"Weaving an epic story": Ella Cara Deloria's pageant for the Indians of Robeson County, North Carolina, 1940-1941.
--Ella Deloria, letter to Bishop Hugh Latimer Burleson, 16 Dec. 1927 (1)
ELLA DELORIA (1889-1971) WAS AN OUTSTANDING YANKTON SIOUX SCHOLAR and cultural broker from one of the most prominent American Indian intellectual families. Her grandfather Saswe (1816-1876) was a renowned traditional healer and visionary, as well as a tribal headman, who converted to Christianity late in life. For him there was little contradiction between adapting to some of the mainstream culture's ways and also representing his people's interests: in 1868 he joined a delegation to Washington, D.C., to renegotiate the 1858 treaty that defined the Yankton Sioux reservation land base. Her father, the Reverend Philip J. Deloria (1853-1931), became a Native Episcopalian missionary to "wild," "hostile" Sioux peoples on the Standing Rock reservation, while maintaining the family project of political advocacy and cultural preservation. Her brother, the Reverend Vine Deloria, Sr. (1901-1990), was also an Episcopal priest, albeit an unwilling and unruly one. The first Indian to direct that denomination's national Indian mission work, eventually he resigned to protest its racially discriminatory practices. Her nephew, Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933-2005; emeritus professor of history and religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder), was one of the most provocative American Indian public intellectuals of the last four decades. Ella Deloria is the only woman related to these remarkable men to leave her mark on the family's multi-generation tradition of cultural brokerage.
Astonishingly, however, despite her exceptional contributions to American Indian intellectual and representational sovereignty, little of Ella Deloria's work is published, apart from scientific reports and her one novel. In 1988 the University of Nebraska Press posthumously published a drastically abridged version of Waterlily--the only work of fiction by an American Indian writer about Native women's lives on the northern Great Plains before white settlement and Indians' containment on reservations. Deloria is better known as a distinguished Dakota ethnologist and linguist, funded by Columbia University, the American Philosophical Society, the Bollingen Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Doris Duke Foundation from 1929 to the 1960s. When she conducted research for Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead, her fieldwork enriched their classic ethnographic studies. Whatever Ella Deloria wrote--ethnology; translations and interpretations of oral traditions; Waterlily; an unpublished manuscript of "Dakota Legends" intended for a younger audience; pageants produced between 1920-1941 for Indian communities; and her professional letters--was written "Only so that my people may live!" (Waterlily 116). Her entire body of work, based on what Indian people told her in conversations and interviews, is thus composite ethnic remembrance, revitalization, and advocacy. All of her writing employs and revises Euramerican narrative forms--fictive, dramatic and scientific. That almost all of it had to be presented to non-Indian audiences necessitated some complex narrative negotiations.
Scholars have viewed Waterlily as Ella Deloria's only originally composed imaginative work. My research with the Native American Heritage Council of Charlotte, North Carolina, in the mid-1990s, collecting life-histories among elder Lumbee Indians of Robeson County, North Carolina, however, revealed that she had also pursued an avocation: writing and producing community historical pageants, utilizing dramaturgical skills she had honed at Teachers College when she was a student at Columbia University from 1913 to 1915. In 1940, employed by the US Department of the Interior's Office of Indian Affairs and the federal Farm Security Administration, she produced a pageant, The Life-Story of a People, for the Indians of Robeson County and adjacent areas. She had been commissioned to do so as part of a morale-and community-building effort for these Indian peoples who had suffered severely during the Depression. In 1998 I located a draft copy of the pageant--which was thought to have been lost or hidden since 1941--at the Dakota Indian Foundation in Chamberlain, South Dakota. It was among her unpublished personal and professional papers, under a different title.
