Native Americans on the Stage

In the last couple of years, certain elements of various Native American cultures have been used as fashion statements; a Paul Frank fashion show last fall featured models wearing war bonnets and war paint, and it has apparently become trendy to claim celebrities and cartoon characters as one’s “spirit animal.” These are all instances of cultural appropriation and stereotyping, though many participants in these trends believe that they are honoring Native American culture.

This post will  focus on the history of portrayals of Native Americans in popular culture. I want to be clear that this is not exactly my story to tell; I am not Native American. I do not presume to speak for Native Americans or to know their experience of living in a white-dominated culture when I am part of the privileged majority. I have learned considerably more about Native American culture and history through my work with a professor of social work who specializes in Native American wellness and education, and I make an effort to be conscious and to educate myself.

In the 19th century, Native Americans were forced to assimilate to white culture, via boarding schools, loss of tribal lands, among other oppressive institutions. Yet American Indian characters were a constant presence on the stage in 19th century American theater, even as the American government forced tribes from their homes and demanded assimilation to white culture. Several acting manuals from the 1820s and 1830s include instructions for “red face” make-up and how to play Native American characters. Ironically, white playwrights relied on oppressed minority groups to distinguish their plays as American. American playwrights used stock figures like the American Indian and the black slave to differentiate themselves from their European counterparts. Both of these character tropes are frequently victims of violence, and thus objects of pity, on the stage. White American theater transformed the American Indian into a symbol of America’s heritage and past, a mythological figure that perpetuated a false history that justified the contemporary wars waged against indigenous peoples.

Sympathetic American Indian characters were almost always tragic heroes entailed in a narrative of death and loss. The 1829 play Metamora makes this narrative of the death of the Indian clear in its subtitle: The Last of the Wampanoags. The play is a five-act tragedy of the downfall of the chief of the Wampanoags upon the arrival of Puritan English settlers. Metamora has an unusual history; actor Edwin Forrest commissioned the play after he spent two months with the Choctaw Indians in southwestern Missouri (at that time, this area of the state had few white settlers). Forrest returned to the theater and offered a $500 prize for the best five act tragedy “in which the hero, or principal character, shall be an aboriginal of this country” (Old Sturbridge Visitor, Summer 2003). John Augustus Stone won the contest and his play, based loosely on the life of Metacomet (also known as King Philip to Puritan settlers), became an instant success and remained in nearly constant production for decades.

Although Forrest intended for the play to be a tribute to the Choctaw tribe he so admired, the play exemplifies many problems in white culture’s portrayal and use of American Indians. The play ends with Metamora’s death and the marriage of a Wampanoag woman to a Puritan man. The play assumes that indigenous culture is firmly situated in the past, that the Wampanoags ended with Metacomet’s death in 1675.  Plays like Metamora and the popular “historical” reenactments performed by traveling troupes of American Indian actors reinforced the existing cultural narrative that American Indians were doomed by fate. This theme of foretold extinction is overwhelmingly present in Metamora. Of course, the hero’s fatal tragic flaw is part of the traditional structure of a five-act tragedy, but the fact that Forrest requested a tragedy indicates how Anglo-Americans typically viewed American Indians. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Metacomet was seen as a cruel villain, but the narrative changed through the 19th century to erase the history of war between American Indians and white settlers; instead, the narrative was framed as a tragedy. The fatalism in 19th century popular entertainment erases white America’s culpability in the past wars, and more importantly, it overshadowed the violence of the Indian Removal Act.  Such a narrative removed any hint of white guilt over the increasingly violent policies against indigenous peoples throughout the 19th century; as Metamora soared in popularity through the 1830s, millions of Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscagee Creek, Seminole and other indigenous people were dying of starvation, frostbite and smallpox on the Trail of Tears. The present tragedy was ignored, the outrage was tacitly accepted, while audiences lamented a fictionalized tragedy set well over a hundred years in the past.

 

This post draws from the information available from Old Sturbridge Village’s document collection. See the website for more details (or better yet, visit Old Sturbridge Village!): http://www.osv.org/explore_learn/document_viewer.php?DocID=2068

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