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Yellow Robe weavings

A Native American writer takes on racist stereotypes



With the dramatic collection Where the Pavement Ends: Five Native American Plays, Assiniboine playwright William S. Yellow Robe, Jr. wants to help native people find a voice of their own, and begin a healing dialogue within the larger society that can reach beyond preconceptions of race and gender toward a common humanity. With a storyteller’s wit and pathos, and a finely tuned ear for dialogue, Yellow Robe sketches for us allegorical depictions of various relationships that many native people can recognize as common to their own experiences. The author says that many of the situations he describes are based on his own life, or on stories heard on the Fort Peck Reservation in eastern Montana. Yellow Robe’s scripts lack the finely wrought depth of characterization of works by Lorraine Hansberry or Angus Wilson. Yet in their own humble way, these are important plays, particularly in the context of relations between the native and white communities in Montana today.

“Star Quilter,” dedicated to Yellow Robe’s mother, tells of the essentially misfit development of a relationship between two women, one native and one white. The relationship begins as an exploitative one in which Luanne, a second-generation white Montanan, asks Mona, a native woman, to make a star quilt as a gift for one of the state’s senators. Luanne does not understand what her request requires of Mona beyond the simple manufacture of a desired commodity. Nor is she aware of the hypocrisy of asking a native woman to make a gift for a senator who does not fairly represent the native community. Over time, Mona’s anger is tempered by an understanding of the common experiences of losses and pain they both share. This allows Mona to reach out to Luanne, finally telling her true feelings, and nurturing the tenuous beginnings of a friendship.

The most richly textured and compelling play in the collection is “Sneaky,” in which three brothers agree to steal the body of their mother from the county morgue in order to fulfill her last wish for a traditional burial. Yellow Robe says he wrote the play over the course of many years and that it embodies three critical periods in his life. He started writing the play when he was drinking heavily, continued working on it when he sobered up, and finished it after he got married.

The play’s three main characters are brothers, Kermit, Eldon and Frank. They represent several aspects of a single character, which Yellow Robe describes as moving toward personal integrity and autonomy. Kermit, the baby brother, is a quintessential drunk, following in the footsteps of his father. He is burdened with guilt and a sense of failure, and is emotionally dependent on his mother and his brothers for his self-esteem.

Eldon, the middle brother, is determined not to carry on the family’s drunken legacy. Unsure where to turn, he seeks the status offered him by the white business community on the reservation. Frank, the eldest brother, after quitting drinking, finds himself torn between the uncertainties resulting from his drunken past (and still embodied by his brother Kermit) and his anger at the obsequious behavior of his approval-seeking brother Eldon. Frank has not figured out how to free himself on his own terms.

The brothers share a mutual anger toward each other. However, while working together to fulfill their mother’s last wish, they develop a healthy sense of empathy for each other as well. Their hope for resolution is artfully expressed in their sharing of prayers during the impromptu “traditional” burial. The experience infuses their relationships with a strength and flexibility to bear up against the negative influences that had previously torn them apart.

Yellow Robe says he resisted the temptation to provide a simplistic resolution to the story. At the conclusion of the play Kermit is not sure if he can sober up. Eldon has taken the first step toward finding integrity, while in the process alienating the white county coroner by refusing to help take his mother’s body back to the morgue. Frank finds that he can hold the family together only by loving his brothers, warts and all. Yet, he is still struggling to understand how that realization applies to his own life.

Racism is a touchy issue at best, and Yellow Robe’s determination not to shy away from an honest portrayal of racist behaviors, from a native point of view, makes his plays controversial. Yellow Robe says that some have criticized his plays for being full of stereotypes. The allegorical style of writing he employs, which distills the narrative elements down to their bare essentials, may even contribute to that perception. Nevertheless, to dismiss his characters as simplistic stereotypes is to dismiss the compassion toward which they strive. Depending on the breaking point of a reader’s credulity, there are times when Yellow Robe’s characterizations of white racism might come across as heavy-handed. For example, in the portrayal of Luanne in “The Star Quilter,” while complaining to Mona about anti-war protests in Washington, D.C., Luanne says, “It’s just wonderful that none of our Indians here in Montana did any of that…At least our Indians behave.” While at first it may seem outlandish that a white person would utter such a thought directly to a native person, upon reflection I wondered how many native people have witnessed similar expressions of shameless sentiments.

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