Native American storytellers enjoying a rare spotlight, a moment they hope can be more than that

by Ryan Lee
Native American storytelling

Native American storytellers are currently experiencing a surge in recognition and representation, marking a significant turning point in the world of entertainment and the arts. This newfound attention is seen as an opportunity to shed light on the rich tapestry of Indigenous narratives and experiences.

Mary Kathryn Nagle, a playwright and member of the Cherokee Nation, was deeply affected by the 2008 financial crisis. She drew parallels between this modern catastrophe and historical injustices suffered by Indigenous peoples. In her play “Manahatta,” Nagle skillfully juxtaposes the recent mortgage meltdown with the 17th-century Dutch colonialists who exploited and forcibly displaced Native Americans from their ancestral lands. For Nagle, history’s tendency to repeat itself is a central theme, and she hopes that by exploring the past, society can avoid repeating its mistakes in the present.

Nagle’s play, which premiered in 2018, has now found its way to the prestigious Public Theater in New York City, emblematic of the broader resurgence of Native storytelling. Across different media, from television shows like “Reservation Dogs,” “Dark Winds,” and “Rutherford Falls” to films like “Prey,” Native voices are breaking through previously insurmountable barriers. Larissa FastHorse, the first Indigenous female playwright on Broadway and a 2020 MacArthur Fellow, sees this as more than just a fleeting moment; she hopes it marks the beginning of a new era in Indigenous storytelling.

It’s worth noting that Native representation in the media has historically been shockingly low, with a 2020 diversity report from the University of California, Los Angeles, revealing that Native representation in film and television was a mere 0.3%–0.5%. This lack of representation was stark considering that nearly 10 million Americans claimed Indigenous heritage in the 2020 Census.

Mary Kathryn Nagle highlights the dramatic shift in the entertainment industry’s approach to Native stories. Previously, few theaters produced plays by Native playwrights, and Hollywood seldom featured content created by Native people. However, the landscape is changing, with an increasing number of stories told by Native voices.

Interestingly, non-Native storytellers are also delving into the history of white atrocities against Native Americans. Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” and Ken Burns’ documentary on the American Buffalo are just two examples of this growing interest in exploring Native history from various perspectives.

Madeline Sayet, a playwright and professor, sees the contemporary Native theater movement as an extension of the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s and ’70s, with a growing awareness of Indigenous issues. She emphasizes the need for changes in funding structures and long-term commitments from theaters to sustain the production of Indigenous stories.

Larissa FastHorse, known for her groundbreaking work, has not only made history on Broadway but is also dedicated to reworking classic stage musicals to be more culturally sensitive. She believes that Native stories have been exoticized and stereotyped, and her goal is to offer more inclusive narratives that resonate with a diverse audience.

FastHorse’s reworking of the classic “Peter Pan” is a testament to her commitment to inclusivity. She has expanded the concept of Native characters in the musical to encompass various Indigenous cultures worldwide, allowing young Native individuals to see themselves represented positively.

In essence, this resurgence of Native storytelling is not just a momentary trend but a meaningful cultural shift. It is an opportunity to celebrate the resilience, brilliance, and humor of Native peoples and to encourage a deeper understanding of their tribal nations and histories. As these narratives gain prominence, they have the power to shape perceptions and foster genuine curiosity about Indigenous cultures and experiences.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Native American storytelling

What is the central theme of Mary Kathryn Nagle’s play “Manahatta”?

Mary Kathryn Nagle’s play “Manahatta” explores the parallels between the 2008 financial crisis and historical injustices suffered by Indigenous peoples, particularly the 17th-century Dutch colonialists’ actions against Native Americans.

Why is the resurgence of Native American storytelling significant?

The resurgence of Native American storytelling is significant because it represents a shift towards greater representation and recognition of Indigenous voices and narratives in media and the arts.

What does Larissa FastHorse hope for regarding this resurgence?

Larissa FastHorse hopes that the resurgence of Native storytelling is not just a momentary trend but the beginning of a new era, where Indigenous stories are celebrated and understood by a wider audience.

What challenges have Native storytellers historically faced in the entertainment industry?

Native storytellers have historically faced challenges such as low representation in film and television, a lack of production opportunities for Native playwrights, and stereotypes and misrepresentations in media.

How does Madeline Sayet view the contemporary Native theater movement?

Madeline Sayet views the contemporary Native theater movement as stemming from the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s and ’70s and as a result of increased awareness of Indigenous issues and the right to practice Indigenous culture, art, and religion.

What is the goal of Larissa FastHorse’s reworking of classic stage musicals?

Larissa FastHorse’s goal in reworking classic stage musicals is to make them more culturally sensitive and inclusive, challenging stereotypes and offering narratives that resonate with a diverse audience while celebrating Indigenous cultures.

More about Native American storytelling

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NYCTheaterGoer November 23, 2023 - 4:08 pm

def gonna check out Manahatta at the Public Theater. sounds like a powerful play. thanks for the info!

TheatreNerd November 23, 2023 - 5:20 pm

Larissa FastHorse’s work is important, reworking classics for inclusivity. excited to see the changes in Peter Pan!

StorytellerFan November 24, 2023 - 12:42 am

so happy to see Native stories getting out there more. they’ve been ignored for too long. love that they’re makin changes in old musicals!

Reader123 November 24, 2023 - 4:48 am

cool stuff bout Native American stories makin a comeback! it’s bout time they get recognition. gonna watch Manahatta.

FilmBuff45 November 24, 2023 - 5:46 am

Native representation was so low, glad it’s changing. gonna watch Prey and Killers of the Flower Moon.

HistoryBuff2023 November 24, 2023 - 8:21 am

this resurgence is tied to Indigenous rights movements. makes sense. interesting connections to the past and present.


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