come from, and don't be afraid. This business may sound glamorous, but in reality requires a lot of patience for other people, a lot of sacrifices in terms of money and family, and can burn you out if you don't recharge your batteries.

Set Designer Interview

Set Designer’s Interview – David Dwyer
By Jacqueline Lawton

Jacqueline Lawton: To begin, tell me how long you have been a set designer.

David Dwyer: About 22 years, give or take.

JL: Next, in terms of your work in general, is there a style that defines your work, or a signature of some kind--something that invariably shows up in your work or otherwise defines it?

DD: I’m not sure if I have a particular style; my style adapts and is dictated per the needs of each production, but what I’ve been told is a signature of mine is that I have a flair for making designs work beautifully under extreme circumstances of space, time or budget… sometimes all three. However, sometimes I wish I didn’t have such flair!

JL: How did you first get interested in set design? Why did you decide to get into theater? Have you worked for television and film?

DD: I suppose I was like many children in that I had dreams and visions of one day becoming a famous actor. I began acting in community productions as a child, and by the time I reached college age I had about 25 shows under my belt. The dream of being an actor persisted until as a young adult I worked a summer as an actor in summer stock where I quickly gave up that notion when the realities of life as an actor set in. I designed my first set while a senior at Kirtland High School in Northern Ohio in 1988. I am the son of a Pipefitter and consequently learned many practical skills from my father in building and repairing just about everything. Somewhere I inherited some artistic skills, and well, scenic design, for me, seems to combine my practical and artistic skills, along with the driving interest in the theatre I developed as a youth.

My work in TV and film has been limited, I’ve worked on a few TV News sets, but I’d love the opportunity to do more.

JL: What excited you about designing the set for Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers at the National Museum of the American Indian?

DD: What excited me with this design, as did the design of The Conversion of Ka’ahumanu last spring, is the wonderful process of discovery. It is the journey from limited knowledge of a group and their culture to a deeper understanding of a people and their struggles and the trials of individuals. Then, the challenge to represent those discoveries visually in the design.

JL: How did you prepare for the set design for Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers? What was your inspiration? How much research goes into it before you even sketch your first drawing?

DD: Research, research and more research- that is the key to any good stage design, and certainly it is the case with this design. I draw my inspiration from a variety of sources. In the case of Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, being a contemporary play, most of my research comes from image searches online, with a few other print sources. I have literally spent hours and hours in research. There have been a few key images from which has sprung the inspiration for the scenic design.

JL: In your experience, how true is the final set to the ideas you get during or right after the play reading? If changes do occur, how much of this has to with how the actors ability to use and access the set? Also, does the set or costumes impact your design at all?

DD: When I first read a script often the ideas or pictures I get in my head are beyond the budget or simply impossible to build, as the ideas develop, and are refined through discussions with the director, the set is shaped into the final design. At this point, the set for Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers is in it’s fifth or sixth incarnation, (while most of the production team has only seen the last two), and I’m sure there are more changes to be made. Naturally, part of my concern as the set designer is the traffic patterns and ability of the actors to move fluidly around the stage. When I envision a set in my mind, I try to see it as the final product: with actors in costume saying their lines, under the lights, moving about the space. All the designers for a production need to collaborate in order to have a unified production.

JL: What was your biggest challenge in the overall process?

DD: The biggest challenge by far has been finding research images of the interior of contemporary reservation homes.

JL: Finally, what advice would you give a young person interested in becoming a set designer?

DD: Design everything you can. Take many, many art classes and build your skills. Find a designer whose style you like, and learn all you can about their process and how they got to where they are- never settle for the easy way out, but take the design to the next level.

In the words of Scenic Designer David Gallo “If you can be happy doing anything else, do it.” Meaning this is a challenging career; you have to love it.

Director's Interview

Director’s Interview – Vincent Scott
By Jacqueline Lawton

Jacqueline Lawton: To begin, tell me how long you have been directing.
Vincent Scott: I have been directing plays for the theater for over twenty years. I first studied theater in undergraduate school at DeSales University in PA, and later received an MFA in Directing for the Theater from Wayne State University in MI. Since then I have had opportunities to direct in educational settings, summer theaters, Native theater companies, playwright conferences, community theaters, etc. I even once directed Terra Nova at the South Pole, Antarctica!

