Campus production triggers concerns from American Indian community

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A UC Berkeley production in the department of theater, dance and performance Studies has elicited negative responses from the campus American Indian community, triggering discussions about the play’s content.

Campus alumnus John Fisher’s play “Ishi: The Last of the Yahi,” which ran from March 2 to March 11, sparked outcry from the campus American Indian Graduate Student Association and American Indian community, which has since met with the department to discuss concerns with the play and how the department can better reach out to underrepresented communities on campus.

The play, according to the department’s website, explores the life of Ishi, the last remaining member of the Yahi tribe, and his time as an object of study at the campus Hearst Museum of Anthropology with anthropologist Alfred Kroeber beginning in 1911.

“Particularly offensive was the depictions of Native characters in the play and the intense physical violence done to them,” said Peter Nelson, anthropology graduate student and member of the association, in an email. “The play tries to speak for Native people, and in doing so, it takes our voice away.”

Department chair and associate professor Peter Glazer said the department and community have already held several meetings — and will continue to hold more — to address qualms about the play, ask and answer questions and provide commentary.

“It’s so problematic because the audience is led to believe that the actions Ishi commits in the play are actually true historical accounts,” said Tria Andrews, ethnic studies graduate student and association member. “It’s important that we recognize that we have to be careful with whose stories we tell and how.”

Glazer said that plans for a meeting  held late Tuesday afternoon were announced at each show over the past weekend. Though performance dialogues are generally held only for the department, they were opened up to the public “as soon as it became clear that there was so much controversy and so much hurt,” Glazer said.

“I don’t think we expected the reaction that we got,” he said. “We consider that an oversight on our part. We should have been more sensitive and vigilant about the subject matter.”

Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Gibor Basri said in an email that he encourages the discussions facilitated by the department.

He added that the discussions are the sort of actions that should be carried out in response to unintended negative consequences in the campus community.

“It is not possible to always avoid such actions, but it is good to own them and move forward — with apology as appropriate,” Basri said in the email. “It would be helpful if such responsibility were taken more often.”

Geena Cova covers academics and administration.