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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Lakota author examines heritage in opera
by Terry Woster - Sioux Falls (SD) Argus-Leader - November 23, 2008
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Halfway through the world premiere of the opera "The Trickster and the Troll" in Brookings last Sunday, it occurred to me that I was watching a Thanksgiving story more appropriate to the South Dakota experience than that feast in 1621 from which our national holiday supposedly originated.

Several sources, including Pilgrim Hall Museum and, peg the first Thanksgiving as the celebration of a successful harvest in the autumn of 1621 by Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe. The sources, then, support what I learned as a kid back in first grade at Reliance, so they must be true.

Last Sunday's performance by the Heartland Opera Troupe, on the other hand, was based on a story written by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, a Lakota author born on the Rosebud reservation and married to a Norwegian man.

Mix of legend, history
Driving Hawk Sneve drew upon that mixture of Lakota and Norwegian to create the tale of the "Trickster and the Troll." One of my granddaughters had a part as a duck. That's how I came to be in the audience for an opera about how people sometimes lose themselves when they try to function in a modern world by leaving behind their heritage and the stories passed down from generation to generation. Whether Lakota or Norwegian, such people can find themselves without the foundation of history and culture and with little understanding of their past.

The trickster in Driving Hawk Sneve's story, Iktomi in the Lakota culture, often is depicted in oral tales as a crafty little dickens, up to no good and full of mischief. In this story, the character comes to represent the heritage and culture that many Lakota people rejected, sometimes willingly, often through the force of the majority culture.

The troll plays a similar role for the Norwegian family in the tale, a being that helps and protects a family until he is rejected as the younger generation moves to America and tries to establish a new life in a new land.

It's pretty well accepted that government policy from the time of the Indian wars of the late 1800s through at least the early half of the 20th century included attempts to persuade or force the Native people to turn their backs on their culture and become white. I've known a number of Lakota and Dakota people who were told as youngsters that they shouldn't spend time learning their own culture because "you'll have to learn to live and survive in a white world."

Adrift between cultures
It has seemed to me, from conversations with those people, that the process left them adrift, not really white, not quite Native A. Turning back to their culture and learning of their history and heritage doesn't mean they can avoid living in a non-Indian world. It simply means they have a sense of themselves, an appreciation of the ancestral stories that shaped their lives.

If that's true for the Lakota people, it also could be true for the Norwegian family that left its ancestral home, moved to America and tried to turn its back on its culture, as symbolized by the troll in Driving Hawk Sneve's story.

In the story, the trickster and the troll, each suffering rejection, realize they are stronger together than alone - that their very survival depends on accepting each other. When their Lakota and Norwegian families, who've missed the old stories the trickster and troll symbolize, accept those characters back into their lives, well, it's a grand moment.

A grand moment, too, came during curtain calls when the mostly white audience stood as one and applauded a white-haired Lakota woman whose life has been devoted to examining her heritage and her state. It was a moment for thanks and for hope.

Reach Terry Woster at 224-2760 or

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