Yellow Robe began writing plays because as an actor, there were
no parts written for Indians. He then struggled to find enough Indian
actors to fill the roles he had written.
Since those early days, the demand has
grown for plays written by Indians, addressing Indian issues, featuring
"The communities are so hungry for
it," he said Sunday. "Native people want to see their
lives reflected (on stage) and non-Natives want learn about another
Playwriting is an extension of traditional
storytelling -- a way to teach a lesson or pass along family tales.
Yellow Robe asked educators to push their
students to write, act, paint or sculpt to incorporate storytelling
and Indian culture into the classroom.
The faculty affiliate at the University
of Montana's English department was one of many presenters at the
Montana-Wyoming Indian Education Association conference being held
at the Heritage Inn Sunday and today.
Organizers estimated 275 people attended
the 20th annual conference to learn how to infuse educational programs
with Indian history and culture and to talk about contemporary issues
facing the state's schools.
In teaching at schools across the country,
Yellow Robe found when he asked them to write their own plays, students
naturally incorporated their language, music and culture into their
"You get a sense when a story is
being told -- a sense of environment, of community," he said.
Yellow Robe inherited his storytelling
skills from his grandmother, who told him old tales of the coyote
and new tales of uncles and cousins that lived far away from the
Fort Peck Indian reservation where he was raised.
Each story had characters and a purpose
besides entertainment, he said, but unlike his plays, they were
never written down.
Students should be encouraged to write
not only what they know, but about things and issues that are close
to their heart, Yellow Robe said. Their passion will help bring
the stories to life.
Yellow Robe has examined many topics in
his own plays, including a drama about his own addiction to alcohol.
At the Indian education conference, the
No Borders Indigenous Theater Company cracked up the crowd, performing
his play "Better-n-Indians."
The production is a series of vignettes
taking a comedic look at ways Indian culture is cheapened.
One skit pokes fun at a young man at a
powwow whose fancy dance outfit is filled with lights, mirrors and
metal. Thanks to a girl he's trying to snag, the young man, whose
intentions were to be different, learns the bells and whistles aren't
At one point, the narrator says, "It's
now 6 p.m., and the following people are still Native:" At
other times the narrator teasingly encourages the audience to buy
Indian artifacts and replicas of treaties in the lobby.
Yellow Robe started the No Borders theater
group to create an outlet for Indian playwrights and actors.
As many as 29 people are involved with
a production at a time. All plays are written by Indians, many of
whom are within the company and have never written more than a thesis
The concept can be done at no cost in
any community, Yellow Robe told the teachers, and is a great creative
outlet for Indian students.
Another vignette in Yellow Robe's play
is about a woman named Ellen Jones who has changed her name to Wandering
Rain Drop on a Slow Moving Leaf in the Wind to get in touch with
her Indian side.
The actress, Flo Gardipee, has begun writing
poetry and hopes to eventually write a scene or play for the company.
"(The stories) come from our viewpoint
and the scenes are acted considering our backgrounds and our memories
as Native people," she said. "This is a good tool to present
our outlooks to people."
Before each performance, the company members
pray and are smudged, a brief ceremony that involves lighting a
small fire of native grasses.
Emily Ferguson-Steger hopes to work her
acting experiences with the troupe into the classroom when she graduates
from UM in a year.
"It's important to natives to show
them culture is worth writing down and sharing," she said.
"Write or read; even if it's not a full play, it's important