April 04, 2015

Carmen Moore in Arrow

Here's a Native guest-star role that I saw but didn't even realize at the time:

‘Arrow’: H.I.V.E. Will Play a Major Role in Season 4If there’s one thing the writers of the CW’s Arrow joyfully revel in–it’s pulling the rug out from under their audience. They’ve proven they can write in twists that fans didn’t see coming from miles away–but they’ve also show they’re not afraid of the long-haul with some of their story threads and supporting characters. In fact, one of the more interesting storylines the writers have had going from the very first season even, yet keep surrounded with secrecy and conspiracy, is the murder of John Diggle’s (David Ramsey) brother by Floyd Lawton a.k.a. Deadshot (Michael Rowe).

While the writers killed off Lawton just a few episodes ago in “Suicidal Tendencies,” they didn’t do so without progressing the story along even further–when audiences at long last got to see the moment when Deadshot was approached by H.I.V.E. to kill Andy Diggle. Not much was said about the criminal organization in the scene, and the woman from H.I.V.E. was an unknown character–so fans have been left to wonder when they might finally get to learn the truth behind all this conspiracy.
Comment:  The actress looked vaguely familiar to me, but I was too busy pondering the plot to think about her. It's Carmen Moore, of course, as someone pointed out.

I don't think I've ever seen her in a network TV show, since she's Canadian and doesn't do much Hollywood work. That may be why I didn't recognize her--because I didn't expect her or any Native in a superhero-spy story.

One fan speculated:My best is that the mystery woman is either Talia al Ghul or Lady Shiva. Either one will be just fantastic.Either one would be a big role for a Native actress. She'd undoubtedly appear in several episodes, not just one.

April 03, 2015

Daily Cavalier mocks black student's arrest

A University of Virginia newspaper "satirized" a black student's arrest with an April Fools' Day story about a Native student's arrest:

People are outraged at UVA newspaper's April Fools' issue satirizing a black student's bloody arrest

By Peter JacobsUniversity of Virginia students are calling on the school's student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, to apologize for a seemingly insensitive April Fools' Day article.

The Cavalier Daily's April Fools' Day front page is dominated by a story with the headline "ABC agents tackle Native American student outside Bodo's Bagels," which appears to satirize the controversial arrest of UVa student Martese Johnson last month.

The story's tagline reads "Students decry 'Trail of Schmears' as marginalization of minorities reaches new low," a reference to the "Trail of Tears" that followed the US government's Indian Removal Act of 1830.

The student newspaper has since apologized for the article.
UVA's Latest Nightmare: Bad Racist 'Satire,' An Even Worse Apology

By Jia TolentinoHere’s a closer look at the first one, which “satirizes” the racism that led to Martese Johnson’s police brutalization and night in chains. Note the names of the imaginary Native American students in the piece (“Dances With Wolves,” “Strong Buffalo,” “Rabbit in the Grass,” “Insect Humming”)—which mainly offend me because the jokes are so painfully fucking weak.

I too am deeply concerned by the fact that what’s actually satirized here is not police brutality but the idea of a sincere institutional response, on the part of administration or students. This is racism so stupid it doesn’t know it’s racist—by far, the most troubling kind.

The most interesting part of this incident is this letter from The Declaration, another campus publication:

An Open Letter to The Cavalier DailySatire is a radical comedic tradition wherein the abuses of the overculture are deconstructed and critiqued. This comprehensive deconstruction is what makes stuff like The Colbert Show (sweet angel, rest in peace) and The Onion work where other attempts at satire fall flat—they make clear the issues that plague society-at-large.

This means that good satire at UVa should speak to the not-so-hidden truths that undercut student life: Greek culture’s gaping wound at UVa’s nucleus; the entitlement complex shared by a majority-white student body; the fetishistic hero-worship of Our Mr. Jefferson; the awkward, elephantine disparity between rich students and poor students; the racism, pervasive and terrifying, woven tightly into this school’s very fabric.

It seems so simple, really, a slice of Culture 101 you’d expect UVa students to have studied long before they entered the university: the “bad guys” look stupid because they are; readers and viewers laugh, duh, but they also question why those “bad guys” are in power in the first place!