JL: Why did you decide to get into theater? Was there someone who inspired you?
VS: I decided to get into theater because I found myself attracted to the audience experience of plays and musicals I saw as a child. Later I very much enjoyed the experiences of being cast in musicals in high school. In college I was definitely inspired by my acting teacher, Bill Callahan, to pursue a life in the theater and to pursue it with excellence. I’ve been very fortunate since those days to continue to be inspired by many others, such as Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, Romulus Linney, Terrance McNally, Mark Lamos, Arthur Kopit, with whom I’ve had the honor to work at the Last Frontier and the Great Plains Theater Conferences. In the world of Native theater I’ve been inspired by Jana Rhoads and Julie Pearson-Littlethunder, Randy Reinholz and Jean Bruce Scott, Diane Glancy, JudyLee Oliva, Tomson Highway, Drew Hayden Taylor, and Bill Yellow Robe.

JL: What excited you about directing Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers at the National Museum of the American Indian? What made you choose this play?
VS: I was excited to direct Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers because of the opportunity to feature this play in support of the museum’s exhibit, IndiVisible: African-Native Lives in the Americas, and to direct a play by William S. Yellow Robe, Jr. The play deals with issues raised by the experience of being of Native American and African American heritages; similar topics are directly explored as well in the IndiVisble exhibit. I also was fortunate to have lived and worked on the Fort Peck Reservation, where the play is set. Lastly, I think Mr. Yellow Robe is an excellent playwright and his voice should be heard on our stage here at the NMAI and on stages throughout this country. It is an honor for me to be working on this play.

JL: Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers addresses the complicated relations between people of African and Native ancestry. It is a story that addresses the difficult notions of assimilation and cultural identity. It is also a story of love, acceptance, and challenges that come with being a part of a family and a community. How have these ideas influenced your approach to the play?

VS: My first approach to this play is to reach out to the local community who self-identifies as Native-African American and to encourage them to be involved in this project in some way so they can take ownership for telling this story. I did this by working with this museum as well as the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and with the team that created the IndiVisible exhibit.

My approach to directing any play is to do my best to tell the playwright’s story as envisioned in the script. I do this by assembling the best possible design and production team and cast that resources and opportunity permits.

In the rehearsal process, I’m working with the cast, many of whom have mixed ancestry, to begin to understand the experience of moving into a Native world as lived on a contemporary Indian reservation. This is a new experience for many in the cast, as it will be for the majority of our audiences. We have the great gift of having several Native cast members who help all of us begin to understand a Native worldview. Once we are grounded in this very rich and vibrant reality, we can begin to tap into the very human and universal experiences of love and hate, which are sometimes based upon family ties and cultural heritages. An important quality to this play is that even though the play examines one family of a particular mixed cultural heritage, the notions of how we as humans relate to our family and community, especially if we are a member of a minority community, can be understood by audience members of many different cultures and backgrounds. One of they keys to this play is finding the hope after the pain; the key to that in this script is the hope provided by the wisdom of the young child, August.

JL: From your perspective, what makes the story of Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers relevant for today’s audiences? What can audiences learn from Craig’s struggle to be a better man? What can we learn from Brent’s determination to rewrite his family history?

VS: What makes this story relevant is the experience that many Americans have of being of mixed ancestry and deciding how their heritages connect and relate to their everyday self image and identity. Every day we have the opportunity to acknowledge who we are and where we came from; sometimes this is a great source of pride and sometimes it is not. Often many in our culture don’t know their own family’s history well. This play’s message of acknowledging who we are and respecting our cultural heritages is universal and timely in a world where wars and violence often are based on not respecting another’s cultural heritage.

Craig’s struggle to be a better man and overcome his demons is a journey that each person faces at some time in life. Craig’s journey to find peace and healing will resonate with audiences who may also be walking a similar path toward healing and wholeness.

Brent’s determination to rewrite his family history may well evoke sadness and pity from our audience members who see the great loss and pain that Brent’s actions cause to his extended family and reservation community. I’m hopeful that audience members will appreciate the opportunity we all have to acknowledge and take pride in one’s family history, no matter how complicated or little known and appreciated that family history and culture may be.

JL: What has been the most difficult part of directing Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers? How did you work through it?

VS: The most difficult part of directing this play is working around cast members’ schedules of prior commitments. Our rehearsal period is limited and we ask a lot of the cast and production staff in such a short period. Everyone involved has full lives already with work and school and family commitments. I try to honor each company member’s commitments made prior to being cast in the play. That can make for some challenging times as we try to create and stick to a rehearsal schedule. Fortunately, the cast and crew are very generous with their time and talent and really pull together as a family to do the best job we can of bringing Bill’s play to life.

