Cinco de Mayo felt fairly controversial this year, considering the countless news articles and posts on social media detailing how not to celebrate it. It’s probably good that a concerted effort is being made to combat cultural appropriation. Of course, people of Mexican descent are not the only victims of that unfortunate and insidious social phenomenon.
Coincidentally, accomplished playwright, performer and by-default activist Larissa Fasthorse had her Cal Poly Theatre and Dance Department speaking engagement scheduled for May 5. Fasthorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, came to speak about “decolonizing the narrative,” essentially fighting cultural appropriation and its consequences. While she recognized the effects of a history of imperialism on many modern cultures, her message centered around the ones she personally knows best; those of Native Americans.
Fasthorse is fresh off the successful Los Angeles run of her latest work “Urban Rez,” an immersive theatrical experience that challenged participants to confront stereotypical images of American indigenous people in popular culture and jumpstart the process of replacing those outdated, inaccurate depictions with ones more representative of the current status of those peoples.
It’s very easy in the present day to forget that Native Americans are a significant contemporary cultural group, and not a relic of the distant past. The anglicized versions of their stories rarely show up outside of history textbooks and Hollywood-produced drama. Luckily, the prospect of changing all this is not out of reach.
According to Fasthorse, decolonization can be accomplished through the intentional process of changing the depictions we propagate through our culture. A prime example is the rewriting of Peter Pan the Musical for the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Minn. While Peter Pan is well-known as a classic story, the copyrighted version of the stage musical and film contained a few scenes that are incredibly demeaning to indigenous people. The “native” tribe in Neverland speaks gibberish and is portrayed as being magical, fanciful and primitive like the other creatures who inhabit the place.
Instead of declaring the entire story useless and attempting to scrub it from public memory (an impossible task), the Children’s Theatre decided to rewrite it and perform it with the approval of Peter Pan’s license holder. The tribe was removed from the story and replaced by a group of powerful young women. For Fasthorse, this rewriting of popular culture was a huge success. It replaced damaging stereotypes with something more morally responsible. It is exactly what she hopes her plays and other works will accomplish, one stereotype at a time.
After her short lecture, Fasthorse answered questions from students. Here are a few that stood out, edited for clarity:
Q: Are there any prominent films/performances you think have pretty accurately portrayed Native Americans?
LS: “Dances with Wolves” is about my people, and it was done very accurately. It’s unfortunately still a white savior story, however the actors are amazing. They hired all local people for the language and for the art and it was a hugely beneficial thing to my people at the time because such care was taken with it. There are also quite a few films that are entirely indigenous-made, and they are some incredibly beautiful films. People need to know that if you want to do something about indigenous people, you have to talk to indigenous people.
Q: What would you say regarding rewriting to those who might be nostalgic about stories like Peter Pan?
LS: Too bad! If (the story) is hurting somebody, you have to let it go. It’s just wrong to keep someone in continued pain. Don’t be a sadist. In this age of information, if you don’t know, you’re not trying.
Q: How should we talk to kids about the stereotypes they will inevitably see in pop culture?
LS: I would be really clear and open. Say, “This is the way people used to depict people, and it’s hurtful to them, and it’s not accurate.” And then look at and talk about accurate depictions. Learn about the tribes from your region, and whose land you’re standing on.