As the student publication with the “richest history” and the most influence on grounds, the Cav Daily shouldn’t need this lesson, but when its annual “satirical issue” frames damaging racial stereotypes as funny and trivializes blatantly the marginalized groups satire is supposed to work for, not against, it makes two things clear: 1) UVa works for the overculture, “The Man,” the lived-in, overarching structure that tells you it’s okay to reframe acts of erasure and violence as comedy and call it a day, and 2) UVa is home to a cadre of students who are dumb as hell and didn’t do their homework for Intro to Comedy and Society: or, How to Be a Decent Human Being.
Comment:  This excellent commentary applies to every attempt to "satirize" racism by using stereotypes--chiefs, teepees, braves, buckskins, tomahawks, etc.--uncritically. That is, by simply emulating a racist work but claiming you're doing it "ironically," to mock the stereotypes.

Again, in satire, "the abuses of the overculture are deconstructed and critiqued." Simply displaying examples of abusive racism or stereotyping isn't deconstructing or critiquing them. A "satire" isn't a satire unless you actively attack the target of your ire.

For more on the subject, see Stereotyping Explained to South Park Apologists and The Dudesons, Polish Jokes, and Minstrel Shows.

April 02, 2015

Apology not accepted!

I posted something about the racist fraternity video and how it indicts society, not just individuals. The corollary is how worthless an individual apology is compared to a society-wide change. Here's more on the subject:

Dear White Racists, Apology Not Accepted!

Frat boy Levi Pettit isn't sorry. Neither is the Bloomsburg U's baseball player who called 13-year-old Little League phenom Mo'Ne Davis a "slut." So why are we expected to forgive them?

By Stacey Patton
This reflexive, near-obsessive push for insta-forgiveness just perpetuates the problems of deeply entrenched racism. The rush to appease “White fragility,” to protect the zone of White comfort, denies the transformative possibilities that might result in actual racial reconciliation and justice. By not letting the perpetrator fully experience the consequences of their attack, we deny them the opportunity to take full responsibility for their actions. By rushing the victim to respond, we deny them the full, true range of their emotions and psychological response to such to evil acts.

And by fast-forwarding the whole situation back to the comfort zone of the status quo, where racism is the unacknowledged norm, we deny everyone the opportunity to evolve and do better. Nobody acknowledges the real, ongoing damage. And we keep going back to square one where everyone is playing a role designed to prevent progress because it’s too uncomfortable and frightening to even consider disrupting the pattern, no matter how harmful and backwards it proves to be.

There is an almost religious, or Evangelical rush to “forgive,” to absolve the perp ASAP. But this forgiving doesn’t free anybody—not the perp, not the victim, not those who observe the dynamics at play. It just feeds the status quo, and bolsters the public agreement to ignore the truths, trivialize the trauma and minimize the realities of racism, thus ensuring more of the same.

Sometimes I think that Black people should be more like Jewish people, who don’t even pretend to turn the other cheek, and who, when attacked publicly, never talk about forgiveness or absolution of anti-Semites. They have schooled us all to be crystal clear: When they say “never again,” they mean it, without exception, and they would never consider shouldering either the blame or the responsibility for the anti-Semitism aimed their way. That’s something I can understand and respect. But of course if Black people embraced that kind of love and self-preservation, even as we stand at risk for extermination, we’d be called reverse racists.

Instead, Black people too often fall into the role of soothing hurts, smoothing jagged edges, healing everyone’s pain but our own. When we embrace the type of response from Mo’Ne Davis, we are praised for “taking the high road,” “being the bigger person,” showing class, and grace, and moral superiority.

But we are never supported, defended, protected or perceived to have a personhood worthy of upholding.

And the racists who attack us—why do they always claim they had no idea that their language of choice and symbols (watermelons, monkeys, nooses, or calling Black children “cunts” and “sluts”) could possibly be construed as problematic?

When they’re caught, they play dumb, they deny any possibility of ill intent or awareness. And their apologies routinely contain the ultimate caveat: “I’m sorry if you found it offensive.”
Comment:  For more on the subject, see "It Feels Good" to Be White and Whites Too Fragile to Discuss Race.

April 01, 2015

Stereotypes threaten academic achievement

Professor affirms effects of Indian mascots

By Jack RooneyStephanie Fryberg, a visiting professor of psychology at the University of Washington, presented her research Tuesday on the psychological effects of American Indian sports mascots, which affirmed these types of social representations depress the self-esteem of American Indian students.

