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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


October 4, 2003 - Issue 97


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The Indolent Boys - Theater Review


Theater Review by Deanna Brady

Credits: photo of Michael and Sandra Horse by Kathy Williams

The Indolent Boys
by N. Scott Momaday
Adapted as a radio drama and
Presented in the Wells Fargo Theater at
The Autry Museum of Western Heritage

Cast: Edward Albert, John Aniston, Michael Horse, Sandra Horse, Tamara Krinsky, Zahn McClarnon, and Arigon Starr, with flautist Rey Ortega

"If the Great Spirit had desired me
to be a white man
he would have made me so
in the first place.
He put in your heart
certain wishes and plans;
in my heart he put
other and different desires.
Each man is good
in the sight of the Great Spirit.
It is not necessary,
that eagles should be crows."
..Sitting Bull (Teton Lakota)

In 1891, three homesick but unconquered Kiowa boys braved a blizzard to run away from the government boarding school where they had been interred and beaten in order to "educate the Indian out of the man." They were attempting desperately to reach their families' camp, and in the process, they froze to death.

This true tragedy is the subject of a stage play written by preeminent Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday, which has recently been presented as an offering of the ongoing Wells Fargo Radio Theater at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles. Dr. Momaday is himself an unusually successful survivor of Indian boarding and military institutions.

Sandra and Micheal HorseWhile the play treats an extremely important aspect of American Indian history and sociology, it will likely be most interesting and informative to non-Indian audiences who may not be familiar with the advent and continuing existence of the Indian boarding schools that sprang up across America at the end of the nineteenth century. For the uninitiated, here's the background information: Starting with Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, the institutions were the brain-children of Richard Henry Pratt, a former cavalry officer who believed that they would "civilize" the Indian children placed there and help them assimilate into the new American culture. This plan was Pratt's well-meaning but patronizing, heavy-handed, and poorly executed attempt to solve the "Indian problem" and save the Indians from ongoing slaughter and imprisonment by turning them into non-Indian conformists.

The very young children who were removed from their families and sent to these schools typically found themselves hundreds or even thousands of miles from home, denied their own languages, dress, and cultures, and forced to become ersatz "Americans," trained to do manual jobs that many European-Americans considered beneath themselves. During its operation from 1879 to 1918, more than ten thousand Native children attended Carlisle school alone. Its cemetery still contains 186 graves of students who perished while incarcerated there. It was the archetype of the Indian boarding school plan, and one of its most enthusiastic clones was the Kiowa school near Anadarko, Oklahoma. It is in this latter setting in 1891 that the action of The Indolent Boys takes place.

The play by the acknowledged dean of American Indian literature was written in the eighties and was mounted recently as a full production in both Santa Fe and Albuquerque. For this current iteration, Momaday's play was adapted as a radio drama by co-director/producer Lori Tubert.

Rey OrtegaThe presentation at the Autry opened with the music of flautist Rey Ortega (Apache/Mexica), who also offered some very funny introductory material about how he happened to take up playing the flute. Indian music "diva" Arigon Starr (Kickapoo), also a cast member, followed with a version of one of the songs from her "Wind-Up" album, which she had adapted to reflect the content of the play. Announcer Sandra Horse (Cree) welcomed the audience and introduced the radio play.

The play begins with Starr's character, Mother Goodeye, a Kiowa elder speaking with great love about her favored grandchild who had been sent to the boarding school and was the natural leader of the three who had recently run away. As she has in two previous Autry production, Starr brings warmth, humor, and energy to her character, uplifting the otherwise somewhat dark and brooding play.

Zahn McClarnonThe play revolves around not only the crisis brought on by the escape of the students but also the central figure of John Pai (Zahn McClarnon, Hunkpapa Lakota), a Kiowa student who is about to graduate and be sent to seminary to train as a minister. John has resigned himself to assimilation and has become expert at smoothly parroting back the ideas and phrases he has been taught. McClarnon plays the character very low key, communicating the underlying depression and sense of irony his state in life has imposed. He is a young man dispossessed of his heritage and culture, explaining to us that he has been split in two: "I have been taught not to remember but to dismember myself. What am I now? I am a white man, am I not? The best student the school ever had. I am a man beside myself."

In this passage and others, Momaday incorporates both personal stories told by the play's characters and also traditional Kiowa stories and tribal histories. One of the most moving is a recollection of how Indian children were brought into boarding schools and unceremoniously stripped down, shorn, deloused, and forced to pick an arbitrary Christian name from a list on a board.

Michael Horse (Yaqui/Zuni/Mescalero Apache) plays Emdotah, the father of one of the lost boys, a man who has struggled with some of the same conflicts and issues faced by John Pai. Horse, whose mother attended an Indian school in Phoenix, co-directed the play, and he displays his usual affability and humility in an understated and persuasive performance. His character ties the story together and gives us an overview of its historic context, as well as further revealing the disparity between Indian and non-Indian viewpoints.

The actors who portray authority figures at the school manage to add depth to potentially two-dimensional characters. Tamara Krinsky does a convincing turn as an earnest and intelligent young teacher whose relationship with John Pai has awakened her latent womanhood. She expresses an understandable conflict between her own intuitive and romanticized responses to John's suppressed heritage and her ingrained belief in the inherent rightness of the world she has helped overlay on him to suppress it. John Aniston shows his veteran stripes quite competently as the school superintendent whose opinions change with the current wind. The most impressive performance of the three is given by Edward Albert, who offers a thoughtful and multilayered portrayal of headmaster Barton Wherritt, a man of weak resolve whose deep fears of failure and lack of understanding of his charges press him to patronize those he controls and to betray his own humanity.

The play ends with the Kiowa characters' reactions to this tragedy and others, expressing a particularly Indian perspective about life and its diverse experiences. The beleaguered tribe reacts with grief, anger, and feelings of hopelessness, and through a collateral event that evokes laughter amid their tears, they remind us that life is "a matter of balance - that is how to think of the world."

As with other productions seen at the Autry in recent years, this one was uniformly professional and was greatly enjoyed by the mostly non-Indian audience in attendance. Previous Wells Fargo Radio Theater presentations from American Indian authors and dealing with Indian characters and history have included two plays written by Jackie Old Coyote (Crow), and it can only be hoped that the series will continue to put forth such offerings in future. These radio theater presentations are an admirable addendum to the yearly slate of readings and staged theater pieces from the museum-sponsored Native Voices program. It is heartening to see that the Autry has become a showcase for so many works by Native authors and with Native cast members.

This performance of The Indolent Boys was presented to benefit The Buffalo Trust, an educational organization founded and chaired by Dr. Momaday, whose mission is to carry the experience of the sacred to Indian people, and especially to Indian youth, as part of their unique inheritance. The ongoing Wells Fargo Radio Theater productions, a project initiated by Rosemary and Newell Alexander, are recorded live before audiences, and these recordings are retained at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage for future broadcast and other listening opportunities.

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