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  • Unghosting BonesResistant Play(s) versus the Legacy of Carlisle Indian Industrial School
  • Jen Shook (bio)

"Flesh can house no memory of bone. Only bone speaks memory of flesh."

—Rebecca Schneider, "Archives: Performance Remains"

"We talk about historical trauma… A hundred and thirty years later, this still has an impact on our youth. We're trying to make peace with those spirits and bring them home."

—Russell Eagle Bear, Rosebud Sioux Historic Preservation Officer

In N. Scott Momaday's The Moon in Two Windows, Luther Standing Bear, the first graduate of Carlisle Indian Industrial School, returns years later to catch a football game between Carlisle and the Army team. Moon closes as Luther and his son walk through the graves of Carlisle's cemetery, a resonant site for those who refuse to forget the genocidal legacy of the boarding school system launched at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The young boy points to distant figures of a man and a child holding hands, swinging "round and round" (Momaday 177). Though the script does not identify them, the image echoes an earlier moment when Etahdleuh, an older member of Luther's transitional generation, swings round and round with Grass, the ghost of a girl who died on the train from the reservation to the school.

The joyful yet haunting, lively yet dead, Grass and Etahdleuh surface as remains from Carlisle founder Richard Pratt's assimilationist mantra, "Kill the Indian, save the man." While the Pratt who Luther sees at the football game totters with age, throughout the earlier era portrayed in most of Moon Pratt organizes his school with vigor with Etahdleuh serving as his cultural translator. Moon, in other words, travels back [End Page 159] and forth through time, stitching connections for the audience between Carlisle's graves, Pratt's commands, and the students' transcultural negotiations.

Grass's death troubles Pratt's orderly plan, and what to do with her remains gestures toward another ongoing Native and US negotiation: protection and repatriation of the dead. That football game that Luther watches features another historical Carlisle alumnus, Olympian Jim Thorpe. Like the students beneath the Carlisle gravestones, Thorpe's remains also lie in Pennsylvania, but his family has been fighting for their return to his native Oklahoma for over fifty years. This legal battle plays out in a fictionalized documentary in Suzan Shown Harjo and Mary Kathryn Nagle's play, My Father's Bones.

Together, The Moon in Two Windows (2006), by N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), and My Father's Bones (2013), by Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) and Mary Kathryn Nagle (Cherokee), resist the dismissal of anti-Native violence as a closed past event, calling to action both Native and non-Native audiences through embodied ghosts, cultural translation, empathy-modeling onstage audiences, and family/kinship interpellations. Both plays not only unghost the past in service of necessary and portable debate for present and future community health, they bring ghosts to life onstage in their activist memorializing of two specific issues: the generational loss perpetrated by the residential school system and the cultural genocide of looted human remains and sacred objects.

By "unghost," I mean to make visible or acknowledge the presence of figures that have been obscured or ignored. To deal with ghost language in the landscape of Indigenous art carries a danger of reinscribing the erasure of Native peoples, the romantic obsession with their vanishment that fueled even so-called "Friends of the Indians" social movements. Yet un ghosting both attends to that erasure and amplifies the resilience, the survivability, of the peoples and cultures who remain and thrive despite centuries of genocide. While stage Indian ghosts haunted early US drama (and fiction and poetry and more) to perform an assuagement of settler guilt, the dead characters of Moon and Bones unsettle history and weave time to promote survivability.1 Unquiet memory in unburied bones circles like Grass and Etahdleuh in the Carlisle cemetery, unghosting hidden or ignored presences. Ghost characters might veer dangerously close to vanishment, the ongoing elegiac obsession [End Page 160] with "the last of the" that leads to convenient assumptions that Native peoples are extinct.2 Yet these stage ghosts must be played by actual actors, visibly...


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pp. 159-187
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