Fryberg’s lecture, titled “From Stereotyping to Invisibility: The Psychological Consequences of Using American Indian Mascots,” highlighted several studies she and her colleagues have performed.
And:All of the studies, though, concluded that essentially any American Indian mascot representations harmed the self-esteem of American Indian students, Fryberg said.

“Consistent with the past two studies, it turns out that being exposed to any one of these mascots decreased achievement-related possible selves,” she said. “So what it means is if they saw the Indian mascot, then any possible selves they had related to achievement in school were depressed.”

Indians and blacks too

Some related research on stereotypes:

Stereotype Threat Widens Achievement GapSteele, Aronson and Spencer, have examined how group stereotypes can threaten how students evaluate themselves, which then alters academic identity and intellectual performance. This social-psychological predicament can, researchers believe, beset members of any group about whom negative stereotypes exist.

Steele and Aronson gave Black and White college students a half-hour test using difficult items from the verbal Graduate Record Exam (GRE). In the stereotype-threat condition, they told students the test diagnosed intellectual ability, thus potentially eliciting the stereotype that Blacks are less intelligent than Whites. In the no-stereotype-threat condition, the researchers told students that the test was a problem-solving lab task that said nothing about ability, presumably rendering stereotypes irrelevant. In the stereotype threat condition, Blacks--who were matched with Whites in their group by SAT scores--did less well than Whites. In the no stereotype- threat condition--in which the exact same test was described as a lab task that did not indicate ability--Blacks' performance rose to match that of equally skilled Whites. Additional experiments that minimized the stereotype threat endemic to standardized tests also resulted in equal performance. One study found that when students merely recorded their race (presumably making the stereotype salient), and were not told the test was diagnostic of their ability, Blacks still performed worse than Whites.

Spencer, Steele, and Diane Quinn, PhD, also found that merely telling women that a math test does not show gender differences improved their test performance. The researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. When test administrators told women that that tests showed no gender differences, the women performed equal to men. Those who were told the test showed gender differences did significantly worse than men, just like women who were told nothing about the test. This experiment was conducted with women who were top performers in math, just as the experiments on race were conducted with strong, motivated students.
Stereotypes found to affect performance on standardized testSteele's theory is that stereotype vulnerability, the unsettling expectation that one's membership in a stigmatized group will limit individual ability, may be at the root of lower grades and SAT scores for African Americans. Stereotype vulnerability raises interfering anxiety during testing or classroom situations, Steele wrote. The same dynamic also could explain why highly skilled women at the university level drop out of programs in math, engineering and the physical sciences, he added.

"Surprisingly, you don't have to believe in the stereotype to be vulnerable to it," he pointed out to his audience at the APA convention.

"Everyone in a collective knows the stereotypes about a given target group, including the group members themselves, and everyone knows that everyone knows," Steele wrote in a paper prepared for the convention. "Thus the predicament of 'stereotype vulnerability': The group members then know that anything about them or anything they do that fits the stereotype can be taken as confirming it as self-characteristic, in the eyes of others, and perhaps even in their own eyes. This vulnerability amounts to a jeopardy of double devaluation: once for whatever bad thing the stereotype-fitting behavior or feature would say about anyone, and again for its confirmation of the bad things alleged in the stereotype.
Yes, it makes sense that any kind of stigmatizing--e.g., "You're a girl, so you have to try harder"--would increase anxiety and decrease performance. So there's no rational way to spin a racist stereotype as an "honor" that helps Native children. It would be like encouraging me with an 18th-century image of a dirt-poor farmer in an log cabin.

How would that relate to my experience in the 21st century? Try harder and I can be a dirt-poor farmer too?

If a school had a program that honored real live Natives, that might be different. But few if any schools have that.

This point could generate a whole article. An article ripping the idea that centuries-old images are supposed to help Natives in general and Native students in particular.

It obviously wouldn't work if you showed black students pictures of half-naked African spearchuckers. How exactly is the Native case different?

Be all that you can be, African Americans! Aim for the stars!

Anthropological Association Takes a Stand in Native American Mascot Debate

By Rob StottThough the American Anthropological Association has been a vocal proponent of indigenous rights throughout its history, the group had remained quiet on the Native American mascot debate. That changed last week when AAA released a statement on the issue.