The people now known as the Lumbee Indians are the ninth largest tribe in the US, recognized as Indians since 1885 by the state of North Carolina but not acknowledged, other than in name, by the federal government. The Lumbees think so highly of Ella Deloria's work that they included reference to the pageant in the historical narrative (asserting their historically continuous Indian identity) of their 1987 petition for federal acknowledgment, even though no text was then known to have survived. Yet the fact that the community has remembered the pageant has contributed to the persistence and revitalization of their Indian identity through narrative and performance. Their continuing pride in the pageant in effect endorses concepts of performance from speech-act theory and performance anthropology: "performance is primarily something done rather than something seen. It is less the product of theatrical invention or the object of spectatorship than ... the embodied process of making meaning" (Pollock 20).
At the Dakota Indian Foundation I became aware that the Robeson County pageant was not a one-time endeavor for Deloria. Instead, it was the culmination of a twenty-year process of producing Indian pageants and festivals for the Episcopalian Diocese of South Dakota, what was then named the Haskell Indian Institute (a federally run off-reservation boarding school) in Lawrence, Kansas, and the YWCA. To what extent, however, could Deloria represent Indians accurately or faithfully, when her very employers--church, state, schools, and other organizations seeking to "civilize" Indians--were trying to assimilate them into the mainstream society, on their terms? Her concept of Indian community pageantry developed over time from apparent accommodation within Euramerican institutions to recreation of Indian identities under siege: she developed an uncommon and shrewd ability to encode a rhetorical strategy of dissidence within hegemonic and canonical Euramerican narrative forms. Unique to Deloria's contribution was her strategy of relying on Indian people to perform themselves and to tell their own stories.
American community historical pageantry in the first three decades of the twentieth century transformed (or reinvented) history into ritual in order to mold a diverse society for conservative, reform, or, occasionally, Utopian agendas. As described by public historian David Glassberg in American Historical Pageantry: the Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century:
Pageantry's most fervent advocates viewed it as no less than an instrument of communal transformation.... [H]istorical pageants across America [had] a characteristic content: the theme of community development, the importance of townspeople keeping pace with modernity while retaining a particular version of their traditions, the rite-of-passage format signifying the town in graceful transition.... Symbolic interludes placed centuries of social evolution within a single framework, asserting continuity in the midst of change and harmonizing images of past and present, local and national community. (284-85)
Pageantry originated as a dramatic form in fifteenth-century Europe as a play in a mystery cycle. Its formula mixed action with more static representations. In its original incarnations, scenes were acted or tableaux (in effect, "still frames") were presented on a moveable stage or platform (the pageant wagon). Mystery plays were performed in the open air, and actors traveled with them from place to place. Their impact was largely visual, literally spectacular. Throughout its long history, pageantry proved to be a hybrid and flexible form that appealed to many audiences, from stately European royal courts to viewers of patriotic civic celebrations in the United States during the Progressive Era. Indeed, Glassberg characterizes the years 1912 to 1915 as demonstrative of a veritable "pageantry craze" all over the country, so popular that pageant master and professional dancer Virginia Tanner wrote an all-purpose pamphlet on production: "The Pageant of the Little Town of X" (Glassberg 122). A combination of episodes and interludes, pageant structure portrayed community development as evolutionary, organic, and linear. The "plot," such as it was, progressed from inevitable "Indian Episodes" through settlement, colonial America, the American Revolution and the Civil War. Its finale was a predicted future of prosperity and community salvation despite the upheavals of war, industrialization, and urbanization. In fact, pageantry could be used for quite dissimilar ends--even the Ku Klux Klan staged them!--but as Glassberg describes its capacity for re-interpreting (not to say inventing) tradition:
Pageantry's most fervent advocates viewed it as no less than an instrument of communal transformation.... Artists and recreation workers ... believed that pageants revealed a deeper, more emotional level of local community solidarity and aesthetic expression than the customary forms of holiday celebration. In this quest for new forms alternately to address and give shape to public sentiment--to find ways to explain the public to itself--historical pageantry was similar to political and social reform movements of the period.... Historical pageants became the characteristic form of public historical representation in the Progressive Era.... Pageantry grew with civil officials' efforts to create a coherent public out of a hodgepodge of classes, interests, and immigrant groups--though blacks and organized labor usually remained outside of the boundaries of the public that the pageants delineated. (284-85)
Ella Deloria had been enchanted from childhood with amateur dramatics such as Nativity plays. At the exclusive Episcopalian All Saints boarding school for girls in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, she had seen tableaux, but these, even in the form of tableaux vivants (i.e., with flesh-and-blood actors), were essentially a static form. Glassberg notes: "Tableaux vivants were a popular form of parlor entertainment in which costumed figures frozen in place imitated famous scenes from painting, sculpture, literature, and history" (16). Neither action nor dialogue enlivened them, which may be one reason why missionary education associations advocated tableaux in their guides to entertainment for their Indian converts. One example, "Indian Pictures: Past and Present," published by the American Missionary Association, epitomizes what this organization termed the "simplest possible form of dramatic program" (1). Students formed a frieze, adapted from well-known paintings and other representations of Indians by Europeans and Euramericans. A narrator read/overwrote each scene, "framing" the picture with "text," so that its meaning would be unmistakable. It was considered bad stage management if the characters moved or spoke, or if the narration faltered. The actors were seldom actual Indians, and the pamphlet advised: "The same Indians and seventeenth century colonists may be used over and over again if desired, with slight modifications of dress and make-up" (1). Rigidity, not to say a certain rigor suggested by the narrative past tense and closure, characterized the technique.
While attending Teachers College, Deloria learned of more exciting dramatic possibilities. Her inspiring teacher Mary Porter Beegle, beautiful, flamboyant, and socially progressive, attracted her women students' admiration and affection. An officer of the American Pageantry Association, she had staged numerous pageants herself. In her view, historical pageants were a democratic and accessible art form, capable of effecting social change. One way to create an enthusiastic, patriotic citizenry--"Out of many, One"--was to call upon a community's traditions to legitimate a positive future. With Jack Randall Crawford of Yale University, Beegle co-authored Community Drama and Pageantry, published in 1916, a year after Deloria's graduation as a physical education teacher. A lucid and practical guide to classic European dramatic theory and American historical pageantry in all its ramifications--from consulting with the community celebrating itself to stagecraft and budget considerations--it serves as a summa of Beegle's teaching, which indelibly influenced Deloria's concept of community pageantry. Particularly relevant to her work with the Pembroke community were their assertions: "[T]he pageant worker is confronted with the necessity of creating a popular tradition" (Beegle and Crawford 31); "The purpose of pageant celebrations is to build anew while preserving the best of the old traditions" (35).
The role of Indians in community pageants, however, was contradictory in Beegle's and Crawford's handbook. They recognized that the only authentic and distinctively "American" traditions were indigenous:
[A] source of excellent material for American pageantry is found in the numerous myths and legends of the Indians. The Indian has not yet come into his own in our pageants. Too often he is relegated to an opening episode in which white settlers bargain with him for land. But it is possible to write whole pageants around the Indians, or at least to relieve the historical scenes by the introduction of a dramatized Indian legend. Through a wider use of our available Indian folk-lore the American pageant would gain in variety of incident. (22)
Yet they also recognized that few mainstream Americans knew anything about Indian "traditions" other than "Hiawatha," so wildly popular at the time that it was even translated into Yiddish. Not every town had "a real or legendary hero, or a tradition, which would make good dramatic material" (36). Fortunately, "There are always the Indian legends if all else fails" (36). In fact, the authors had already staged a pageant, The Magic of the Hills (Hanover, New Hampshire, August 1914). They fabricated a plot (described by Beegle and Crawford as "the attempted capture of the Indian princess by the two evil brothers of her lover") and devised some "Fog Wraiths" who danced to her rescue. Their practice thus contravened their theory, for the authors well knew that "We seldom see Indians in any but sentimental stories quite unlike their own" (203). In other words, "tradition" could be invented. Or modified. Even ignored.