JL: What has been the most rewarding part of directing Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers? Who or what contributed to that?

VS: The most rewarding part of directing this play is to introduce our audiences to one family’s story on a contemporary Indian reservation through the storytelling of Bill Yellow Robe. I sometimes remind the cast that the word choices and colloquialisms that Bill uses in his script will transport audiences into a Native milieu, and our task in doing this successfully is not unlike the task that a Shakespearean company has in introducing their audiences into a world with language and customs quite unfamiliar to a contemporary American audience.

VS: It is also a joy to watch the interactions of members of the cast helping each other throughout our journey. We have Native performers who really help non-Natives in the cast gain a greater understanding and appreciation of a Native way of being human. We have experienced actors in the cast helping less experienced members learn the ropes of performing in live theater. Such generous interactions are my hopes and expectations when directing a community based theater production such as this one.

JL: If there is one thing you want audiences to walk away knowing or think about, what would that be?

VS: Respect yourself, respect your family, respect your ancestors. Forgive yourself, forgive your family, forgive your ancestors for failings and shortcomings. Thank your family and friends for helping you be the person you are. Walk the road to healing and wholeness as may be necessary to live a fully human life.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Assiniboine Tribe Fast Facts

How do you pronounce the word "Assiniboine?" What does it mean?It's pronounced "ah-SIN-uh-boin." It comes from the Ojibwe name for the tribe, Assinipwan, which means "stone water people." The Ojibwe probably called them this because they used heated stones to boil most of their food. In Canada, the Assiniboines are also known as the Stoney Indians, for the same reason. In their own language, the Assiniboines call themselves Nakota or Nakoda, which means "the allies."

Are the Assiniboines Sioux people?The Assiniboines are relatives of the Lakota and Dakota tribes, and they speak a similar language. However, they have always been politically distinct from the Sioux. In fact, they were often at war with each other.

Where do the Assiniboines live?The Assiniboine Indians are original people of Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. Most Assiniboine people are still living there today.

How is the Assiniboine Indian nation organized?In the United States, the Assiniboine Indians live on two reservations, Fort Belknap and Fort Peck. A reservation is land that belongs to an Indian tribe and is under their control. The Assiniboines at Fork Belknap share a reservation with the Gros Ventre, and the Assiniboines at Fort Peck share a reservation with the Sioux. In Canada, there are eight separate bands of Stoney Assiniboines, each with its own reservation (known as a reserve in Canada.) Each of these tribes has its own government, laws, police, and services, just like a small country. However, the Assiniboines are also US or Canadian citizens and must obey the laws of those countries too. In this past, each Assiniboine band was led by a chief elected by a tribal council. Some Assiniboine bands in Canada still operate this way today. In the United States, because the Assiniboines share reservations with the Gros Ventre and Sioux tribes, they are ruled by councils which are elected by all the citizens and include members from both tribes.

What language do the Assiniboine Indians speak?The Assiniboine people speak English today. Some Assiniboines, mostly elders, also speak their native Nakoda language. The Nakoda language spoken in Canada is significantly different than the one spoken in the United States. Most linguists consider them two distinct languages, Stoney (Canadian) and Assiniboine (American.) Like Spanish and Italian, they share many similarities and speakers of one language can often guess what speakers of the other language are saying. If you'd like to know an easy Assiniboine word, "hau" (pronounced similar to the English word "how") is a friendly greeting.

How do Assiniboine Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?They do the same things all children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. Many Assiniboine children like to go hunting and fishing with their fathers. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play in their daily lives, just like colonial children. But they did have dolls, toys, and games to play. There was a hoop game played by Plains Indian kids. Older boys also liked to play lacrosse. An Assiniboine mother traditionally carried a young child in a cradleboard on her back--a custom which many American parents have adopted now.

What were men and women's roles in the Assiniboine tribe?Assiniboine women were in charge of the home. Besides cooking and cleaning, an Assiniboine woman built her family's house and dragged the heavy posts with her whenever the tribe moved. Houses belonged to the women in the Asiniboine tribe. Men were hunters and warriors, responsible for feeding and defending their families. Only men became Assiniboine chiefs, but both genders took part in storytelling, artwork and music, and traditional medicine.