Anthropologists have joined a long line of groups to call on professional and college sports communities to rethink their use of Native American mascots and nicknames. Except in instances where tribes or key stakeholders have been consulted (see Florida State University and San Diego State University), sports organizations should “denounce and abandon the use of American Indian” imagery, the American Anthropological Association said in a statement [PDF] released last week.

“While these organizations may feel they are honoring Native Americans, many in that community view it to be a degrading and painful symbol of racism,” Monica Heller, AAA president, said in the statement. “Research has established that the continued use of American Indian sports mascots harms American Indian people in psychological, educational, and social ways. Frankly, I don’t see where the honor is in that.”
Comment:  For more on the subject, see The Harm of Native Stereotyping: Facts and Evidence.

March 31, 2015

"You damn redskin!"

'You Damn Redskin!' Surviving a Racist Attack

By Dennis G. ChappabittyDuring the usual jabbering I’d said I was a Comanche Indian headed back to my final year of college. As we drove, the driver said they’d been drinking beer and needed to pull over. We pulled off near an old deserted town called Silver City, north of Drumright, Oklahoma. After driving far down the road, I asked, “Why not stop here and pee?” They said, “No, we’re going further down.”

My Indian gut told me something was not right. The car stopped and the young men all got out while I stayed in the middle of the back seat. After they took care of their business, one of them said, “Hey, why don’t you get out?” I said, “No, I don’t have to.” Then one of them said in a loud, angry tone, “You will get out, now!” With no choice, I slowly got out of the car while they all stood on the right side of the road all looking at me with squinting hateful eyes and clinched fists.

I sensed movement to the right and behind me. I quickly turned and ducked as one of them swung a bottle of beer toward the back of my skull. When I ducked, he hit the car door and the bottle shattered. The battle for my survival was on.

I took several punches to my body as they all closed in shouting “You damn redskin, we’re going to kill you!” I fought back with full force and we all fell down in the roadside ditch full of tall weeds. While down, the kicking and punching continued over and over as I moved away from the car and farther down the ditch.
Wichita North Redskins

"Remarks by Clem Ironwing, Sioux, during a public Mascot/Identity Committee hearing."

By Matthew Richter
The following remarks were made by Clem Ironwing, Sioux, November 11, 1996, during a public hearing called by the Mascot/Identity Committee. Denied a seat on the Committee, Mr. Ironwing, an elder, was given three minutes standing alone on the school stage in front of three television stations, local radio stations and the Wichita Eagle newspaper in front of an audience of 250 to explain why it is not right for the school to continue using this mascot. His remarks follow:

"The word Redskin was taught to me at a very young age, and this is the meaning it has for me.

"I am a Native American. I grew up on an Indian reservation. As a child, the United States Government and the Catholic Church came into our homes, took us away from our families, and forced us into Catholic boarding schools. There was no choice to be had in this matter, you had to go. The Catholic Church with the blessings of the United States Government took it upon themselves to determine that we were savages, and needed to be transformed to fit into their society.

"When my hair was cut short by the priests, I was called a 'redskin' and a savage. When I spoke my native tongue, I was beaten and called 'redskin.' When I tried to follow the spiritual path of my people, I was again beaten and called a 'redskin.' I was told by them to turn my back on the ways of my people, or I would forever be nothing but a dirty 'redskin.'

"The only way 'redskin' was ever used towards my people and myself was in a derogatory manner. It was never, ever, used in a show of respect or kindness. It was only used to let you know that you were dirty and no good, and to this day still is."

March 30, 2015

Pioneer Girl impugns Little House

The true story of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her "little house on the prairie":

Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder review–gritty memoir dispels Little House myths

Full of theft, alcoholism and violence, the novelist’s unvarnished account of her childhood is a darker, more vicious affair

By Sarah Churchwell
For most of Laura’s childhood, she lived in close proximity to drunks, rapists, horse thieves, adulterers and more than one murderer, including perhaps a brush with a notorious family of serial killers.

