American Indian Graduate Student Association calls for art with ethics

FINAL_10.17.11.ishi.yian
Yian Shang/Staff

Although the subject matter of “Ishi: The Last Yahi” is highly disturbing and offensive to Native Americans, the writer and director John Fisher and the Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies department failed to consult with Native Americans about bringing this play to campus. In the play, Fisher freely misrepresents Ishi as a batterer, murderer and incestuous rapist as well as the last Yahi — all of which Ishi certainly was not. In this unethical artistic representation, Fisher perpetuates the very cruelty and violence towards California Indians that he attempts to depict.

Fisher’s ignorance of the violence his play commits is particularly ironic given the meta-theatrical moment in which Alfred Kroeber addresses his sister-in-law, Charlotte. Kroeber chides her, “You act like you live in a play. You speak in platitudes and bring every scene to a rattling close. And you pretend you understand everything when all you’ve ever done is pick fights and provoke people you don’t really know.”

Kroeber’s statement is intended to invoke irony within the context of the play, because while Kroeber criticizes Charlotte for her cruelty, he himself is guilty of perpetrating immense malice towards others. However, the real irony is that Kroeber’s words also perfectly illuminate Fisher’s own ignorance and insensitivity to Native peoples. That is, Fisher writes a play, which is “fiction based on fact … combin(ing) research with creative writing.” This fiction not only fetishizes violence against Native peoples, but also perpetrates that violence in its misrepresentations of Ishi and California Indians.

Particularly problematic about Fisher’s play is the fact that, because viewers may be unfamiliar with Ishi’s story, these misrepresentations are not recognized as flagrant deviations from what Native peoples largely regard to be Ishi’s story. Much is not known about Ishi, who refused to share even his Yani-Yahi name and whose remains were repatriated to his descendants in 2000. California Indians view Ishi as a figure of non-violence and forgiveness. By all accounts, Ishi never expressed bitterness towards anyone, not even those who committed violence against him.

Further, Fisher based his play on archival research consisting of books written by Theodora, Alfred Kroeber’s second wife, who never met Ishi. In the talkback on March 9, Fisher refused to demarcate between the play’s use of fiction and fact. As Fisher stated, “In sort of framing my participation tonight, I think this is a work of art and the attempt to defend it of necessity must collapse on itself. I had very clear motives in creating it four years ago. It is now in its second incarnation and to talk about specifically what is story and what is fact I think is to attempt to explain it. And I can’t really speak to explaining it, to defending it. I feel unprepared to answer that question.”

Fisher’s nonresponse was a failed attempt to hide behind his work as a piece of art and fiction. As UC Davis graduate student Cutcha Risling Baldy — a student of Hupa, Yurok and Karuk descent — responded, “I myself am a writer, and if somebody were to come tell me to change something that I made, it would be like changing one of my children, but this is different. You don’t get to hide behind historical fiction; it doesn’t work that way.”

For many of the Native viewers, the play invoked serious trauma from which we as a community must now recover. As Risling Baldy shared, “I did not expect to be so personally affected by what I was seeing on stage.”

In a review, Tria Andrews — who is Cherokee — emphasized, “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 the word ‘squaw’ in the cast list, the knot that took root in my stomach and held while I witnessed the gunning down of Indians, 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 California and the mass murdering of Native peoples as ‘gray matter.’”

While the Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies department has issued an apology and promised to create a policy that requires consulting and collaborating with underrepresented communities, we, as the American Indian Graduate Student Association, are now left to grapple with the trauma of viewing Fisher’s play and questions of how to conscientiously move forward in our responsibility to recruit Native American undergraduates to UC Berkeley.

Tria Andrews is a graduate student in the department of ethnic studies, Kayla Carpenter is a graduate student in the linguistics department and Peter Nelson is a graduate student in the anthroplogy department. All three are members of UC Berkeley’s American Indian Graduate Student Association.

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  • Lepeezy
  • We are all related, the sadness of this account of Ishi’s post life explotation should astound anyone, we are all human beings, we should be humane.

  • Juni

    “Overly politically correct crap”, “hapless victims of history”, “hypersensitive sense of community”, “American Indian Graduate Student Association calls for censorship”, “please give fewer opinions and more facts”, “You don’t hear me banging on the door of Windsor Castle or the French Congress asking for restitution or apologies”…etc etc etc…Thank you for supporting the Native Community with your gracious words commenters *sarcasm*. 

    Way to show how America sees it’s minorities, oh wait a sec, it’s minorities OF the minorities. 