Since 1920, when Deloria produced her first pageant--Ocimani Hanska Kin or The Fifty Years' Trail, being a Pageant to Commemorate Fifty Years of Organized Christian Service by the Episcopal Church among the Dakotas--she quietly, unassumingly transformed an originally European, then Euramerican, dramatic genre into a vehicle for expressing Indian concerns. Her 1920 pageant--the first of three major ones she produced--provided her with an ideal forum, form, and stage for Indian people to voice their not-so-consensual "take" on policies enforced by their colonizers. She never deviated in her dramaturgical work from the formula she devised then: take refuge under the protective cover of institutions founded to "uplift" Indians so as to reclaim, with pride, the cultural resources of their past. Her own Dakota people became her instructors in genre-bending transformation.
One event not on the printed program for her first pageant elicited the Indian cast's most passionate performance: the so-called "Battle of Wounded Knee" on the Pine Ridge reservation in December 1890. Custer's former regiment, the Seventh Cavalry, massacred over three hundred Indian men, women, and children assembling under a flag of peace. This slaughter was the death knell of the millennial "Ghost Dance," a revival movement willfully misinterpreted by the US government as armed rebellion. (The Episcopal church dubbed this tragic attempt to recover the past and create an idyllic future as "the Messiah Craze," which is how it is referred to in the pageant program.) Perhaps even to Deloria's surprise, the Indian re-enactors vividly restaged the horrific aftermath. She wrote to Margaret Mead over thirty years later:
In the Wounded Knee scene ... the wounded and dying made themselves up as maimed, or as suffering head wounds, with all manner of bandages.... [T]here in a church they were, in all stages of misery, in continuous melting of movements as they groaned and rolled. Then I saw a beautiful specimen of a casualty, but behind the scenes. "O, you are perfect!" I exclaimed with distress, "But you are too late. The scene is playing right now!" Two men stepped up. "No, he isn't, Miss Deloria," they said. "We are going to carry him in right now!" ... [I]t actually made the scene, and it did not come from me. Things like that happened all the way through. ("Other Activities")
"Things like that" were ingenious modes of simultaneously concealing and revealing what political scientist James C. Scott refers to as "hidden transcripts" that inform and undermine an official, authorized program. The actors, due to their considerable number, were anonymous and would have been difficult to identify under layers of bandages and blankets. (Tellingly, photographs of the pageant in the Episcopalian Diocesan Archives of South Dakota show only the actors' backs, focusing rather on the "heroic" deeds of the Anglican clergy, who occupy center "stage.") They did not need a script and may well not have said anything at all, as their eloquent bodies re-enacted grief and loss from thirty years before. Their improvisation negated the univocal, unified, ideally linear and progressive story that the church chose to believe about itself. The Bishop presumably applauded the role of his church in caring for the survivors; the actors probably were celebrating that anyone had survived at all.
