Sunday, April 25, 2010

Marcie Rendon's SongCatcher

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A few weeks ago, I met a woman whose work inspires me on many levels. That woman is Marcie R. Rendon, an enrolled member of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation. That's her in the image to the left, and isn't that an awesome poem overlaid on the pic?

As regular readers of American Indians in Children's Literature know, I am highly critical of the uncritical use of stories collected in the late 1800s and early 1900s by people who thought we (American Indians) were about to go the way of the dinosaurs. By that I mean vanish from the face of the earth. Go extinct. Cease to exist.

The people doing the collecting were not Native. The collectors worked for the Smithsonian. Some (most?) of them didn't know much about what they were looking at when they turned their non-Native eyes on Native people going about our lives. The result of that was a whole lot of misinterpretation.

And, in the name of research and science, those collectors would try to gain access to things the tribes didn't want them to see. Frank Hamilton Cushing was notorious about that. He was out at Zuni. Elsie Clews Parson was at Nambe and amongst the Pueblos, and she did some pretty outrageous things, too. Going where she wasn't wanted, recruiting informants, and then, calling one of them a liar in one of her reports. To Parson, I'd say "how do you know it was just one person who lied to you?!"

And that is why I'm so excited by Marcie Rendon's "SongCatcher: A Native Interpretation of the Story of Frances Densmore." It is a play, published in Keepers of the Morning Star: An Anthology of Native Women's Theater. Edited by Jaye T. Darby and Stephanie Fitzgerald, the anthology was published by the UCLA American Indian Studies Center. Available in paperback, the cost is $25.

Marcie's play is about a collector named Frances Densmore. I'd love to see it on stage!

The setting is present day. A young Native man named Jack and his Native girlfriend Chris are the main characters. Chris was raised with her Native community. Jack was not. He knows he's Native, and he goes to powwows and hangs out with Native people. He wants to know more, though, about his own tribe, and he especially wants a song of his own. Bill is an older Native man who visits with Jack and Chris in their apartment. Like Chris, Bill was raised knowing his community. Both Chris and Bill tell Jack that the song will come to him, that he has to listen for it.

Jack is impatient and rather than listen patiently, he decides to find a song. To find it, he turns to Frances Densmore's books and recordings.

Jack's activity (learning his heritage from a book) is not ok! All through his research process, Spirit Woman is near him, trying to give him a song. She's on stage, but he can't see her. He (and Chris and Bill) also can't see Frances Densmore when she is on stage. She's there a lot. Anytime Chris or Bill are talking, she goes right beside them, notebook in hand, and writes down what she hears them saying.

I'll stop, there, and let you get the play and read it yourself. As the play progresses, fascinating things are revealed. Marcie's play is a page-turner! If you are a writer that uses the Smithsonian archives (the Bureau of American Ethnography), don't do it! Or, at the very least, read Marcie's play before you do...

SongCatcher can be used in high school and college classes in English, Theater, Creative Writing, History, and of course, Anthropology. If your school has classes in Social Justice, use it there!

Later this week, I hope to find time to write about Marcie's play, The Rough Face Girl, comparing it to Rafe Martin and David Shannon's retelling of that story. I'll say this much. He got it wrong.


Christine said...

Thanks for this great information!

Tammy Flanders said...

I'm keen to hear what you have to say about The Rough Face Girl. Thanks for this.