  • Patrick Brennan

    I would like to be able to form my own opinion about this controversy. Toward that end, please give fewer opinions and more facts. I want to be able to be fair to everyone involved.

  • WH

    “The jolt sent up my spine when I read the word ‘squaw’ in the cast list,
    the knot that took root in my stomach and held while I witnessed the
    gunning down of Indians, 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 California and the mass murdering of Native peoples
    as ‘gray matter.’”

    Exactly.  I’m glad you had the visceral response that the play was intended to provoke.  Did you not pay attention to the play itself?  If you did, how could you possibly come away thinking that the playwrite didn’t intend exactly that?  I saw the play and I have no doubt whatsoever that I was meant to come away with a feeling of disgust and embarrassment regarding California’s role in the unabashed genocide of her native peoples.

  • Current student

    Translation:  American Indian Graduate Student Association calls for censorship.

  • reztips

    Of the three authors, one is a graduate student in ethnic studies, the other is a grad student in a linguistics department where a major influence is that pro-BDS idiot, PC Prof Judith Butler. The areas of concentration of these writers speaks volumes.

    So we understand that the Dep’t of Theater, Dance and Performance has succumbed to PC pressure and announced that henceforth, before considering any production it will consult and collaborate with “underrepresented communities.” Gee, did the ethnic studies departments “consult and collaborate” with Jews and gays before it supported the invitation of Louis Fart-His-Can?

  • ellis

    I guess no one has ever heard of the book Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer?  Historical fiction.  enough said.

  • AnOski

    Overly politically correct crap.  I get it, Native Americans.  Your ancestors got the shitty end of the stick back when Europeans were moving Westward across the US.  My ancestors were brutalized serfs from Europe who lived in conditions akin to slavery from the time of the Dark Ages until the industrial revolution.  Granted, they didn’t lose ancestral lands because they never had the privilege of owning land until well into the 1800’s, but that’s hardly better.

    You don’t hear me banging on the door of Windsor Castle or the French Congress asking for restitution or apologies.  

    And whenever these people (poor European serfs) are depicted poorly in cinema or plays, I don’t care.  They’re not me, and I know that if someone sees the “white murderer” on the screen or stage, the only way they’ll think I’m somehow personally similar to the character is if they are 1) paranoid, 2) extraordinary stupid, or 3) insane.

    Quit it with the censorship.  I get it.  You guys lived here and people with superior firepower displaced you.  And then the racist a**es running the US government up through around fifty years ago kept screwing you over.  
    The same thing is going on in Palestine now, to say nothing of much of Africa.  If you keep asking for crap like this, you’re going to be forever seen as hapless victims of history.  If you’ve read any history, you’d know that your story is almost verbatim identical to every other story of conquest.  

    Your loss is more recent, but *you* guys arguing the point here at Cal didn’t suffer at all on the Trail of Tears, or feel the searing pain of a musket-ball tear into you.  But you’re so empathetic for your dead relatives that you feel that any word uttered that portrays you or other Native Americans depicts both you and them in a poor light.  

    You may have a hypersensitive sense of community and desire to maintain your culture, but no one else cares one way or the other.  Everyone knows that conquered cultures are under-represented relative to victors’ — after all, historically, it has almost always been the victors who have written accounts of wars, etc.  But, times have changed.  What happened to your ancestors was shitty, and we all know it.  And I’m sorry that some racist white people who have nothing to do with me or the people in this play hurt some people who are genetically more closely related to you than most other people are.  

    But, seriously.  It’s a play.  Get over it.  

    • Adsahjh

       Epic win.

    • Watkajtys

      Thank you for some reasoned words.  

    • urbisoler

      As a response of historical events, you reasoning is on target. That doesn’t excuse your “attitude” toward oppressive circumstances. It is not something to slough off as “that’s life” especially when corrective measures are available. I’m not talking about “handouts” to the oppressed either. I’m talking about a positive approach to dealing with individuals as human beings. It’s OK with me to avoid the militants among us but it is not OK to talk down to an individual who has come to grips with his past and considers himself now a member of the American community. It serves no purpose to “stress” past injustices while not ignoring historical context.

      • AnOski

        >As a response of historical events, you reasoning is on target.

        Thanks.

        >That doesn’t excuse your “attitude” toward oppressive circumstances. It is not something to slough off as “that’s life” especially when corrective measures are available.

        It’s not life, anymore. It’s not life for anyone who is alive. Plenty of oppressed immigrant groups have arrived at the US penniless, in droves. The Irish, the Russians, the Chinese, the Japanese, the list goes on. They didn’t have corrective measures. They integrated and became successful. Asians in particular (non specific), as a demographic, are socioeconomically more successful than Whites in recent census reports.

