By Geena Cova
Campus alumnus John Fisher’s play “Ishi: The Last of the Yahi,” which ran from March 2 to March 11, sparked outcry from the campus American Indian Graduate Student Association and American Indian community, which has since met with the department to discuss concerns with the play and how the department can better reach out to underrepresented communities on campus.
The play, according to the department’s website, explores the life of Ishi, the last remaining member of the Yahi tribe, and his time as an object of study at the campus Hearst Museum of Anthropology with anthropologist Alfred Kroeber beginning in 1911.
“Particularly offensive was the depictions of Native characters in the play and the intense physical violence done to them,” said Peter Nelson, anthropology graduate student and member of the association, in an email. “The play tries to speak for Native people, and in doing so, it takes our voice away.”
Department chair and associate professor Peter Glazer said the department and community have already held several meetings—and will continue to hold more—to address qualms about the play, ask and answer questions and provide commentary.
“It’s so problematic because the audience is led to believe that the actions Ishi commits in the play are actually true historical accounts,” said Tria Andrews, ethnic studies graduate student and association member. “It’s important that we recognize that we have to be careful with whose stories we tell and how.”
By Tria Andrews, Kayla Carpenter, and Peter Nelson
Fisher’s ignorance of the violence his play commits is particularly ironic given the meta-theatrical moment in which Alfred Kroeber addresses his sister-in-law, Charlotte. Kroeber chides her, “You act like you live in a play. You speak in platitudes and bring every scene to a rattling close. And you pretend you understand everything when all you’ve ever done is pick fights and provoke people you don’t really know.”
Kroeber’s statement is intended to invoke irony within the context of the play, because while Kroeber criticizes Charlotte for her cruelty, he himself is guilty of perpetrating immense malice towards others. However, the real irony is that Kroeber’s words also perfectly illuminate Fisher’s own ignorance and insensitivity to Native peoples. That is, Fisher writes a play, which is “fiction based on fact … combin(ing) research with creative writing.” This fiction not only fetishizes violence against Native peoples, but also perpetrates that violence in its misrepresentations of Ishi and California Indians.
Particularly problematic about Fisher’s play is the fact that, because viewers may be unfamiliar with Ishi’s story, these misrepresentations are not recognized as flagrant deviations from what Native peoples largely regard to be Ishi’s story. Much is not known about Ishi, who refused to share even his Yani-Yahi name and whose remains were repatriated to his descendants in 2000. California Indians view Ishi as a figure of non-violence and forgiveness. By all accounts, Ishi never expressed bitterness towards anyone, not even those who committed violence against him.
By Peter Glazer
On behalf of the department of theater, dance, and performance studies, as its chair, I want to deeply apologize for any pain our production has caused.
The controversy “Ishi” has provoked is something that we take very seriously, and we take full responsibility for our actions and decisions as a department.
We appreciate that Native American students at UC Berkeley reached out to us directly to initiate dialogue—dialogue that we were remiss in not initiating ourselves at the time the production was being considered. As a department, we are committed to open discourse, sincere engagement with important political issues and with the many communities we serve and fulfillment of our teaching mission in all that we do. We are also committed, from this point forward, to reaching out to historically underrepresented minorities who may be represented in our work.