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American Indian Graduate Student Association calls for art with ethics

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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.

MARCH 13, 2012