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Friday, November 9, 2007

Local Theater to Present Native American Boarding School Experience by CFT

There will be an opportunity to see a play about the Native American boarding school experience performed by students in grades 6-8 at my school here in Lincoln, MA. The Rememberer is an award winning play by Steven Dietz, based on the unpublished memoir As My Sun Now Sets by Joyce Simmons Cheeka (1901-1974) who is Squaxin (Northwest Pacific Coast) as told to Werdna Phillips Finley. The Rememberer was premiered by the Seattle Children's Theatre in Seattle, Washington, on March 18, 1994.

In 1911 Joyce Simmons Cheeka was forcibly taken from her family and sent to a government boarding school. This is her true story. As the chosen "rememberer" for her tribe—an honor passed down to her from her grandfather, Mud Bay Sam—it is Joyce's duty to pass on the stories, history and wisdom of her people. However, the aims of the white boarding school are quite the opposite. Their job is to eliminate any trace of Joyce's heritage. Through her friendship with the headmaster at the school, and with the help of her "spirit guide," Joyce succeeds in forming a bridge between this new world and the world of her ancestors. Through her patience, grit, humor, curiosity and inclusiveness of spirit, she does honor to the words of her elders: "Each day is a gift. And to waste that day is inexcusable. Account for yourself. Be useful."

Performances Thursday and Friday, November 15 & 16, at 7:30 pm.
Tickets on sale from 6:45, general seating from 7:00.
There will be one intermission. Refreshments available. The play will finish at approximately 9:30 pm.
Donaldson Auditorium is located in Lincoln, MA on Ballfield Road (it's the school's driveway)
Tickets are available at the door: $10 adults/$5 students and seniors.

The Squaxin Nation encourages integration of local Native American culture wherever appropriate. Some of the preparation for cast members has included the following: attending a workshop by Annawon Weedon about Wampanoag culture and then another about dance. The cast benefited from exposure to the music and dance, but even more importantly they gained a sense of the meaning and importance of music to Wampanoag and other native cultures. This continued to inform their work and their ideas. During rehearsals they frequently recalled ideas he shared with them. The cast and I respected that music and dances shared by Annawon were not to be used in the play. The general sense of the importance, history and tradition of dance and music was reiterated often.

This journey began a year ago when the director approached me with an idea to do this production. I read the script, and together we considered and planned what we thought would be important background information in order to understand and portray the Native American experience depicted in the play. With the support of a LSF (Lincoln School Foundation) grant and LPS(Lincoln Public Schools) summer work, we were able to obtain instruments, secure a presenter, and plan out an educational and experiential journey for the cast members.

Our version incorporates traditional music from the Northwest and the Northeast as well as original music. My daughter, Cheyenne, choreographed several of the Native American dance routines and I have taught the students some Native American music and songs that I know. This has been a well thought out journey in helping the students appreciate Native American culture in general, as well as individual Nations specifically. The white-European-American drama teacher (director) who initiated the idea wanted sensitivity, respect and understanding of Native American culture be primary goals.

It was important to me that cast members be given “tools” that would help them appreciate Native American culture in general as well as individual Nations specifically. I also wanted children to understand the stereotypes associated with Native People, particularly those surrounding “dressing up as Indians,” and that it is impossible to capture the many Native Nations in one “dress” at all. To that end, cast members did not darken their skin with makeup; were not “painted” with symbols; did not wear black, long-haired wigs; and were not costumed in faux buckskin. Since students are depicting the story “symbolically,” we did not believe that literal and stereotypical symbols were necessary.

The Squaxin Nation (where this story originates) encourages integration of local Native American culture wherever appropriate. I incorporated songs and dances known to me from other areas of the country. The songs chosen are in vocables, not the language of a Nation. They are not “chants”; they have a musical structure, meaning, and a history of passing them on at Pow Wows and through the generations. They are contemporary songs that have been taught and practiced through the oral tradition, learned by participation. This is also the primary way cast members learned them. The director and cast respected that music and dances shared by Annawon were not to be used in the play. The general sense of the importance, history, and tradition of dance and music were reiterated often. As much as possible, Northwest Pacific Coast traditions were honored. Students learned Squaxin language from a CD provided by the Nation. And they viewed a segment from 500 Nations about the actual boarding school experience.

I want to thank the Native community who offered information and guidance, and especially my friend Evelyn Garcia (Taino) who lives in Washington State (near where this Squaxin Nation production is set). She sent Northwest Pacific Coast photos of blankets, salmon pictures, and newspaper clippings of the salmon run in her hometown. And many thanks to the director, cast, and crew who were willing to learn and understand.
– Claudia A. Fox Tree (Arawak)

I choreographed several of the Native American dance routines and selected accompanying social songs. Pitch Woman’s dance was based on the Eastern Woodland style of “Blanket Dancing” which is used to tell a story through the motions of the blanket and the dancer. For the second Pitch Woman dance, I chose a “Fancy Dance” because this upbeat style could capture a higher tension scene. The round dance was selected for the “Welcoming Dance” because it is a well-known and common “Friendship Dance” of the Northeast (and other regions) and is used to bring people together. I based the “Porpoise Dance” on a traditional two-step or “Rabbit Dance” which is a “follow-the-leader” style dance. I thought it would represent the dolphins well, since they join together in groups and partnerships. The dancers are imitating the motion of dolphins. I’ve really enjoyed working with middle-school students and wish them much success as they “defy gravity” and soar in the arts…
– Cheyenne A. Fox Tree McGrath (Arawak)