What were Assiniboine homes like in the past?The Assiniboine people lived in large buffalo-hide tents called tipis (or teepees). Tipis were carefully designed to set up and break down quickly. An entire Assiniboine village could be packed up and ready to move within an hour. Originally tipis were only about 12 feet high, but after the Assiniboines acquired horses, they began building them twice that size. Today, Native Americans may put up a tepee for fun or to connect with their heritage. Most Assiniboine families live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Assiniboine clothing like? Did the Assiniboines wear feather headdresses and face paint?Assiniboine women wore long dresses made of mountain goat skin or deerskin. Assiniboine men wore breechcloths with leather leggings and Plains or Plateau-style shirts. The Assiniboines wore moccasins on their feet, and in cold weather, they wore long buffalo-hide robes. A Assiniboine lady's dress or warrior's shirt was fringed and often decorated with porcupine quills, beadwork, painting, and elk's teeth. Later, Assiniboine people adapted European costume such as cloth dresses and colorful blanket robes. Assiniboine Indian leaders sometimes wore the long warbonnets that Plains Indians are famous for. Other Assiniboine men wore buffalo headdresses, which were buffalo fur caps with horns attached to the side and a tail trailing behind. Traditionally, Assiniboine people only cut their hair when they were in mourning. Usually they wore their hair long and loose, though warriors sometimes wore their hair in braids or coiled on top of their heads. The Assiniboines also painted their faces for special occasions. They used different patterns for war paint, religious ceremonies, and festive decoration. Assiniboine men also wore tribal tattoos on their chests and arms, while the women tattooed spirit lines on their faces. Today, some Assiniboine people still have moccasins or a buckskin dress, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of breechcloths... and they only wear traditional regalia on special occasions like a wedding or a dance.

What were Assiniboine weapons and tools like in the past?Assiniboine hunters used bows and arrows. In war, Assiniboine men fired their bows or fought with war clubs and buffalo-hide shields.

What other Native Americans did the Assiniboine tribe interact with?The Assiniboines traded regularly with other tribes of the Great Plains. They particularly liked to trade buffalo hides and meat to tribes like the Hidatsa in exchange for corn. These tribes usually communicated using the Plains Sign Language. The Assiniboines also fought wars with other tribes. Plains Indian tribes treated war differently than European countries did. They didn't fight over territory but instead to prove their courage, and so Plains Indian war parties rarely fought to the death or destroyed each other's villages. Instead, their war customs included counting coup (touching an opponent in battle without harming him), stealing an enemy's weapon or horse, or forcing the other tribe's warriors to retreat. Some tribes the Assiniboines frequently fought with included the Sioux, Blackfeet, and Crow Indians.

What are Assiniboine arts and crafts like?Assiniboine artists are famous for their quill embroidery, beadwork, and carving arts.

What kinds of stories do the Assiniboines tell?There are lots of traditional Assiniboine legends and tales. Storytelling is very important to the Assiniboine Indian culture. There are many stories about the adventures of the Assiniboine hero Icmá. For more information, follow this link: Reprinted with permission.

The Tricky Business of Racism:

Comments Upon Reading Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldier

The tensions existing within the African-American world as regards color differences, hair characteristics, and cultural preferences are well known to many persons. The damage inflicted to African-American self-esteem by conquest, captivity, segregation, Jim Crow discrimination, and internal colonialism have been written about and shown before camera at great length.

Less well known are the comparable inner-group tensions existing within Native American communities, tensions exacerbated by a century to two centuries of totalitarian manipulation on reservations by white bureaucrats, a process which often sought to co-opt tribal members into a status hierarchy of "progressives" (often of mixed ancestry) versus "full-bloods" (also sometimes mixed, but usually still speaking the Indigenous language). Add to this the impact of Christian denominations, each seeking to destroy traditional values and recruit converts to their particular way of thinking and one has a "witches' brew" of forces seeking to divide and destroy Indigenous communities.

One must imagine that First Americans, such as the Assiniboine, were like most human groups with their full range of family rivalries, jealousy, gossip, and internal factionalism. But in the traditional way, Indigenous societies usually had ceremonial and other remedies for such tendencies, ones which, after all, could be dangerous to survival if allowed to get out of hand.

The European invasion, with all of its disruption of traditional life, left many tribal communities both materially and culturally impoverished. The Europeans attempted to introduce a new hierarchy in many spheres; class, education, color, language, wealth, religion.

Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldier provides us with a penetrating glimpse into many facets of the impacts of racism and colonialism, glimpses which are deeply personal and at the same time universal, I think, and are found throughout "Indian Country" in varying forms.

