|(Program and ticket from the play “Ishi: The Last of the Yahi. Above the ticket, notice the word “Squaw.” Also, note the pins thrust into Ishi’s body as if he were in an insect collection.)
AK Note: Please welcome guest blogger Tria Andrews.
Tria is a mixed race Cherokee, Irish, and Filipina writer who has published critical essays, fiction, poetry, and photography. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Fiction from San Diego State University, a Shinnyo Fellow, and a PhD student in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, where she teaches Asian American and Native American Studies. Her current research examines culturally relevant forms of rehabilitation for Native American youth in juvenile detention centers located on tribal grounds. This research is informed by over five years of tutoring and teaching yoga to incarcerated adolescents.
This past weekend marked two events held at UC Berkeley which presented conflicting representations of the violences that have occurred against Native peoples in the U.S. In her keynote address for the Empowering Women of Color Conference, “On Revolution: A Conversation Between Grace Lee Boggs and Angela Davis,” Davis foregrounded her talk by emphasizing, “I would like to begin by acknowledging the indigenous people, who are the original inhabitants of the land on which we meet. . . . And let us never forget that our presence here is very much related to the genocidal violence inflicted on this area’s Native people, and if we believe in justice, we must stand for justice for Native people in the 21st century.”
In contrast, the play, Ishi: The Last of the Yahi, which opened March 2, attempts to justify the gross violences committed against Native peoples through its portrayal of Ishi as a batterer, murderer, and rapist. While arguably the production evidences some meager attempts to provide a more nuanced version of history, ultimately, the play endeavors to erase not only Ishi, but also all Native peoples, who through the production’s monolithic representation of Native Americans are conflated with the Yahi. When the play is not depicting Native peoples as extinct, it suggests that Native Americans are not “survivors” or “victims,” but instead, were asking for it: “Maybe Manifest Destiny was a two-way street.”
Manifest Destiny was certainly not a two-way street; it was a colonial policy aimed at annihilating Native peoples, traditions, and cultures and usurping Native Americans of their lands in the name of “progress.” The attempts of dominant discourses to render Native peoples extinct to justify the continued occupation of Native lands is unfortunately one reason that Ishi may be a compelling story for non-Native audiences. The dominant and Non-native archive, which was utilized for the production, “a work of fiction based on fact,” perpetuates a tiresome story told from the point of view of the aggressor. Despite the fact that Native peoples associated with UC Berkeley have been addressing the complexities of Ishi’s story, it appears that no Native Americans were consulted for the play. Given the exploitative and dehumanizing relationship of UC Berkeley with Native populations in the past, the university has been working hard to repair the relationship that the institution has with Native peoples. However, the play seems completely oblivious to these activities and the important work that Native activists have been doing to seek restitution and reconciliation. Instead, the play causes further violences to Ishi and Native communities.
While the play pretends to present disparate and diverse versions of history—to speak from Ishi’s perspective—in truth, the production is about the European-American characters going native. Going native, as defined by Native scholar and UC Berkeley Professor, Shari Huhndorf, is a trope aimed at alleviating White guilt regarding the violent founding of the nation while simultaneously reinforcing White supremacy. While constructed around the character of Ishi, whose image is exploited on the production’s brochure, the protagonist of the play is in fact Dr. Alfred Kroeber, the primary anthropologist who studied Ishi. By purporting to be a play about the last of the Yahi (underscored by the play’s title), the production diminishes White guilt by representing Native peoples as extinct and Whites as the rightful owners of the land. In the falling action of the play, Ishi’s ghost—after his body is dismembered and dispersed throughout numerous institutions in the U.S. against his wishes—rises from the dead and assumes the third person plural, “we.” Here, Ishi’s adoption of “we” endeavors to downplay the violences against Native peoples, which the play in fact fetishizes. In other words, after his death, Ishi supposedly becomes a White man and in doing so, attempts to warrant the dispossession of Native peoples from their land.