Nor was the Ingalls family’s progress a simple westward expansion, as the novels more or less report it: Wilder deliberately simplified their back-and-forth journeys across the midwest in order to create the impression of westward progress, an image in keeping with her theme of nation-building. In fact, the Ingallses retreated east more than once, while the self-styled “pioneers” were land-grabbing as fast as they could: manifest destiny was a giant get-rich-quick scheme. The family emerges as far more opportunistic, even on occasion unscrupulous, than the whitewashed novels would have us believe. Charles Ingalls knew that he was in Indian Territory illegally, while his wife’s brother Tom went to the Badlands on an ill-fated and illegal search for gold. The family snuck away from debts on at least one occasion, making their escape in the middle of the night. The fundamental drama in the novels comes not from conflicts within the family, but with the external forces of government, Indians and nature. Of the three, the last is the one we are most apt to sympathise with today; the attitude of the settlers to the Indians makes for uncomfortable reading (“Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that’ll farm it. That’s only common sense and justice,” one neighbour declares). It is an attitude that the Ingallses and their relatives clearly shared; many of their actions were in flagrant violation of treaties.

The most extensive difference between the two accounts is Wilder’s decision to excise an entire interlude in Iowa from the novels. The family’s retreat to the east undermined her triumphalist tale of westward progress, but their time in Iowa also featured some of the family’s grimmest experiences. They lived in a hotel adjacent to a saloon, which is hard to imagine the fictional Ma Ingalls permitting; the decision was a mark of their “financial desperation,” as the editor of Pioneer Girl notes. There were bullet holes in a wall, made by a drunken man shooting at his wife; another dragged his wife around by her long hair, carrying a lamp that was pouring kerosene; Charles Ingalls intervened to keep them all from being burned to death.
Comment:  For more on Little House on the Prairie, see Little House = Libertarian Fable and Little House Celebrates Land Theft.

March 29, 2015

California's 4th-grade mission mythology

Lying to Children About the California Missions and the Indians

By Deborah A. MirandaAll my life, I have heard only one story about California Indians: godless, dirty, stupid, primitive, ugly, passive, drunken, immoral, lazy, weak-willed people who might make good workers if properly trained and motivated. What kind of story is that to grow up with?

The story of the missionization of California.

In 1769, after missionizing much of Mexico, the Spaniards began to move up the west coast of North America in order to establish claims to rich resources and before other European nations could get a foothold. Together, the Franciscan priests and Spanish soldiers "built" a series of 21 missions along what is now coastal California. (California's Indigenous peoples, numbering more than 1 million at the time, did most of the actual labor.) These missions, some rehabilitated from melting adobe, others in near-original state, are now one of the state's biggest tourist attractions; in the little town of Carmel, Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo is the biggest attraction. Elsewhere, so-called Mission décor drenches Southern California, from restaurants to homes, apartment buildings, animal shelters, grocery stores, and post offices. In many neighborhoods, a bastardized Mission style is actually required by cities or neighborhood associations. Along with this visual mythology of adobe and red clay roof tiles comes the cultural storytelling that drains the missions of their brutal and bloody pasts for popular consumption.

In California schools, students come up against the "Mission Unit" in 4th grade, reinforcing the same lies those children have been breathing in most of their lives. Part of California's history curriculum, the unit is entrenched in the educational system and impossible to avoid, a powerfully authoritative indoctrination in Mission Mythology to which 4th graders have little if any resistance. Intense pressure is put upon students (and their parents) to create a "Mission Project" that glorifies the era and glosses over both Spanish and Mexican exploitation of Indians, as well as enslavement of those same Indians during U.S. rule. In other words, the Mission Unit is all too often a lesson in imperialism, racism, and Manifest Destiny rather than actually educational or a jumping-off point for critical thinking or accurate history.

I can confirm that my California school had a "mission" unit. I was in 5th grade, but it was a joint social studies class with grades 3-5 (experimental school). We divided into teams and made some sort of cutout missions, but nothing as good as these.

What's up with constructing missions, anyway? What about the White House, the Alamo, or Sutter's Mill? Why is a mission the only historical building constructed by California students?

Someone could make the case that this veers too far into state-sponsored religion. I mean, you could read the Bible or reenact a Catholic ceremony and claim it was for learning about California's mission era. Constructing a mission isn't much different.

For more on California's missions, see Indoctrinating Students About Missions.

Below:  Happy-go-lucky Indians Preaching and Farming at Mission Dolores by Anton Refregier. Former Rincon Annex Post Office, San Francisco, California.