The fact that an ancestor of the Robe family was an African-American soldier in the U.S. Army (a "Buffalo soldier") provides the central theme for the action. That his descendants suffer from gossip, humiliation, and personal attacks because of being part-African may be seen as being directly related to the profound insights into the status of "breeds" of all kinds as seen in this drama. The fact that there are "breeds," persons of mixed ancestry, is of course not new in Ancient American life. We can be sure that Original Americans were marrying across tribal and language lines for thousands of years. We can also imagine that many jokes might be told that would reflect on the "strange" language or customs or appearances of the neighboring tribes (friendly or hostile). But colonialism and the pressure cooker of reservation life changed all of that natural tendency at humor and local ethnocentrism.

Africans and Americans ("Indins") began to intermarry in the 1520's-1540's in North America when a group of Africans successfully rebelled against the Spaniards in Chicora (South Carolina) and joined the regional Indian communities. (This happened even earlier in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean). The process of intermixture was greatly accelerated by the DeSoto expedition, the founding of St. Augustine (1565), and by the later importation of large numbers of captives by the French, English, and Spaniards for the next three hundred years.

Many of the captives (I try not to use the term "slave" which is derived from "Slav," the name of an ethnic group) came to North America from the Caribbean and were already mixed with Native American ancestry. Others came from Africa directly, especially those headed for South Carolina. There they met large numbers of Native American captives stolen from the tribes of Florida and the lower Mississippi Valley (Timucua, Calusa, Apalache, Choctaw, Caddo et cetera).

Along the east coast of what became the United States most of the surviving tribes from South Carolina through Massachusetts became part-African. At the same time African-American population became part-"Indian." To complicate matters, several of the southern nations (Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws) became involved in the captive trade and eventually they allowed their mixedblood elites to become a captive-owning class becoming wealthy from un-free labor. For this reason Oklahoma today is the home of large numbers of "Freedmen" people, ex-citizens of the "Five Tribes" who have African ancestry but are largely avoided by the Native and white mixed-blood persons who remain on the U .S. federal tribal rolls.

The "Buffalo Soldier" who married a Native woman on the northern plains and who became an ancestor of the Robe family could well have been part-Native himself. He is by no means unique. The discrimination which his descendants experience is part of the sickness of racism and ignorance perpetuated by the dominant society and magnified by the hot-house atmosphere of destabilized tribal communities.

The widespread opposition, on the East Coast, to the success of the Pequots and other part-African gaming tribes as well as the opposition to federal recognition for the Lumbees of North Carolina, stem from the very same source.

The Robe family has been doubly ill-served by racism and inter-family jealousy. In actuality, their heritage is an especially rich one, mirroring as it does the history of countless American nations from the Mapuche of Chile north to the Wampanoags of Massachusetts, the Crow of Montana, and the urban "Indins" of Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay. The fact that the Robe family has its own dance, a "jig" learned from their old Cree allies, and the unique family stories, could be, in a different place, a source of strength and joy.

The Robe story is really the American story, from Patagonia to Alaska. It is also our story, all of us who claim today to be "Americans."

Jack Forbes is a semi-retired professor and co-founder of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis. He is of Powhatan-Renape, Delaware-Lenape, and other Native American descent. He is the author of AFRICANS AND NATIVE AMERICANS, RED BLOOD, ONLY APPROVED INDIANS, and other works which explore Red-Black connections. Reprinted with permission. For more information see:

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Helpful Articles from our Dramaturg

Jacqueline Lawton, our production dramaturg, has provided the cast and crew - and now you - with very helpful information that provides context about the play and related research. Enjoy the articles and interviews and information!

Playwright Bio
WILLIAM S. YELLOW ROBE, JR. (Playwright) is an enrolled member of the Assiniboine Nation located on the Fort Peck Indian reservation in northeastern Montana. William is the Playwright in Residence at Trinity Repertory Company and has been a Guest Lecturer/Professor at the Africana Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Yellow Robe is an actor, playwright, director, poet, and instructor. He is a Faculty Affiliate in the Creative Writing Department at the University of Montana, in Missoula, Montana, and was awarded a Libra Professor of Diversity status at the University of Maine, in Orono, Maine. His body of work includes over forty-five plays, including full-length plays, one-acts, book for musical, and children’s play. His plays include; The Independence of Eddie Rose, Sneaky, The Star Quilter, The Body Guards, The Council, Better-n-Indins Falling Distance, Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, and the Pendleton Blanket.” William is a member of the Dramatist’s Guild Inc., Native Writers Circle of the Americas, and is a member of the advisory boards for Red Eagle Soaring Theater in Seattle, Washington, and the Missoula Writers’ Collaborative in Missoula, Montana. His plays have been presented in readings and productions at the New York Public Theater, American Conservatory Theater, the former Seattle Group Theatre, Seattle Children’s Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Minneapolis Playwrights’ Center, Illusion Theatre, Montana Repertory Theatre, and the Perishable Theatre. William is a recipient of a Theatre Communications Group National Residency Grant, Princess Grace Fellowship, Jerome Foundation Grant, New England Theatre Conference Award, and was awarded the first First Book Award for Drama from the Returning the Gift conference.

