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Essay

From the Artistic Director: The Thanksgiving Play

By Tim Sanford, Artistic Director

I would guess that my formal and inferred education regarding the history of America’s Indigenous peoples is fairly typical. I was taught the same sentimentalized stories about Pilgrims and Indians. But how we got from there to “Manifest Destiny” is blurry. I never paid attention to Westerns. I knew they were phony. But I knew few examples of living Native Americans. My brother liked Will Rogers, but no one told me he was Cherokee. I was crazy about sports biographies when I was in the fifth and sixth grades and loved learning about Jim Thorpe. The author feelingly conveyed Jim’s outsider status and his economic hardships, but I didn’t come away from the book with an appreciation for his heritage. Cut to high school: the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee became a bestseller, published shortly after the My Lai massacre, forever changing the prevailing narrative about our government’s treatment of the country’s Indigenous nations. Corrective stories like Little Big Man achieved popularity with the growing counterculture. And for me, the apex of that wave of politicized Hollywood was the baldly allegorical One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with Nurse Ratched symbolizing Amerika and a memorably noble, tortured Will Sampson standing in for all of the Indigenous peoples imprisoned and silenced by its conquerors. 

Looking back, I have to ask, “What changed?” Sure, I grew to love some Native artists: the songs of Robbie Robertson, the novels of N. Scott Momaday and Louise Erdrich.

But has there really been a reckoning? We would like to think that we are different now. We can tell the right stories. Is that enough?

We live in a time where the commander-in-chief oafishly belittles a political rival’s Native heritage by calling her “Pocahontas.” And let’s not forget that football team in our nation’s capital. Where do the people stand, the remnants of the great nations of this land? 

Larissa FastHorse readily attests that she entered the American theater as an activist. She knew that for virtually every theater she entered, she would be the only Native American that most of the employees had ever worked with. Larissa talks about how it feels to go to gatherings and feel invisible, to be part of a list of people of color that routinely does not get named, but has to fit under the catch-all of “Other.” And it is important to acknowledge that the invisibility most Native peoples feel is not accidental. They are survivors of genocide. So her determination to tell her people’s stories affords her one way she can give life and make that life visible. And Larissa’s career has blossomed from this cause. Her work gets better and better. 

But now let’s talk about the paradox presented by The Thanksgiving Play. A couple of well-meaning, white theater-makers want to fashion a school play about Thanksgiving that tells the story right and recruit real live Native people in their process. But where are those people? Do our theater-makers even know how to find one? It reminds me a bit of last season’s Mankind: a feminist play with no women in it. The Thanksgiving Play is a Native American’s view of Thanksgiving with no Native Americans in it. 

In the process, Larissa also subversively replicates that invisibility and represents the norm of white dominance. So in a way, Larissa removes herself from this world, but she also seems to have empowered herself at the same time.

The play wickedly skewers the myopia of the well-meaning do-gooders, more mindful of their pronouns than their complicity.

In a way, Larissa’s own outsider status seems to have conferred both wit and insight upon her observations in a way that reminds me of Joseph Conrad, Tom Stoppard and, yes, Will Rogers. Sometimes comedy is in fact the best medicine.

Enjoy.