March 28, 2015

Ratings belie anti-diversity argument

Another response to the Deadline Hollywood article points out that diversity isn't just good morally. It's good financially, leading to better ratings and more revenue for broadcasters.

As Multicultural TV Shows Succeed, Some Wonder if Diversity has Gone Too Far

By Jeff YangHunt warns that like prior TV flirtations with diversity, this progress could be temporary. Yet the numbers—the only things that matter in Hollywood—show that this time, something different may be happening. Out of the scripted shows with all-white leads introduced this past season, just one—a reboot of “The Odd Couple”—seems guaranteed a renewal. Meanwhile, nearly every series centered on diverse characters looks like a solid return, for two reasons.

The first is that they’re expanding network audiences in ways that reflect the new demographic reality. Analyses provided by Nielsen show that the three most-watched non-event shows among 18-49 year old Asian Americans as of February were “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Fresh Off the Boat”—and it’s not even close, with Asian Americans being twice as likely to watch FOTB as any other scripted program. A full third of all 18-49 year old African Americans watch “Empire” each week, making it more popular than the Super Bowl in that demographic. And 17 of the top 25 shows among 18-49 year old Hispanics are on Univision—the Spanish-language network that regularly draws bigger audiences than Fox and NBC.

The second is that it’s these shows aren’t just catering to their communities. Asian Americans make up as much as 20% of FOTB’s audience—but the other 80% is non-Asian, and they’re what is keeping the series competitive against juggernauts like “The Voice” and “NCIS.”

Ultimately, points out UCLA’s Hunt, “we live in a diverse society, and people want to see stories that reflect that. We’re curious about other groups’ experiences. It shouldn’t come as a shock that white households don’t only want to see shows with just white people.”
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Where Are the Native TV Shows? and Deadline Hollywood on TV Casting.

March 27, 2015

Where are the Native TV shows?

Where are the mainstream TV shows about American Indians?

By Yohana DestaOn television screens, American Indian characters are virtually invisible.

Despite the recent TV diversity breakthrough (see: Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, Jane the Virgin and the record-breaking Empire), native people as a whole are still largely left out of the picture on the small screen. They make cameos in subplots (e.g. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, House of Cards), but don't get the reins to their own series.

Where are the shows dedicated to this country's American Indians?

Though there have been some recent attempts (The Red Road from Sundance has been panned by critics), there has yet to be a popular, mainstream series starring American Indians as a whole in the U.S.

"We’re one of the few ethnic groups they don’t know what to do with," actor Michael Horse tells Mashable. "America sees us as an antiquated culture."
Non-Native Travis Holt Hamilton is trying to do a sitcom based on his movie More Than Frybread:For now, Hamilton still has to work independently, because studios are hesitant about Native stories. He remembers taking a recent film workshop where an instructor bluntly told him why his script wouldn't work.

"As soon as I said Native, the instructor stopped me [and said] 'Not to be rude, but Hollywood’s not really interested in Native films,'" he recalls.

When it comes to TV, Hamilton says Canada far surpasses the U.S. The country has the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, or APTN, a channel devoted to its Aboriginal community. Aside from fictional TV shows, it also produces documentary and news shows.

A similar U.S. attempt is the First Nations Experience, or FNX, launched with PBS affiliate KVCR in 2012. The network is only available in a few states.

Another U.S. attempt is the Red Nation Television Channel, an online channel devoted to Native content, founded by actor and filmmaker Joanelle Romero. It launched in 2006 and now boasts 10 million viewers, according to the site's About page. When it first opened, the website crashed due to an overwhelming number of visitors.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Deadline Hollywood on TV Casting and TV Starts to Reflect America.

Below:  Jonathan Joss in Parks and Recreation.

March 26, 2015

Casting controversy in The Unplugging

A play in Toronto is causing the latest casting controversy:

The Unplugging tells an indigenous story, but the actresses are white

Author Yvette Nolan and director Nina Lee Aquino decided to find their ideal cast for Factory Theatre/Native Earth production, regardless of race.

By Richard Ouzounian
When Caucasian actress Allegra Fulton was offered the part of an aboriginal woman in the Factory Theatre/Native Earth production of The Unplugging, her negative reaction was immediate.