An Interview with the Playwright: William S. Yellow Robe, Jr.
Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers

The following interview was conducted with William S. Yellow Robe, Jr. by Pamela Ward and Jason Harber of Trinity Repertory Company’s Education Department in March, 2005. Reprinted with permission.

JH: How do you, specifically, approach playwriting? What are the hardest and/or easiest things about playwriting for you personally?
WSYRJR: Well, playwriting does not exist within the Assiniboine language. A lot of theatrical concepts such as “play”, “acting”, and “directing” do not exist in indigenous languages. So my process has always been the process of trying to bridge or finding elements that are already in existence within the Native culture and then trying to form a bridge with the Euro-American style of theater; one such element is story telling. I have found elements of traditional story telling that I can incorporate into my writing.

I come from a strong storytelling tradition but also have been influenced by traditions of public speaking. This is not to say grandma was member of Equity. Our elders and grandparents of both the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes had a way that they held themselves…a way that they conducted themselves when addressing the public. I watched the elders and grandparents when they spoke in at campaigns or social gatherings, Pow-wows or what we called celebrations. They had an ability to show command, and also be able to reach the audience. This wasn’t acting; it was the preparation and conduct.

On a personal level, I feel that it comes from a spiritual level where the words aren’t mine. In fact when rehearsing a recent show called Better-n-Indins at Perishable Theatre, I told the cast “These words aren’t mine. All I did was listen, and the words were there. But I had to listen.” Writing Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers was a difficult process because it was a topic that was very close to me. I also learned a lot about writing from reading William Shakespeare. In Hamlet, the soliloquies are so prepared, so short, deep but with a sense of urgency within the character. I would take notice of those in looking at the play.

JH: When did you first start writing plays? What made you start?
WSYRJR: Well, I started in sixth grade. I wrote two really bad one-act plays, one about the twelve tasks of Hercules, and the other about Cleopatra because I had seen Cleopatra the movie the night before. Much later, in 1986, I was invited to a production of one of my plays by the Native American Theatre Ensemble. Word got out through Montana that I was going to Los Angeles, and my 6th grade teacher, Ms. Dorothy Grow, sent me both of those first plays. She had kept them for so long. I had this huge envelope in my mailbox with a note from her saying, “Thank you!” Growing up on the reservation, I had difficulty attending classes because I had the mentality that I had failed the system.But, I came to realize, as I got older that the system was never meant for me; the system had nothing to offer me. I was in a classroom where I was told my people don’t count, make no contributions to the community and it was really disheartening for a young kid to hear that he is basically worthless. Dorothy Grow was the one and only teacher that showed me I was worth a damn. So, whenever I do an interview, I always mention her because she was the one who pulled me aside.

Another event that influenced me was in high school. The Montana Repertory Theatre was doing a production of A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neill. The touring company hired us for something like $1.75 an hour to help take down the set…and when I was tearing down that set after seeing the show, I realized that this is something that I want to do. There is an automatic segregation that happens in American theatre that always fascinates me. The actors go on one side, and the designers/technical people go on the other. There is just no middle ground and I really despise that, because I think that it just doesn’t need to happen. I believe that we should all be working together as a group; no one is greater than anyone else. The action of the play is greater than everyone. My frustration with American theatre is that it has such a hierarchal elitist approach to doing this art form, and it drives me nuts.

JH: Who and/or what influences your writing? You talked about some of your experiences in your childhood…what else influences you?
WSYRJS: Well, it goes way back. One of the first influences was having my relatives tell me stories. Even when I would return years later, they would call me and say, “Bill, come here. I have a story for you. Have you heard this one?” In writing, one of the first people that really influenced me was James Welch. James Welch was a novelist who wrote Winter in the Blood. James was also dear to me because he was from my neck of the woods; he was from Montana. He actually wrote about and described the hatred between Natives and non-Natives in Montana. In Indian Lawyer, a Native lawyer takes his white girlfriend to a restaurant. The scene is told through the girlfriend’s eyes as she notices how people treat her and look at her differently…just because she is there with an Indian. Regardless that the man she is with is running for the U.S. Congress, regardless that he is rich; he is only an Indian in their eyes.

