The song “Indian Outlaw” by Tim McGraw played as I walked into Yale Repertory Theatre. In fact, the pre-show playlist was filled with songs by non-Native people employing stereotypes or “playing Indian” (and a whole lot of both). I smirked, before the show even started, knowing why these songs were chosen. Someone next to me was tapping their foot to the music. Then they heard the words a little clearer, looked at their neighbor, and stopped tapping.
The minute Yale Repertory Theatre announced their 2021-2022 season would include Between Two Knees by the 1491s, a comedy (yes, you read that right) covering Indigenous trauma from the Wounded Knee Massacre to the Occupation of Wounded Knee, I started stumping for the production and bought tickets for myself and seven other family members and friends. I’ve seen many of the 1491s’ skits and am familiar with the group members’ work outside of the troupe. I read about the development of this play in We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff. Plus, it’s the first live, in-person theater I’ve seen since March 2020.
It’s fair to say I was excited, but it seemed like a chunk of the audience was caught for the whole show in this spell of stopped tapping, of realizing the complicity of American society in the misrepresentation of Native people—not to mention our genocide—but not yet able to let go and laugh. I hope the relative quiet meant that when confronted in this context with stereotypes they’ve likely encountered a thousand times before but never noticed, audience members were reflecting on the other assumptions they held uncritically. And I truly hope that the study mentioned in the program notes—one in which folks who saw a comedy about a tragic injustice felt motivated to save the world—got it right, and that as I write this reflection, fellow attendees from that night are reading up on the Missituck Massacre, federal Indian law, boarding schools, and finding out what they can do to help today.*
As a Northeast Native person, I appreciated that the Wheel of Indian Massacres—a riff on Wheel of Fortune that opens the play—included local ones. We tend to be forgotten. And maybe this reminder, that Native people lived and live here, that New England settlers aren’t exempt from this horrific history, is what set the course of far less laughter than I anticipated. Maybe audiences didn’t expect the direct address by our emcee/greatest Indian Warrior of all time, Larry (played by actor Justin Gauthier), of their complicity.
But more than the discomfort of being confronted with the truth, the relative quiet in the house likely reflected the audience’s response to what might have been a first in their experience of theater: being on the outside looking in.
The show is so incredibly thick with references—to American pop culture, to history, to Native culture, to stereotypes—that it’s easy to miss a joke if you aren’t already very attuned to these subsets of culture. The introductory spiel warns us not to take pictures because they steal some of your soul. The cast’s attire while dancing to a catchy cover of “I’m an Indian Too” (originally from Annie Get Your Gun) gestures to the perennial issue of Halloween costumes and the scourge of pretendianism. At a New Age “Native American Marriage Ceremony,” blonde dreads, dreamcatchers, and tie-dye abound. Even the set, a combination of saloon and vaudeville aesthetic with appropriative and offensive images like the Land O’ Lakes Indian Maiden, Chief Wahoo, and the Chicago Blackhawks logo overlaid on American flags serving as a pseudo-proscenium, makes jokes. But none of this is funny unless you know it’s ridiculous and wrong.
Is it a flaw that this means some of the humor sails by certain audience members? I don’t think so. One of the great joys in my life is when a cultural group makes art or media that, while keeping an eye to what a general audience comes in knowing, doesn’t so much concern itself with being legible to anyone outside of that cultural group and instead practices for their own joy. Marginalized communities deserve a chance to be the ones on the inside laughing while others try to keep up.
I am Mohegan and white (French-Canadian, Irish, Scottish, Welsh). I have ancestors who colonized my other ancestors and an eye on both sides of the humor here. I laughed at myself, at the foibles and flaws of the Native community, at what has been done to us, at the foibles and flaws of white society.
Beneath the comedy, the vaudeville vibes, the playful repurposing of mystical Indian tropes, and even the heart-breakingly sincere moments, I felt a current of persistent, motivating rage. It’s possible this isn’t in the writing, that it’s something I brought with me to the show. But sadness and anger weave together, and as the insightful dramaturgical note explains, comedy is part of healing—and defiance.
The last number, “So Long, White People,” may have veered too close to the truth for some. It was here that I felt the anger most strongly, the rejection of a world of harm brought over in 1492. Despite the concerted efforts of the cast, which got me and a few others moving, many remained still, frozen perhaps by the culmination of a performance that lands where it has to: at the removal of those harms that led to this story being told in the first place.
A mix of comedy and fantasy, this show lets us imagine what it might feel like to revisit the traumas of the past and rewrite them, to run across the country with Irma (played by Shyla Lefner) and Isaiah (played by Derek Garza) destroying boarding schools, freeing children, and punishing the religious who inflicted the damages that spun into intergenerational trauma. And we can start to imagine a world in our own present where we slowly heal from the traumas we can’t actually go back and undo.
On my way home, the car in front of me had a racist mascot sticker. I got angry. And I laughed.
I can’t wait to see the show again—next time, with more NDNs.
Attacks on tribal sovereignty are ongoing. A great place to start learning about this is season two of the podcast This Land by Rebecca Nagle (Cherokee).
Addressing the horrific history of U.S. boarding school policy is also a current issue. Volume 1 of the investigative report on boarding schools has just been released.
Finally, find whose land you’re on and start learning about and connecting with those communities.