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Turtle Island Blues

Three years ago last May I was scrubbing the kitchen floor. Not by choice of course. After seven months of Minnesota winter, when spring shows up, you drop everything and head outdoors. But guilt kept me scrubbing (I had ignored the dirty floor for over a week), and to console myself I turned on the radio.

The news came on, and I heard that Native American activist Leonard Peltier had just been denied a hearing on his bid for parole. This after seventeen years of imprisonment. Tears suddenly blurred my vision, and no one was more surprised by my reaction than me.

Leonard Peltier, an Ojibwe/Lakota, was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota. In 1977, in a trial filled with controversy, he was convicted of killing two FBI agents and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. In 1993, Peltier's motion for a new trial, based on evidence that the FBI had fabricated evidence, was denied. Many supported Peltier's motion, including Senators Inouye and Wellstone, along with actor/director Robert Redford, and half of Hollywood.

Since the 1980s, I had been a closet advocate for Peltier's release. (Anyone who reads Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse will find Peltier's imprisonment controversial at the very least.) Suddenly I wanted to come out of the closet.

I didn't know where to start, but I remembered reading that Senator Wellstone was sending a petition to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno on Peltier's behalf. The very next morning I called his office to voice my support, and within moments I was put in contact with Wellstone's Native American aid.

Diane and I talked for over an hour. We talked about everything from Sitting Bull to AIM, to Peltier, and life on the reservation today. We talked about movies and books and art, and finally she mentioned the play, Turtle Island Blues. It was being presented by a multicultural theater company here in northern Minnesota and had been written by local playwright William Borden.

"Turtle Island Blues is a comic and tragic look at the encounter between Native Americans and Europeans," Diane told me. "It was written as an alternative view of the coming of Columbus. It sails through five hundred years of American (Turtle Island) history and features Sitting Bull and Columbus, Queen Isabella, Pocahontas, Thomas Jefferson, Sally Heming, Matthew Henson, Leonard Peltier, and lots of other national heroes."

"It's a sad story," she pointed out, "but it can be very funny too. Mainly its about reconciliation...different cultures living together today."

Diane asked me to see the play, and if I liked it, maybe I could spread the word in some of my writing.

That was three years ago. Since then I have seen the play fifteen times. I have traveled around the state with the troupe as their promotional director and somehow ended up on the Board of Listening Winds Theatre, from where the production was originally hatched. They were incredibly kind to me. I had no prior theater skills. All I had to offer was my enthusiasm.

As for the play, I guess you could say I was impressed. And it wasn't just the production itself, although Borden's view of American history stretches way beyond mere entertainment. What impressed me was the life, the certainty, the pain, the laughter that was in the words of all the actors. The play wasn't just a show to them - Turtle Island Blues was what they had experienced over the past five hundred years.

For the majority of the thirteen member cast, it was their first drama. They are the relatives and friends of those few who had actually auditioned. Some cast members simply walked in off the street. Others were dragged in because they were needed.

It's a motley crew, with backgrounds as diversified as the play itself - an Ojibwe rock singer, an Irish sled dog racer, a Norwegian disk jockey, a Mohawk storyteller, a German art student, a British teacher, an African-American basketball coach - just to name a few. Many of them came from Red Lake, White Earth, and Leech Lake reservations. Or Cass Lake, the Ojibwe capitol of the world.

The heartbeat of Turtle Island Blues is the Native American drum. The Turtle Island drum group sit in a circle behind a large silk screen painting of a turtle and bring the house down with some of the best native drumming and singing this side of the planet.

At every performance, they sing a Veterans' song, a Memorial song, and an Ojibwe Traveling song to honor the healing message of the play and to extend a blessing for a safe journey home for all present. They pound those drums like thunder pounding rain from the clouds. Few people leave unaffected.

If your a racist, a bigot or an otherwise prejudiced individual, Turtle Island Blues will be jarring. Its not for the cold of heart.