The Indians stole the show. Thanks to them, the pageant became what Scott calls one of "those rare moments of political electricity when, often for the first time in memory, the hidden transcript is spoken directly and publicly in the teeth of power" (xiii). "Indian progress" was re-interpreted as not being about an inevitable "transition" from pagan savagery to Christian civilization but rather about surviving military conquest and forced dislocation and eventually earning the right to belong to what the program called an abstract, allegorical "Columbia." The pageant made this claim a full four years before all American Indians became--finally--US citizens. (2)
Deloria thus transcended the limitations of a paternalistic, hierarchical institution while redefining a non-Native dramatic genre. How deliberately she set out to accomplish such subversion in her first pageant we can hardly know. But we can be certain that, inspired by her people's theatrical enthusiasm and innovations, she learned to represent covertly what mattered to them, within the strictures of colonial narrative forms. Deloria and her actors provided what cultural critic Mary Louise Pratt calls a "critique of empire," which "coded ongoingly on the spot, in ceremony, dance, parody, philosophy, counterknowledge and counterhistory, in texts unwitnessed, suppressed, lost, or simply overlain with repetition and unreality" (2). Ella Deloria was to become an adept at what Pratt refers to as "transculturation":
Ethnographers have used this term to describe how subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture. While subjugated peoples cannot readily control what emanates from the dominant culture, they do determine to varying extents what they absorb into their own, and what they use it for. (6) (3)
From a vantage point of three decades later, Deloria confided to Mead, "I still rate my prairie pageant as outstanding" ("Other Activities"). As Deloria also recalled for Mead:
The Dakotas love pageantry. If you let them express themselves, they may surprise you! ... Professional producers would never call it 'good theater' but it was good. And, too, they did not come to me for every little problem. They solved them; they got their own costumes ... their own everything! I may have been at the helm, but everyone was at his battlestation. It was quite thrilling to me. About a hundred took part--including singers. ("Other Activities")
Twenty years after Deloria's first pageant, North Carolina had proved to be fertile ground for the community pageantry movement. Some of its productions became national models of "tightly woven dramatic production[s]" (Glassberg 275) under the influence of Frederick Koch's Bureau of Community Drama at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While earlier efforts unabashedly glorified Confederate history, two of Koch's students--Dubose Heyward (Porgy and Bess) and Paul Green (whose North Carolina folk play In Abraham's Bosom won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1927)--set about reclaiming the state's heritage of African American folklore and music. Then, in 1937, Green produced The Lost Colony, an outdoor pageant drama of the earliest English attempt to colonize the New World. This was (and is) so popular that it became and remains an annual production, subsidized by the North Carolina state legislature since 1940 (275).
That year Ella Deloria and her younger sister Susan, who was to serve as the project's costume designer, arrived in Pembroke. Deloria's commission from the Indian Service was a one-time temporary position devised for her, described as "Assistant Ethnologist" and recreational adviser in the "Indian Service at Large." Her Cherokee friend from Haskell and YWCA days, Ruth Muskrat Bronson, Associate Guidance Officer for the Office of Indian Affairs, was instrumental in obtaining it for her. "For some considerable length of time," the job description went, "this particular group of Indians scattered throughout North Carolina has been a matter of concern to the Indian Service. It is proposed to establish [this] temporary position ... for ... making the necessary study of the ethnology of the group, their almost forgotten tribal lore, legends, songs and crafts, and of assisting them in raising their standards of living, improving group cooperation, etc., looking for an ultimate improvement in their condition.... We believe Miss Deloria to be unusually well qualified to perform the duties ... because of her Indian blood and because of her extensive experience in ethnology and linguistics." Part of her extensive, virtually superhuman brief included "work[ing] with the Indians of this area in the resurrection of their early [agricultural] fair and pageant ceremonies" (Official Personnel Folder, 11 July 1940).
When hiring her in 1940, George S. Mitchell, the Assistant Administrator of the federal Farm Security Administration in Washington, didn't quite know what to make of Deloria. Something of a shape shifter, she functioned deftly in the worlds of reservations or the Eastern cities, and some people found her difficult to place. She found her interview with Mitchell nerve-wracking, although eventually she was to consider him a mentor. Mitchell wrote of her:
She seemed to me probably satisfactory and possibly quite good.... Her people were farmers, of course on dry land. She doesn't claim any knowledge of cotton or tobacco country.... She is fifty or fifty-five years of age but looks younger. Personally, I would have difficulty in deciding that she was not a white woman.... It doesn't seem probable that the proprietress of the hotel [in segregated Pembroke] would object to having Miss Deloria as a guest.... She is a polite, rather jovial, person and I suppose would be in every sense a desirable guest for the hotel. (letter to Howard H. Gordon, Regional Director, Farm Security Administration, July 11, 1940)
Mitchell was concerned about suitable accommodation for Deloria in a tri-racially segregated North Carolina county. But she understood better than he how to win the confidence of Indian people and moved from the hotel to a log cabin owned by an Indian family.
