Black Elk Sings

She was an actress and an American Indian (Native American? Do you like that term? Is it less demeaning? I don't like it and for all the years I've spent in Indian Country, most American Indians I've known don't like it either. They don't want to be "native" or "natural", they just want to be who they are. In most Indian languages, they refer to themselves as "people", "human beings". The Europeans, in their infallible miscalculation of every other race, called them Indians. The politics of that was insidious... then and now... to the Indians. So, Indians they are.)

I'll start again. She was an actress and an American Indian. I saw her at Red Earth, one of the largest and more prestigious Indian Art Festivals in Oklahoma City (a rather commercial pow-wow, if you will). Her name was Pola and she was Cherokee (I don't remember her Indian name; I haven't seen her in a long time).  She was also a recovering alcoholic.

If you don't know alcohol is the number one drug problem in the U.S., in the world for that matter. It is highly addictive, powerfully mind-bending, and more deadly to the human physiology than cocaine, marijuana, heroin and nicotine put together. But it is big, big business in a conspiracy of double-think that sponsors sports and arts and patriotism. Drink alcohol with your kids on America's newest, most important Family Holiday, the Super-Bowl of Football, but do not ogle the hidden-nipple breast of Michael Jackson's sister.  

The drug, alcohol, is the number one problem... not just drug problem... problem... in Indian Country. Now follow this twist... one of the largest and most influential patrons of the arts in Indian Country is the Coors Brewing Company. Guilt? I don't think so. Hypocrisy, I think so. Big business, I know so.

Before she nearly drowned, Pola had acquired some credits some theatre, a few commercials, some television, a film. She was not particularly exotique. She was pretty, petite, a woman of color and she had a good, full voice. People liked her on stage, the camera liked her. As she emerged through recovery from her addiction, she began to focus on her Indian self... who she was and what she was becoming. On this night, the first night of Red Earth, she was going to perform at a small theatre space, downtown from the pow-wow arena. It was to be her version of Black Elk Speaks.

Black Elk was a Lakota Sioux holy man. Born in 1863, he watched the famous battle at Little Big Horn, he witnessed the genocidal invasion and destruction of American Indian people and culture during the next 25 years and beyond. In the 1930's, John Neihardt persuaded him into a long series of conversations which he wrote down and published into what became an important and popular book, Black Elk Speaks.  It was eventually adapted into a stage play which was beginning to gain notice when Pola created her version, her adaptation of the book which she called: As Black Elk Speaks Alfred Coors Sings.  In her not-so-innocent, determined way, she stepped straight into an Oklahoma "windstorm".

Understand, this was a small actress performing a one-woman show in a tiny theatre space in a big city (as cities go in Oklahoma) amidst a huge festival and all of its spinoff hustle-bustle. Who cares? Well someone did because that morning during her final rehearsal she was visited by an attorney who demanded that she "cease and desist" using material for which she had no performance  rights. He threatened her with an injunction which proved to be unnecessary because another somebody appeared, an official somebody who informed her that her performance was illegal, immoral and would be shut down. That afternoon, someone who knew someone who knew somebody who owned the space shut it down. Why? Evidently, she struck a chord and "they" didn't like the music they heard. It had something to do with the title. If it had been called: "Time Out For Ginger", she might have at least had an opening night, but nothing further when "they" discovered what was in her performance.

As I said, Pola was determined, she had acquired a bit of pluck from time spent in New York and LA. And, she had a vision of who she was and what she was becoming. So that night she convinced a pub owner to let her entertain the crowd, free, with a roving, rolling rendition of her work. She was about twenty minutes into it when another somebody, this time a deputy sheriff, appeared and arrested her for performing without a permit (which regulation didn't exist in Oklahoma City). He dragged her out through the kitchen into the alley, gave her a couple of kicks in the ass and scared her home.

That's where the story should have ended... no one would have known about it. But it didn't. The next day, Pola took herself to Red Earth, found a friend of hers, a not-too-successful Cherokee sculptor who had a small booth tucked away outside of the main exhibit hall. He took off the booth awning, cleared away his work, put some boxes in the center to make a platform, pulled out a drum, and gave her a performing space. No permit required. That's where I first saw her. She wore a deliberately torn Indian dress that was created by a friend of mine who was and still is a successful Cherokee artist and was a successful exhibitor in the main gallery.

Pola heeded the warnings and did not speak any words for which she had no performance rights... she sang them! Her voice was strong and clear.  And she moved in that slow, deliberate, mesmerizing flow of Indian dance. With all of the sounds and noise and activity of the pow-wow around her, she drew an audience that grew into a crowd. She was a small actor, a woman, and she was not an activist, she wasn't spouting political dogma, she wasn't doing comedy.  She was an actress giving a performance. The audience was quiet, entranced, some people were crying. Just before the end, a group of men (some with badges) pushed through the crowd. Pola reached down and pulled up a shawl at her feet. She wrapped herself tightly, around and around like a mummy. Only her face remained uncovered as she continued to sing. The men grabbed her and awkwardly tried to figure out how to handle this figure. So... in the bright Oklahoma sun they carried her off upright as if they were removing a statue from an exhibit. She continued to sing for a few more moments, then her performance was over. The audience quietly applauded.

I saw her again on the last night of Red Earth. My friend, the Cherokee designer, invited a few of us up to her hotel suite for a drink (ironic, yes). Pola was there. That's when we learned a little about her and what had led up to her astonishing performance at the pow-wow. One of us said that he wished he had been able to see the original theatre performance. She asked if he would like to see it "now". We all wanted that, so she did it... in the diminished space of a hotel room for an audience of seven. Her piece was built of selections from the "Black Elk" text interspersed with stories and anecdotes of contemporary Indian life and statistics...  about suffering and health and despair, with emphasis, of course, on alcohol, alcoholism, and fetal alcohol syndrome. And, of course, there were stinging references to Coors and beer and hypocrisy. It was a good piece that needed work and hers was a good performance that needed work, but as an actress, she was quite beautiful. I don't know whatever happened to her.

So why do I tell you this story? For one, it has much meaning for those who are addicted to the arts and the art of life. For another, here was an actress who demonstrated the truth and beauty of the fact that she was the stuff of theatre. And for me, it is sharing with you a moment I will never forget -- the image of a statue performing in the arms of blind men, freely, in the bright Oklahoma sun.

©2004 Arthur Meiselman

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Arthur Meiselman is a writer,
telomeres hunter, and zingaro.
He's also the director of the Talos Ensemble


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