Out of Africa in Wakpala
By: Leighland A. Hooks
Something struck me as I looked into the eyes of a girl named Dreamer. She couldn’t talk but she could smile. Wide and deep all the way back to her fillings; which were silver but her eyes were an earthy brown with green specks. The playground is hot. The high plains day, in late summer death throws, grinds the turf to a nice gooey consistency. The kids I’ve been working with suddenly set free move like wild horses. It’s in their blood at Standing Rock.
Earlier in the week they had asked if “I was Lakota” like them. “He’s brown like us!” they giggled. Before I could answer: “No, I’m half-black.” And add the only native word I know (as if to impress them like a high-brow New England merchant who reads too many Louis L’amour books) “Tatanka”. I imagined them looking at me cross-eyed, missing toothed mouths agape, then uproarious laughter: “Buffalo?” So much for watching Dances With Wolves…Luckily, my touring partner stopped me from speaking and moved on with auditions.
Regardless of my obvious deficiency knowledge of the local tongue, the kids talk to me in Lakota. The only translations I received were from passer Byers. “Ze” means no. Strength and age grant authority and middle fingers probably mean “hello”. I take no offense to the, in Minnesota terms, crass treatment or aggression. I am an outsider to them. Worse than a stranger, a white-man educated theatre teacher with nothing they want to know.
What can I bring them? What can I give them that fills their needs? Their wants? As one of my teachers, Ronlin Foreman, said: “For us! For us! The play is for the delight of the audience and the pure joy of the player!” In servitude is the lesson. For them, always.
But what use can a show about imagination and pirates be to these kids? Kids who don’t want pirates and talking dogs. During a rehearsal early in the week, a group of boys were talking:
“What’s this show about? Is it Native?”
“No, it’s a white-man show.”
They catch me ease dropping.
“Hear the one about the orange?”
“Fruit punch.” Says a boy, Michael
Out classed by eight year olds
I came to realize that day; I have encountered the true west. Not the one in the pages of Sam Sheppard’s domestic violence infused play, but the heartbeat of the Middle-American Plains. And this, the children and descendants, the blood forced to reservations to pool and stagnate. Although, I grew up in central Minnesota amongst farmers and mechanics with rusted pick-ups and horses, my west is fake. It is the west of progression and expensive educations, debt and material. Nothing to do with customs and ancestral traditions.
Back at the hotel, I say goodnight to my touring partner and friend Jacinta (I call her Jac for short):
“’Night Jac. Sleep well dress rehearsal will be tough tomorrow.”
“Yeah. I don’t know how we’ll get them to listen. It’ll be what it will. ‘Night.”
We’re staying at The Grand River Casino Hotel just outside Wakpala. It smells of stale smoke and empty pockets. I feel conflicted staying at a casino. Happy to have a room but uncomfortable in a house of chance. I sleep disheartened.
In the mornings, I liked to watch the wind sweep the prairie grass over my oatmeal and tea. It is beautiful to me. I imagine mustangs running freely across the range, through the wind like blunt knives forcing a cut. Running. Always moving. Away from a home they never had. I never gaze too long. The plains turn into the African Serengeti and I see myself speaking African or Bush, Swahili with the Masai warriors. Carefully hunting gazelle. I look away; I have always looked away, back into my furnished room with my guitar and smart phone. All these things I’ve carried with me: clothes, hats, broken hearts, beer bottoms. For a second I compare myself with Christ. I laugh at my complex, absolve myself and get on with my day.
I made the mistake of wearing my western pearl snap shirt and bandana one day.
“I like your cowboy costume” laugh the kids.
My face begins to match the peach tones of my shirt. Then, in reference to my bandana:
“Are you a crip?”
“Your blood rag.”
Little did I know that several students had been expelled or suspended for gang related activities the previous week. I had always thought that gangs were for cities like New York or Los Angeles, not small town South Dakota. I considered this as I turn a corner in the school building. My attention turns outward as the commons engulfs me. The after school drum circle is rehearsing. One drum and six players. The singular heartbeat of a people. All at once I am consumed with the memories of growing up bi-racial in rural Minnesota. The passive glances, the marginal tolerance and disgust (which I came to hold against myself). I want to cry. Slump against a wall and sing of my people, the world as my forefathers have told. Of the Ivory Coast and ships. A world I have no connection to anymore…the circle seems grotesque in the shiny new federal school. I turn into the theatre and think about something else:
Dreamer is reaching for my shoulders. So I stoop down to ask what she wants. She takes my arm with, surprising strength, and pulls me to the monkey bars.
“She wants to go across but have to help her up,” says her sister Harmony.
The drive to Wakpala is only seven miles. I use the time to think about my day: What needs to happen? What do I want to happen? And the day’s foreseen challenges. Dress rehearsal promises to be…creative at best. These kids do not agree with silence. Backstage is just another room to be filled. However, this one has canvas walls and nobody wants to hear about who kicked whom.
Out the window are the dissolute plains of cowboys and cattle. The range spans for miles in its way. Nothing to claim the wind, nothing to chain men’s hearts but barb wire and abandoned ranch homes. The early sun sets fire to the Missouri as molten gold drifts to the grasses. The wind blows north in little concussive bursts signaling the tides to pass into winter. Into isolation, frozen as ever ready for the spring to come.
I close my eyes. Perhaps my answer is in there amongst the dark and motion of the van. Hidden here in spaces and unfurnished rooms I’ve given myself. I drift. What can I find?
Dreamer falling into my hands and wrapping her arms around my neck. She laughs and squeals
“You might be able to do this on your own one day” I tell her. She only gallops off to start again. Expecting me to help her.
“You ready?” asks Jac
“Yeah. Lets go.”
In servitude is the lesson. For me. Always.
Oct. 5th, 2011
P.s. As I later came to find, “Ze” is a derogatory term for no. Wakpala was our second residency during the fall tour and a tough one.