Trouble is, for a lot of us white folks, the view of history depicted in this Native American revue is a bitter confrontation. The stories revealed in the show by actors who are themselves Native American, African American, Mexican American, and Euro-American counter much of what we were taught. Our history lessons offer a much different version of the settling of America.

Scene from Turtle Island Blues

For one thing, the people encountered when Christopher Columbus and crew arrived in the new world didn't consider themselves "Indians." They have always referred to themselves as "the People."

They inhabited not the continent of North America. They lived on Turtle Island. The earth was their mother, and they believed all matter was connected, animals and human, by a Great Mystery. There is more to it, of course, but you get the picture.

One of my favorite parts in the play is the humorous banter between Sally Heming and Thomas Jefferson. In real life, Heming, one of hundreds of African Americans owned by Jefferson, accompanied Jefferson and his daughter to Paris when he served as Ambassador to France. At the time, many observers remarked at how much Sally Heming's light-complexioned children looked like the third President of the United States.

In the scene from the play, Jefferson is scrambling to write the Declaration of Independence and is hard-pressed to find the right words. Working on needlepoint in a chair beside him, Sally helps, cleverly choosing today's politically correct language. Example:

Jefferson: "...endowed by their Creator, rights? Cool rights? Swell rights?"

Heming: "Oh, for Pete's sake, Tom, it's inalienable rights."

But when Sally tries slipping into the Constitution that, "all men and women are created equal..." Jefferson balks. "No, no, no!" he insists. "We can't say that."

"What you really mean is that all white men are created equal," Heming counters.

"Of course that's what I mean. What else would I mean? I just don't want to write it...quite that way." Tapping his pen absently on his desk, he sighs and recites out loud, "ALL MEN ARE CREATED...."

"Dumb..." Sally pertly supplies.

All of the play's scenes, both comic and tragic, alternate with the story of Leonard Peltier's trial and incarceration until the very end, when the spirits of past and present come together in a healing recitation.

Sitting Bull - grabbing the hands of Columbus, Pocahontas, Queen Isabella, and Sally Heming - begins to recite a Navajo prayer:

With beauty before me way I walk
With beauty behind me may I walk
With beauty above me may I walk
As one who has long life and happiness may I walk

As Sitting Bull continues, his voice chokes with emotion while the entire cast and crew walk slowly onto the stage, joining hands. Soon the entire theater, audience and actors alike, are holding hands and reciting together:

In beauty it is finished
In beauty it is finished

After three-and-a-half years, the play has come full circle, returning to Bemidji, Minnesota, where it originally was performed as an alternative view to the coming of Columbus. It was only supposed to play for two weekends. But word got out, and soon organizations began asking for the play to be performed in their communities as a means to stimulate awareness, thought, and discussion concerning American history.

There was a lot of laughter at the end, a lot of gags, a lot of tears...we didn't know when, or if, we'd see each other again. Then a month later a request came for the play from Massachusetts...a week after that, from Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. And so it goes.

I have learned a great deal over these last four years and have made many friends. But by far the greatest thing I've learned is the importance of culture, indigenous as well as my own. In a society that demands 123 TV channels and 50 breakfast cereals...why can't we accept and respect the variety in each other? After all, we are all brothers and sisters under the same sun.

I've also come to believe that Leonard Peltier symbolizes all indigenous struggle. As Michael Eckhardt (from Peltier's Defense Committee) writes:

The political realities that have kept Peltier incarcerated for so long, repress the ideals of Native Peoples. These ideals concern land rights, treaty rights, burial rights, hunting and fishing rights, water rights and the premise of sovereignty among others. After 500 years of the acquisition of these things, those who challenge these acquired assets are subject to risk.

The case of Leonard Peltier clearly points out the wide difference between the administration of the law and the administration of justice that can and does exist when deemed necessary by government officials.

Rez Road Follies, another good Native American play

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Copyright ©1996 Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller

April 24, 1996