- Reviewed by
In an oft-cited anecdote of American theatre history, scholars A. M. Drummond and Richard Moody debated whether or not American Indian performance—from treaty performances to speeches to songs—should be considered among the first American dramas. Weighing in at mid-century, historian Barnard Hewitt asserted that "[t]heatre or the stuff of theatre existed in the ceremonies and dances of the American Indians when the first settlers arrived in what is now the United States, but our theatre owed nothing in its beginnings to native sources."1 Until the mid-1990s, there was little question that Hewitt had won that argument, even though some early performance studies scholarship explored Indigenous ritual and ceremony. Native people had been performing on the stages of the American theatre since the nineteenth century, however, and had been writing for the theatre throughout the twentieth. Still, at the turn of the twenty-first century, only a handful of articles on Native theatre had been published, and most appeared in magazines rather than academic journals. Scholars in Canada embraced First Nations theatre more quickly, with much of the scholarship during the 1990s appearing in Canadian journals and published by Canadian presses. Now, twenty or so years later, I would dare to call Native theatre research and scholarship a "burgeoning" field, as Native and non-Native scholars seek to redefine the place of Indigenous theatre within the history of "American" theatre—or, more accurately, the theatre of the Americas.
As the discourse on Indigenous theatre has developed, some key trends have emerged that will be useful in understanding the four books under review here. Most publications thus far have tended to focus on late-twentieth-century theatre and performance, following the founding of three important troupes in North America: the American Indian Theater Ensemble and Spiderwoman Theater in the United States during the 1970s, and Native Earth Performing Arts in Canada in 1982. Many of these publications are documentary in nature, narrating histories, describing trends, noting themes. Little has been written to present a critical framework for understanding Native theatre, and most of the existing scholarship borrows from American Indian literary criticism—a body of work that is certainly useful, but that for the most part provides little in the way of performance analysis. Some early work in the field borrows heavily from postcolonial theory, a practice that in American Indian Studies has come under considerable fire, because its methods and questions often emerge from a Western cultural perspective and do little to embrace or account for Indigenous intellectual systems and performance practices.
Even now, as Jace Weaver points out in his introduction to Hanay Geiogamah and Jaye Darby's [End Page 651] edited collection American Indian Performing Arts: Critical Directions, theatre scholarship lags far behind literary scholarship in its ability to grapple with Indigenous aesthetics. As Ric Knowles advises in Theatre & Interculturalism, Western theatre scholars need to relinquish their control of a critical discourse drawn from Western models and acknowledge that the standard tools of criticism and analysis are inadequate to the task of understanding or assessing American Indian and First Nations performance. What we lack is a critical discourse that emerges from within Native cultures and that frames Native theatre and performance as distinct cultural practices. Whether proposing critical reading strategies for Native texts (as Christy Stanlake does in Native American Drama: A Critical Perspective), offering varied interpretations of Native performances (as the authors in the Geiogamah and Darby collection do), integrating Native texts into an alternative history of American theatre (as Douglas Harvey does in The Theatre of Empire: Frontier Performances in America, 1750...