Straddling the line between two cultures
Straddling the line between two cultures
'Buffalo Soldiers' finds one foot in Native, African worlds
ALFRED WALKING BULL
Article Published: 10/16/05On some Native American reservations, the issue of mixed-race unions and the children they produce is primarily a white versus Native issue.
But things are changing in Indian Country. Assiniboine playwright William Yellow Robe, whose play, "Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers," tells that story of the Robe family, descendants of the union between a Native American grandmother and an African American grandfather, who served in the Union Army as a "buffalo soldier."
"We refer to 'breeds' as half Native and half white," Yellow Robe said. "If they weren't accepted by their fellow Natives, they could denounce their heritage and pass for white.
"Being part black, there was nowhere I could run," he said. "I had to be respectful of everyone. It's not a Native-white issue anymore; we have relations with the world."
Steve Hoffman, Washington Pavilion executive director, said the play - which currently is touring the nation - opens a new dialogue in the Native community.
"The play itself is unique, its look at mixed-blood (as) defining who a person is. That mixture becomes a stigma that looks at the issue of, 'are you too black to be Native American?' "
Yellow Robe said his interracial heritage wasn't a struggle.
"I've never really had a problem with identity. I was raised by a full-blood," he said. "At conferences, I always hear about 'breeds' being caught between two worlds. I say pick one and go with it. You can balance on the fence, but eventually it's going to give way and you have to choose which side you're going to fall."
Yellow Robe's primary motivation for writing the play was his late wife. "She told me to write my story shortly before she died, so I did."
Yellow Robe grew up on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. He said his work is directed at those who still live and raise families there. "It doesn't matter if I get bad reviews, I'm more concerned with what the people back home will say."
That also means he's speaking to a select group of Native Americans. "This is not an indictment of Indian Country or white America, it's about the triumphs and struggles of one family," he said.
However, Hoffman prefers to look at the play in a more universal way, believing that both Native and non-Native alike can take a lesson from Yellow Robe's work.
"It makes us look at how we treat other people ... the play allows us to see how people live their lives and how that reflect on ourselves. It gives us a better understanding as human beings."
Yellow Robe warns against what he sees as the danger of a Pan-Indian identity, the practice of homogenizing individual tribes and nations into one catch-all singularity.
"We have to beware of the grandchildren-come-lately and academia telling us how we should write and live. My work is not the spokesvoice for all Native voices. We need to beware of academic squalor," he said. "Native lives are constantly changing ... I can't say this speaks for the Dineh (Navajo) because I'm not Dineh."
Yellow Robe said he's never tried to write for commercial success and warns other writers to avoid that path. "Every Native writer needs to ask themselves, 'Why are you writing this, to make money or to celebrate something?' "
The production includes an educational element - audience members can discuss the themes and issues. Yellow Robe said he's received positive feedback so far from the first run at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minn.
"We've had great results, we have a trilateral community here of whites, African American and Native communities," he said of the St. Paul audience. "It's easier for the [minority] communities to tap into the play because they've experienced oppression and they know the importance of family."
Overall, Yellow Robe hopes to spark ambition in those who see the play. "If it's successful, this will be a catalyst for other Native playwrights to find more work ... but it's very scary. Because if we fail, we fail for other folks, too."
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