In terms of theater, Aristophanes has been a great influence on my work. Also, William Shakespeare has been a big influence simply for the fact that he wrote for the masses…he wrote for the people. I think that shows in my work; I write for people, not just one group, but all people. Or, I try to have my stories be shared by people. My playwriting instructors have always frustrated me when they ask the question, “What audience are you writing for?” I always tell them that I am not writing for an audience, I am just trying to get the story right. In later years, August Wilson has been a big influence on my writing. Also, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Neil Simon have been influences as well. I had a collection of British playwright Joe Orton’s work, and I really loved his work.

Jose Rivera is a young man and a young playwright whose recent work interests me a lot; his play The Promise is just a beautiful play. I’ve also been influenced by Marian McClinton, Beverly Smith Dawson, Magdalia Cruz, and Hanay Geigoamah. I’ve also been influenced by different operas. The Magic Flute is an opera that has always fascinated me. The storyline and the music of that opera have always fascinated me. Mozart also influenced me as a playwright.

JH: What are the origins of this play, Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers? How did it come about?
WSYRJR: Man, this is a hard one, just because it is emotional. It started when my wife was dying of cancer in 1996. She wanted me to write a play based on my African American heritage; she thought that at one point, I was ashamed of it. But I wasn’t ashamed of it; I just didn’t know anything about it. I am part black: I am 3/8 African American and 5/8 Assiniboine. A lot of people think that I am a full-blood Native, and I was raised to be a full-blood. I live in this way, or try. I can remember that in third grade was the first time I was called “nigger”, and it was by a Native person. It was only after my wife Diane’s encouragement that I could go back and really examine this fact.

She died in 1996, and I wrote the first draft of Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers in 1997. I wrote it just to fulfill that need of pleasing her. But then I put it on a shelf, and didn’t touch it again until 2001 when I brought it to Trinity during my TCG/Pew Fellowship and I had a chance to really sit down and take a look at the possibilities of what the play could be. It was interesting because I really was able to reflect back on that time.

People who are part Native and part another race are called “breeds” in the Native community and by the other communities that surround them. Breeds who are part white and part Native can run to the white people and denounce their Native heritage when it is convenient for them. Then, when it is convenient to be Native, run back to the Natives and say, “Here I am, I am Native again.” I couldn’t do that. There was no African American community to run to. In fact, there was a lot of racism. I grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s in Montana. There is an unspoken conflict between African Americans and Native Americans out west partly because of how the relationships were introduced and maintained by the military and economics and other social institutions all of which led to long-lasting misconceptions and hatred.

JH: What is the significance of the title Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers? What made you pick that for the title?
WSYRJR: The term “Buffalo Soldiers” was given to black soldiers conscripted by the U.S. Army after the Civil War to fight Natives in the west. They were promised freedom and a homeland, but also there wasn’t a lot of change for them after slavery. It eventually became a term used to describe all of the blacks of the West. “Grandchildren” is a term or a phrase of endearment among Native people. So by using the title of Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers it is almost like putting the words “good” and “bad” together, yet at the same time making a new word or a new concept.

Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers is actually the second play in a cycle of plays I have completed. The first, The Stray Dog, deals with the relationships of the white Americans and the Native Americans. The third play in the cycle is Blood of the Rez was read at the First Theater of the Four Directions Playwriting Festival here at Trinity Repertory Company. The final play is called Pieces of Us…it is the final chapter in a cycle that deals with the heritage of mixed blood and ‘blood quantum’.

JH: What do you as a playwright hope that the audience takes from this play?
WSYRJR: I am somewhat scared of it playing out west and being out west because I know what is out there. It is a different time and it is a different mentality. I am concerned about how the Natives will react to it because I think that there is a possibility that the play could be seen as an indictment of both African American and Native American communities, and even white Americans. I hope that the tour offers a forum for communication, that it provides a vessel of understanding and communication. What I want is for the play to provide a point of civil discourse, where we can actually sit and talk to one another without playing the victim card, or ‘my oppression was greater than yours,’ or where we can sit down in a council meeting and be able to listen to one another and in a way start “feeling the heart” of one another. We need to be able to talk about how it “feels” to be a victim of racism and how it “feels” to have the joy of overcoming racism and the obstacles that are placed in front of you due to racism. We need to share those stories and share that excitement. That is what I am hoping will

