Archive for Saturday, April 30, 2005

Review: ‘Native Voices’ connects with community through oral history

April 30, 2005


You cannot choose your heritage, but you can choose to embrace it and share it with others, regardless of their background, culture or beliefs.

And oral histories, or personal stories, can aid in this effort by finding common ground between different groups of people living in the same place.

"Native Voices -- Secret History," a scripted narrative featuring five Lawrence residents of American Indian descent, demonstrates this means of understanding with powerful and uplifting results.

The production, which ends tonight at Kansas University's Lied Center, draws upon the varied life experiences of its cast.

Russell Blackbird belongs to the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and Iowa and is also half Lakota Sioux. Today he is the principal at South Junior High School and known to many; at age 14, he was the new kid in school after his family moved to Lawrence, and he felt invisible because of his ethnicity.

"It (was) the first time I felt like a real outsider," he said before adding, "Adversity (made) me stronger."

Lori Tapahonso understands, too. She is Dine and has lived in Lawrence for 15 years. As a broadcast journalism student in college, her professor told her she might want to consider another career path -- her "look" just wasn't what the industry wanted for on-air talent.

Tapahonso works as assistant to the president and public information officer at Haskell Indian Nations University now. Adversity made her stronger.

Carly Jo Blemmel is a sophomore at Haskell, where she is surrounded by a common heritage but not always a common frame of mind. When showing photos of friends back home to a classmate during her freshman year, she was told, "God, you had a lot of white friends."

When: 7:30 p.m. todayWhere: Lied CenterTickets: $14-$28Ticket info: 864-2787¢ A panel discussion will follow the performance in conjunction with the Bert Nash Building a Better Community Summit.

This troubled her -- was she "too white"? What did that even mean?

"Native Voices," written and directed by New York theater artist Ping Chong, is filled with moments like these: real moments recounted by real people who live in our community. Chong calls the cast he selected -- Blackbird, Tapahonso, Blemmel, Dennison Dugi and Dianne Yeahquo Reyner -- a "courageous group."

And he couldn't be more right.

The cast members bare their souls in Chong's production -- many of the stories and memories shared are sad recollections of stereotypes endured at different points in their lives. A lot of what they tell the audience isn't very pretty. And the fact that they aren't actors, but people you might know or have passed on the street, makes the message that much more gripping.

The production moves along a timeline, with the cast splicing American Indian history with their own personal stories. Some of the examples given are painful, others seem bewildering, and a few are quite funny. But when the show nears its end, the cast states the overriding theme quite plainly: "We are still here."

You cannot choose your heritage, but you can choose to stay. You can choose to be brave. And like the remarkable cast of "Native Voices," you can choose to remember that a community is most capable of change when all of its voices are heard.

Lisa Schmitz, a graduate student in journalism at Kansas University, can be reached at

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