By Emma Rollins, dramaturg
Being a white woman, I have no place to make commentary on Native American/Indigenous People’s lives and their culture. So work on this production was very hard to approach because we needed the points of view that the characters strive for in the play but we needed actual resources. Through The Tribe of Many Feathers and some other connections, I was able to find Cheyanne Elton who is of Navajo descent, dancing in the Living Legends Native American Section (with a minor in American Indian Studies), and Naabaahii Tsosie who is also of Navajo descent. He is the previous President of the Tribe of Many Feathers at BYU, and he also travels the world dancing Native American dance. Both were able to come and were willing to talk with the cast about their families and their connections with the culture. After the cast did some research and sent me questions for the special guests, Cheyanne and Naabaahii were prepared to share their perspectives. They both have connections with the Navajo tribe and were very willing to talk about their experiences as well as their families’ experiences, jobs on reservations, experiences they’ve had with racism, and their thoughts on representation. They answered many hard questions.
While they were able to speak more to Native Americans’ opinions in different matters and share their thoughts on Thanksgiving and representation, they acknowledged that even being Native Americans they can’t speak for all the different tribes. One of the first things we talked about with both of them was Native American portrayal in the world today through media representations like Pocahontas or the new Paramount show Yellowstone, and Cheyanne spoke about how often their portrayal is either the “wise elder” type or the “fearless warrior.” She said, “I am typically not offended by Native American portrayals in media, though there are many instances of misrepresentation, inaccuracies, and times where I am hurt by what I see and read. In general, most BIPOC people tend to have the ‘take what they can get’ perspective… In film theory there is something called the ‘resistant spectator’, which film theorist Manthia Diawara writes about. Another film theorist, Xu Feng, discusses ideas about ‘reclaiming spectator pleasure’ (which is about taking what you can get/picking and choosing), and selective retention and disavowal of content […] I do take offense to certain portrayals, while at the same time Native audiences try to make the most of the representation that we do have.” There were also questions asked about Thanksgiving. For both of our guests, they don’t feel that Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, however, they also don’t feel like it’s really something to celebrate. Cheyanne brought up that the traditional Thanksgiving story isn’t even real and was made up. So for both of them, it’s a day of food, football, and most importantly, time off of school.
Throughout our time with both Cheyanne and Naabaahii there were many questions asked to try to gain a better understanding of how they feel about racism in the media and even in our own church culture. I personally was worried about asking something in a potentially naive or hurtful way, but when talking with them they both expressed that while some questions may seem racist they can tell when someone is asking them genuinely and when they are trying to be hurtful. The biggest piece of advice that they recommended was to just ask questions directly to someone who is connected and would be an accurate source of information, such as an actual Native American with correct resources and information. They want to feel their voice is heard and valid and the best place to get the answers is to go to someone who would know and not just the internet, where people who aren’t necessarily qualified share their opinions as fact.