While the play’s concluding characterization of Ishi as a European-American commits yet another horrific act of violence against Ishi, unfortunately, the play also fetishizes violence to Native characters’ bodies—or the bodies or non-Native actors playing Indian. The opening scene reveals a Native man in a loincloth who is chased by a White man wielding a gun. The White man is starving and intends to murder and eat the Indian. This action takes place both center stage and off stage as the actors circle the audience and whoop. One character warns another not to “pollute the [Indian’s] flesh with bullets.” These scenes of gruesome violence are staged as spectacle and rationalized in the narrative. Three White men brutally murder an Indian man, whose death the audience witnesses in scene. The Indian is beaten, tied to a stake, knifed, and finally, set on fire. This dramatization of violence, like others throughout the play, is accompanied by the bloodcurdling screams of the Indian characters. At one point in the play, while European-American characters are brutally beating an Indian, an image of a White woman wrested by two Native men is projected center stage to seemingly justify the violence committed against the Indian. As the play makes clear, the violences against Native peoples continue postmortem as Native remains are stored in museums and universities, such as UC Berkeley, which currently houses 12,000 human skeletons. However, the production commits even further violences. Through Ishi’s perspective, Native remains are labeled “evil,” and the housing of these bodies in museums and institutions is presented as an unavoidable and resolved circumstance, which is certainly not the case given the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
|Ishi in 1914
Considering the immense violences that Native peoples—and in particular Native women—continue to endure from non-Natives, violent scenes, which are unsparingly utilized in the performance, reveal disgusting and insulting displays of ignorance. European-American men and Ishi himself beat and threaten Native women or “squaw[s]” as the cast list derogatorily refers to one of the female characters. In the play, Native women, unlike their European-American counterparts (with the exception of Dr. Saxton Pope, M.D. who goes native, donning a two piece buckskin ensemble while simulating masturbation), are not only sexualized, but also beaten and raped. The depiction of Native American women as promiscuous, their bodies, like the land, seducing European-Americans, is yet another racist trope that the production cannot resist. Ishi’s narrative, which the main characters expend most of the play attempting to extract from Ishi, is presented in two versions, both of which render a Yahi woman, Ishi’s sister, as incestuous, murderous, and inherently rapeable. Rape, as Cherokee activist and writer Andrea Smith highlights, is a tool of conquest. Yet, the production portrays Native men as rapists and Native women as enjoying their violability because of their cultural upbringing: “Copulate and rape are not different words in Yahi.” This Western, patriarchal portrayal of violence against Yahi’s sister, who revels in her own rape so much so that she seeks out her rapist—also her parents’ murderer—as a lover and father for her child, is absolutely inexcusable. Yet another irresponsible scene conflates violence with sexuality as Ishi is positioned behind his sister in a manner that suggests intercourse while the two work together to commit infanticide. To add insult to injury, the production completely misrepresents Native conceptions of “balance” or harmony, insisting, “There’s balance in all [Ishi’s] stories.”
But in Ishi: The Last of the Yahi, Ishi’s so-called stories are not his own. They are stories of Ishi narrated through a Western lens. I could continue by citing the multiple violences against Ishi and Native peoples that the play commits and which I have not yet specified: unproblematizing privilege and power dynamics; portraying Ishi as childlike, savage, and subordinate; reinforcing racial and gender binaries, etc., but I want to conclude in a way that is more useful.
As a mixed race (Cherokee, Irish, and Filipina) woman, who identifies as indigenous and who was required to watch this production for a class, I want the director, cast, and crew to try to understand what it was like to be a Native person in the audience. The jolt sent up my spine when I read word “squaw” in the cast list, the knot that took root in my stomach and held while I witnessed the gunning down of an Indian in the opening scene, the stiffening of my shoulders when I was surrounded by staged violence accompanied by the villainous laughter and whoops of European-American characters in a play that professes to treat the history of our nation and the mass murdering of Native peoples as “gray matter.” It would have been impossible for me to sit through the play without writing back to it. Within the first few minutes, I began taking notes on my checkbook—the only paper I had. Although I wanted to leave the theater almost immediately, was determined to leave at intermission, a friend and former journalist convinced me a review would have more credibility if I watched the entire production.
All that I have written here, I write without hesitation. I write what I witnessed and what I feel and know with all my being to be true. I understand that long hours and hard work were required to make a production such as Ishi: The Last of the Yahi, but because of the gross violences that this production perpetuates against Native peoples, I recommend that all further performances be canceled in order to create the time and space necessary for a dialog among Native peoples, the play’s director and writer, John Fisher, his cast, crew, and the campus community. If at an institution such as UC Berkeley we are truly committed to diversity and learning, I see no other alternative.
Please sign the petition to cancel the remaining performances here.
You can also email the Director, John Fisher at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Thanks Kayla and Tria!)