As a storyteller I have sought out the stories of African-Americans and, more recently, Latinos, and now I am feeling drawn to Native Americans, a population that all too often is unseen and unheard in the mainstream. I intend for the following story I did for El Perico to serve as my entree into the Native American scene in Omaha. The story covered a program that featured a work of theater and a series of testimonies by elders, all providing a primer on Native American survivance strategies. I look forward to learning more about the struggles and triumphs of these indigenous people.
Native American Survival Strategies Shared Through Theater and Testimony
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
On Sunday, July 10 a two-part program offered glimpses inside Native American life, ranging from absurd to profound, joyful to despairing.
A mixed audience of about 150 at the Rose Theater‘s black box Hitchcock space witnessed the The Indigenous Collective of Theater & Art (TICOTA) and Red Ink magazine production. TICOTA founder Sheila Rocha directed. The spare stage adorned only with original artwork by Dakota artist Donel Keeler.
Leading things off was a Reader’s Theater presentation of the in-progress one-act play, Obscenities from a Toaster, by Valery Killscrow Copeland. It was followed by Speaking of the Elders — Intertribal Stories of Survivance, with four local elders testifying about being poor in possessions but rich in life.
Setting the mood was the hand drum rhythms, chant and song of Mike Valerio and the Lakota prayer offered by Steve Tobacco. Introductory remarks by Rocha promised a program impartiing lessons for “how to manage ourselves and to find our way into the future.”
In her intro, Copeland described Obscenities “as a mental health awareness play” that combines truth and fiction in its depiction of growing up with a schizophrenic mother. Copeland read the part of the touched mother, Betsy, whose magical talking toaster is the bedeviling Native American trickster figure.
Amid the farce are sober reminders of hard times. Betsy, like many Native women, is a single mother struggling to get by and always being let down by men. Family is her last bastion of security. The toaster, read by Richard Barea, tells her, “We’re good together, can’t you see that?” and in a flash of insight Betsy replies, “You’re not good for me.”
In a piece Rocha aptly calls “tender, gentle, witty and a lot of fun,” rationality and insanity are in the eye of the beholder and hard to distinguish. “Valery loves to work with the brutal realities and brutal truths,” says Rocha, “but she can very skillfully turn it into the funniest events.”
After the warmly received reading the elders appeared, the audience standing on cue, while Valerio performed an honor drum song in homage to the old ones’ resolute survival and simple wisdom. One by one, these proud “living libraries,” as Rocha terms them, recounted anecdotes of endurance.
Despite growing up poor on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Killscrow enjoyed a carefree childhood, though racist border towns and doctrinaire Catholic schools left their mark. Grateful for keeping his Indian ways, he’s fluent in the Lakota language and expert in beading, both of which he teaches. He also dances at powwows.
When the Vietnam War Army veteran was given less than a year to live, he embarked on a healing journey that got his mind-body-spirit “in good shape.” He maintains himself today through rigorous physical and spiritual exercise. He desires giving young Natives hope they can attain anything they want if they apply themselves. He closed with a Lakota saying: “In the spirit of Crazy Horse, today walk with a gentle spirit.”
Violet Gladfelter, Deer Clan, Omaha Nation
For Gladfelter, “my family, my friends, my tribe, my religion,” are foundational. She remains rooted to her culture as a traditional powwow dancer. She shares her culture in presentations at schools and community groups. Growing up, she joined her family in crop fields across Nebraska and Colorado to labor as a migrant worker. “That was how we survived,” she says.
She considers her fluency in her Native tongue “a gift that was given me.” She passes on her language and religion as tradition and legacy to her children and grandchildren. She regards all indigenous peoples as related. “We’re all one Indian,” she says.
Myrna Red Owl, Santee Sioux
As a urban Indian growing up in the North Omaha projects and then in South Omaha, Red Owl responded to taunts with fists. Her fighting didn’t end then, as she became a Native American activist and supporter of the American Indian Movement during and after the Wounded Knee siege. Her work to free imprisoned AIM leader Leonard Peltier continues. Another ongoing battle is with diabetes.
“I also fight with living,” says Red Owl, who’s worked for Native community organizations.
Cassie Rhodes, Cheyenne-Arapaho
A victim of “the split feather syndrome,” Rhodes was placed in an orphanage and adopted by a non-Indian family. Deprived of her culture, she was made to feel ashamed of being an Indian. As an adult she reconnected with her home and family and served Native community agencies. She often performs in Native productions and powwows.
“It’s so important to know who you are and where you come from, otherwise you’re lost. Many of us were lost — we had an identity crisis,” she says, adding, “It’s never too late to find out who your real family is.”
Rocha says its vital sharing these stories and experiences before the elders pass.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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