        You seem to be trying to say “the people are separate and unequal, so let’s make it equal.” But things will never be “equal” until the cultures and people largely integrate.

        >I’m not talking about “handouts” to the oppressed either. I’m talking about a positive approach to dealing with individuals as human beings.

        We’re all human beings. I’m no more special than a Native American, or anyone else. I don’t know how to view that positively or negatively. It just is.

        >It’s OK with me to avoid the militants among us but it is not OK to talk down to an individual who has come to grips with his past

        His past — or his great grandparents’ past? You’re confusing the Native Americans of today with the Native Americans of 150 years ago. They are not the same *individuals.*

        >and considers himself now a member of the American community. It serves no purpose to “stress” past injustices while not ignoring historical context.

        I wasn’t trying to stress past injustices. I was trying to stress that they were in the past. The distant past. If these people identified as Americans-at-large, I don’t think you would need to talk about “corrective measures.” Corrective measures for whom? Americans?

        You have a few conflicting ideas in there.

  • takimilxwe

    Its hard to believe that this play happened in 2012, considering the efforts and rhetoric demonstrated at this conference here, covered by the Daily Cal in 2011, that included the descendents of Ishi (see link below). That he was the last is a fiction, recognized by the Smithsonian, when they repatriated his remains in 2000 to Yana people of Northern California. This was made possible after many many years. UC Berkeley itself still has the remains of at least 10,000 individuals, despite 20 years of the Native American community’s efforts towards repatriation of those relatives.

    You have to ask then, Nunya, is any historical figure off limits to such denigration? Who else is up for grabs, by such principles? What about Anne Frank? (Forgive me if I offend anyone by analogy… Another real person, with real history, and real community). This is where the many names on the play book should have realized this would be extremely hurtful. Its one thing to tell this story without consideration to the people it could hurt, its another to tell such horrible things about the person, and couch it in fiction, and still yet another for so many people (600 watched?) to not be able to tell the difference, disseminating this fiction to others in the public… And still might I add, yet another for students to have to take it upon themselves to try to remedy all impacts. While it was not the intention of Fisher, if he or others had consulted perhaps anyone, considered expert on history, on this subject matter, on this very campus, I feel that they would have realized what sort of political and cultural messages portended beyond *conscious* intent, his portrayal would have. Such is the risk of being an artist I suppose. But someone, anyone, should have known better, and that’s what breaks my heart.

    http://www.dailycal.org/2011/09/07/native-american-figure-remembered-at-campus-conference/

    • Nunya Beeswax

       All I can say, friend, is that you have some peculiar ideas about the purpose of literature and theater.

      • n8v

        I’m thankful to those in literature and theater who aspire to something higher in their art, and recognize their work as a form of knowledge production. 

        • Watkajtys

          Entertainment is NOT “knowledge production”, it is entertainment.  It seems only those who came determined to be offended have a problem differentiating a fictional play from a factual lecture.

          Maybe this is what happens when you have too many people getting too much of their “facts” fro TV.

          BTW King Kong is not Real, Star Wars did not happen, and Martians are not taking over the world.  I know it’s hard to believe that everything you see in the movies and on TV and in a theatre is not strictly factual, but it isn’t.

          And to burst another bubble FOX news has a bias, as does NPR.

          Higher art has usually caused heated debate and sometimes violence so maybe this IS the higher art your looking for.

  • Nunya Beeswax

    Should TDPS avoid productions of plays with historical subjects that don’t rigorously hew to what actually happened?  Bye-bye, Shakespeare, in that case.

    I’m particularly troubled by the rhetoric in the third paragraph about “fetish[izing] violence against Native peoples”.  I wonder whether the authors understand that depicting something is not the same thing as approving of it. 

  • Bayarrahiam

    Our never ending battle to keep TRUTH in the light! How long must WE continue this struggle..? It is so important that WE never forget to re-MEMBER! 

    • reztips

      It’s also important that you become sufficiently literate to write English correctly. I hope you are not a student at Cal. If you are, they made a mistake in admitting you…

    • Watkajtys

      What truth exactly are you trying to bring to light?  The one where you migrated from asia?   You are very hot on history till it conflicts with your truthiness.

      But truthfully none of that has anything to do with this work of fiction.

      It’s fiction!  There are no covered bridges in Madison County.

  • n8v

    *Yana-Yahi, *The Last Yahi… Daily Cal?

    • Grape_Ape

      Yana = the language that four groups of Native peoples (including the Yahi) spoke.

      it’s his “Yana language, Yahi people” name.