August 02, 2009

Revising Unto These Hills

Native Americans bring authenticity to revamped ‘Unto These Hills’

By Travis LongWhat makes this year’s performances of “Unto These Hills” different from the more than 4,000 prior performances is that members of North Carolina’s Eastern Band of Cherokees now play most of the lead roles.

In past years, whites with painted skin and dark wigs played most of the drama’s principal parts. Cherokees were often cast in minor, nonspeaking roles. The script also has been revised to make it more historically accurate.

The storyline covers a swath of Cherokee history leading up to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced 15,000 Cherokees from North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee along the Trail of Tears to present-day Oklahoma. The Eastern Band comprises descendants of Cherokees who hid in the mountains during the removal.

In recent years, those involved in the production felt a growing call for more authenticity and for Cherokee involvement on- and offstage. The effort to cast Cherokees in principal roles was led by 48-year-old director Eddie Swimmer, who was in the play when he was a teenager.
And:The play has undergone two major rewrites since 2006. Linda Squirrel, who works for the Cherokee Historical Association, wrote the latest script.

“It was like watching a stereotypical western Indian movie from the ‘50s or ‘60s,” Squirrel said of the original script. “A lot of the historical things in the show were inaccurate.”

Squirrel spent the off-season painstakingly researching and editing the script for accuracy. Among the major changes this year is a revamping of the climactic eagle dance scene.

“We wanted to bring back the feeling of the old show, yet make it a little more contemporary,” said choreographer Larissa Fasthorse, a Lakota of the Sicangu Nation.
Comment:  I'm glad they finally decided to update the play. I'm surprised it took so long.

For more on the subject, see 60th Season of Unto These Hills and Native Plays and Other Stage Shows.

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