PW: You said an interesting about being most afraid of having the play in the West, what is the difference in producing or having a play performed in different parts of the country?
WSYRJR: Well, first of all you have to remember that colonialism began here, in New England. You have buildings here that are three or four hundred years old. The state of Montana is only 112 years old. The effects of colonization still exist in the West. In Montana, you still have people who use the word “colored” when talking about black people. You still have the phrase “our Indians” amongst some people out west. It is a whole different mind set…because if you were to use those phrases here in Providence and say “Shaun is a good colored man” or “our colored people” you would have a fight on your hands because it is inconceivable to refer to a human being as having the status of property. It still happens that way in the West. You still have the romanticism of homesteaders ‘settling’ the west and bringing ‘civilization’. “The first white male born in the territory.” This is not to say everybody out west believes this, but there are still some who practice this belief.

When Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers shows up in some of these communities, it may really be coming from out of the blue because it is a Native’s perspective about make. African American communities and other communities that are not indigenous to the ‘West’. A lot of the hostility was generated after the Civil War as free slaves from the South moved west competing for resources, freedom. Then, around the same time, you have Native communities that were under attack for their resources and lives. That was a little over 100 years ago, so it hasn’t been that long.

Also, remember that the play deals with African American and Native American blood, not just Buffalo Soldiers. Buffalo Soldiers is a subject that is not held in a romantic view by the Native Americans, and most of America has never really dealt with the subject of African and Native American lineage and life.

PW: Well, that was one of the things I found more interesting. When I hear Buffalo Soldiers it is a very romantic idea of the old west. Brave, courageous, adventurous…
WSYRJR: Trustworthy, Diligent. But if you would say that to a Native person from the west you would get a completely different reaction. Myth and Romanticism. I don’t want to generalize the tribes, because they might all have different opinions. I can’t speak for all of them. But what I have witnessed in the past is a very delicate situation. The legacy of the buffalo soldiers is in some ways similar to the French who fought in the Revolution and Louisiana; their whole history has been diminished. You don’t hear about Champlain and his voyages. American history is at a place where you can discover facts such as these, and it shakes your whole foundation of belief. A lot of people, however, don’t want that foundation cracked. Especially since that foundation is so young.

In Rhode Island that foundation is three to four hundred years old but out West it is barely over a hundred years old, but not the oral Indigenous histories. The “History of the West” from a non-Indigenous perspective is still very young. And it all goes back to a very simple thing: how do you receive change? Life is in flux, it is always constantly changing. There is a duality to so many things. We have a country that has a tremendous amount of food supply, but we still have homeless people who can barely eat. We have millionaires and homeless. We condemn others for crimes but can’t acknowledge our own crimes. It is really a strange duality that we create in this country. It is how we perceive things. Justice and Punishment are two different things. But, what is amazing to me is that eventually these two realities will collide. Push comes to shove, and we will have a collision again. What happens in the next collision we don’t know yet.

PW: Well, that becomes the next question. How do you deal with that change?
WSYRJR: Well the answer to that question is how do you describe yourself as a human being? Not what you look like, but what you do. And that idea has never been put forward. I always think of Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation”, and how the people interviewed in the book talk of sacrifice. We don’t have that level of sacrifice anymore. We are all leaning toward self-centeredness. It is really a horrific cycle that we have created. Everything is disposable today. From kitchen fixtures to what we make. We start to treat our own people as being disposable. I know that sounds horrific, but it does happen. Sacrificing and disposing are not the same thing.

Even religion is not the same. How do you pray? Do the words you say when you pray really reflect what you mean? Do you try to live by a code of conduct you have set for yourself? I see a lot of conflict…and the question is not so much…the development of economy is the development of spirituality. You don’t need money, an architectural structure, or leader to have god hear your prayers you just have to pray. That is what is at stake right now. Not a fake spirituality, but a REAL spirituality where you live humanity and human kindness. I think about this every day. I reflect and say, “Oh, I blew that one,” “Yeah, I should not have said that but I said it anyway,” “I didn’t mean to do that, but I did it.” I go through all of these small questions everyday. Did I do the right thing? Was it a good thing?

Sacrifice is the giving of yourself to help someone else, or something else-that’s not yours. I try to give of myself and whatever I have to help others. I’m not looking for a reward. Just the hope it was the right thing to do.

It is like that for Craig and Brent in the play; Craig has clarity, Brent does not. And
that’s the struggle.