Ask most people to name some of Missoula’s great artistic attributes and it is unlikely that “cutting edge theater” will make the list. Yet we have in Missoula a theater company with a courageous new approach to the dramatic arts which you won’t find in most other places. William S. Yellow Robe Jr., an award-winning Assiniboine playwright, director, actor and poet from Fort Peck, created No Borders Indigenous Theater, along with Flo Gardipee and Joy Buckley, in the spring of 2001. Their purpose: to explore how native people relate to theater, and vice versa.
“Theater is a new art medium for native people. How we work with it, how it can empower native communities, how it can provide a voice and sustain that voice,” says Yellow Robe, about some of the principles that guide their dramatic productions. The name “No Borders” implies an openness to participation by all who are interested, without regard for race, sex, age, tribal origin or previous acting experience. Auditions for all performances are open to everyone. “We’re not looking at enrollment cards, or ‘profiling’ people,” says Gardipee, jokingly. “No Borders,” she says, means “being able to express your indigenous self, including tribal origins in Europe. It’s who you are as a person, paying respect to where you come from.”
Borders exist both within us as well as on the land, for native and non-native people alike. They can define the boundaries of a place as well as our deepest perceptions of communities, our cultures and ourselves. Borders can also limit our perceptions of others, causing bigotry and degenerating into stereotypes, with harmful, even deadly consequences. Even seemingly complimentary stereotypes, says Yellow Robe, have the power to harm others.
“Romanticism [of native people] and racism run side by side,” says Yellow Robe. “They are not clear representations. They are part of the popular history that has always been harmful, especially to indigenous people. Popular history comes from a colonial perspective. People of color have been excluded from history, except in romantic terms.” The goal of No Borders Indigenous Theater, he says, is to challenge us to engage, with compassion, the uneasy relationship between natives and non-natives, using daring scripts that bring to light our un-reconciled perceptions. “Racism causes wounds, but people don’t know how or why or where they are wounded,” says Yellow Robe. “You have to examine who or what you are to heal [those wounds].”
“We are addressing issues in the form of art,” adds Gardipee, “to start a conversation, to start the healing. This is something we’ve seen.” Ordinarily, the No Borders company closes its rehearsals to the public, as Yellow Robe believes in providing actors with a safe environment where they’re free to be themselves. Oftentimes, cast members have never been on stage before. The rehearsals I was allowed to attend for the upcoming talent show—a benefit for the upcoming Kyi-Yo Powwow—felt relaxed, almost familial. The troupe was rehearsing a series of satirical sketches of “Indian” country drawn from Yellow Robe’s most recent script, a comedy entitled Better-n-Indins. The sketches include a New Age workshop for people “passing” for native, a testimony by a stoner, a self-appointed healer named Maurice, and a TV huckster called Sam the Shaman.
“It’s a healing script,” says Yellow Robe. “It makes people laugh. If people can laugh at these things, they can realize it’s possible to change them.” Judging by the boisterous atmosphere of the rehearsals, it seems that the cast is in decided agreement.
We are “doing a humor that doesn’t usually get out. Most people only see the rough side of native culture, but that’s only a small percentage of native people. A lot of this is just everyday for us,” says Emily Ferguson-Steger, one of the cast members. “It’s funny to see your own slang written down, ‘enit’?” she asks the other cast members with a smile.
Another cast member, Giselle Forrest, explains her own attraction to the play, “You get to see people enjoying themselves. It makes people want to join.” She adds that the script “pokes fun at everyone. It doesn’t make you feel isolated like ‘they’re making fun of me.’”
Gharret Tallwhiteman came to Missoula to work security at the powwow just as one of the lead actors in the cast had an accident and had to quit. Tallwhiteman quickly landed himself four lead roles in the show. “I’ve got hidden talent,” he says, grinning, as his fellow cast members begin a playful debate on the subject. “I was loud when I came, so they cast me,” he corrects himself with a sly smile, as the others hoot in agreement. “I ain’t even pulled out all my stuff tonight!”
The upcoming talent show will also include a mix of traditional hand drumming, round dance songs, and traditional dancing by seasoned performers, as well as a variety of folk music by native and non-native musicians. All proceeds from the show will benefit the Kyi-Yo Powwow, the largest student-run event of its kind in the Northwest. Each year the powwow draws Native Americans from across the continent. Nine hundred dancers and 33 drum groups participated in the powwow last year.