“I turned it down. I didn’t think it was right,” she said on a break from rehearsals for the play, which opens Wednesday. “It’s hard enough as an older white actress to get roles. For my friends who are Métis or First Nations, it’s practically impossible. Why should I take a part away from them?”

But a trio of influential voices kept trying to influence her: the director of both Factory Theatre and the production, Nina Lee Aquino, well known for her work in multiracial theatre; Ryan Cunningham, the artistic director of Native Earth; and the show’s author, Yvette Nolan, herself of mixed Algonquin and Irish heritage.

Fulton kept refusing. “I said ‘I can’t do this. Don’t ask me.’”

Then she remembered what playwright Tomson Highway had said to her years before when she was offered a major role as a Métis woman in a TV series and expressed similar qualms.

“Allegra,” said the flamboyant Cree theatre artist, “if you can’t play Métis, then I can’t play Oscar Wilde. Do it for me.”

So Fulton now finds herself in the show along with Diana Belshaw, also a white woman playing a role whose ethnicity isn’t clearly defined by the script, but whom director Aquino clearly labels as “indigenous.”

“Nina says we’re all indigenous on some level,” says Belshaw, who is also a professor of theatre performance at Humber College. “I’d have to agree with her there. We all have links to history, ancestry, culture in our past. For many of us it’s been broken.
But critics aren't necessarily buying it:

The Unplugging sparks debate by casting non-aboriginal actors in indigenous roles

Playwrights and actors divided on choice made by Toronto theatre company

By Kim Wheeler
“We talked about the casting, made a list which included not only the indigenous actors ‘of a certain age’ but actors from the larger multicultural community,” said Algonquin playwright Yvette Nolan, who made casting decisions along with director Nina Lee Aquino.

“There are not that many. For many reasons—attrition, retirement, fatigue. Many of the women on our list were already working in other shows or in movies or on much bigger projects."

Community backlash

When Columpa C. Bobb, an actor, writer, director and producer, heard about the casting decisions she created a long list of female indigenous actors on her Facebook page.

That started a discussion among the acting elite--including Tantoo Cardinal who was recently selected by ACTRA for the award of excellence.

“I don't care how talented you are, you will never convince me you are Indian. I have not seen a non-Indian actor catch nuance that needs to be there,” said Cardinal in a phone interview.
The problem isn't limited to one play:Playwright Ken Williams said his first mainstage production of Thunderstick—which went on to star Cree actor Lorne Cardinal and Anishinabe actor Craig Lauzon—had the same problem in 2002.

“We had the Isaac role cast but not one of the actors I wanted for Jacob were available. We ended up casting a non-native person for the role,” said Williams.

Drew Hayden Taylor's play, God & the Indian, will be the next Native Earth production. He's had over 70 productions of his work produced by several theatre companies.

Hayden said that on at least two occasions theatre companies have had to hire non-indigenous actors for his plays.

“I would rather have had a Native actress do the role, but as an artist, I would rather have a talented and experienced actress bring life to my characters than just somebody with a status card who's never acted,” said Taylor, who also saw The Unplugging.
Comment:  I don't think Native Voices at the Autry, here in Los Angeles, has ever experienced this problem. But it has a huge pool of Hollywood actors, including Natives, to draw on.

These articles don't quite address the core issue. Native Earth Performing Arts is supposedly a "professional Indigenous theatre company." Okay, then it should have developed a pool of talented Native actors in the Toronto area. In fact, Native Earth shouldn't exist unless it has a critical mass of Native actors, writers, directors, and so forth. What's the point of a Native theater company if you don't have enough Native people to put on Native plays?

I trust Native Earth has addressed and answered this question. Perhaps the article writers didn't have the time or space to go into it. But the question is central to the Unplugging controversy. Does Toronto have enough Native actors to put on Native plays or doesn't it? If it doesn't, what is Native Earth doing about it? If Native Earth is building an ensemble of Native actors but still can't find two of them for The Unplugging, it may be in the wrong business.

For more on Native theater, see Off the Rails at Native Voices and Stanford Cancels Bloody Jackson Play.

Below:  "Allegra Fulton and Diana Belshaw star in Yvette Nolan's play 'The Unplugging.' It runs in Toronto at Factory Theatre until April 5." (Akipari)