One of her first tasks was to view The Lost Colony, in which the English are not "lost" but transformed by residence among Indians. This story had assumed a legitimating function among one sector of the Robeson County Indians comparable to cosmologies in less acculturated American Indian societies. Their origins, like those of any other people, remain both veiled and revealed by myth. Whether or not they actually owe their historical origins (and many of their surnames, as well as what has been described as their "Elizabethan" English and early acculturation to European ways) to "lost" English colonists absorbed by Algonquian coastal Indians is not possible to authenticate; there were no recorded witnesses. (4) What matters, as with cosmological accounts of a people's origins and identity, is that some Lumbees have believed in this possibility. Deloria was too scientifically trained to accept the story as verifiable historical fact, but she immediately grasped its potential as a community-building device. After thorough research in Chapel Hill, she decided not to write a sequel to The Lost Colony, as some scholars she consulted with had suggested. Her Indian contacts in Robeson County did not view themselves as "sequels" and wanted a production uniquely their own. But her narrator, "a modern questor," alludes to the alleged descent from colonists and Indians as one of many "speculations about us, by outsiders, in trying to determine our origin.... I make no claim because I have not sufficient evidence, and, as a student, I can not jump to hasty conclusions. Nevertheless, if others can indulge in conjecture, why can't I, just for a while?" (The Life-Story of a People, Episode One--"Aboriginal Life" 1).
Deloria had five months to familiarize herself with the Robeson Indians' complicated identity politics. Two American Indian activists--Deloria's Dakota tribeswoman Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala Sa) and D'Arcy McNickle (Salish and Kutenai)--had preceded her to Robeson County earlier in the 1930s. Both were advocates "for the Indian cause," as Bonnin described her activities. She disagreed profoundly with the policies of John Collier, who headed the Office of Indian Affairs under the Roosevelt Administration. Under Collier's influence, Congress passed the Wheeler Howard/Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. While Collier's administration ended policies of forced acculturation and allotment of Indian lands, it also encouraged tribes to incorporate and to adopt non-Indian, constitutional modes of government. Bonnin urged tribes to organize themselves independently of the Wheeler Howard act; her fieldwork in Robeson County reflected this view. McNickle, on the other hand, worked at the Office of Indian Affairs and was an advocate for the "Indian New Deal," as the Wheeler Howard Act came to be known.
However, since the federal government's "deal" only recognized Indians as such if they fulfilled a fifty per cent blood quantum requirement, the majority of Robeson County Indians were deemed ineligible for its benefits. Deloria was well aware that tests conducted on behalf of the Indian Office by a physical anthropologist, Dr. Carl Selzer, were of doubtful value. He "took blood tests, though I don't see how that would prove race, and cephalic indexes, and also ... studied the hair for its straight or curly properties" (Deloria to Franz Boas, 7 August 1940). Selzer's efforts, in other words, relied heavily on phenotype. Deloria herself was half-Dakota and half-white, but considered herself wholly Dakota because of the language and culture transmitted by her family and her reservation upbringing. Nearly a decade later she wrote to one of her patrons, Virginia Dorsey Lightfoot: "I have been steeped in Dakota lore and seen and felt it ever since childhood, it is in fact the very texture of my being" (8 August 1949). When she began her research in Pembroke, she initially thought in terms of "salvaging" any traces of original language and culture. Her instructions from the US Department of the Interior ordered her to do so:
By means of conversations with elder Indians scattered over Robeson and adjacent counties of North Carolina and other applicable methods, studies and evaluates the ethnology of this group of mixed-bloods, whose tribal culture has been lost to a great extent, with a view toward the rehabilitation of the group and the collection and preservation of such bits of ancient folk-lore, legends, history, crafts and songs as may be recalled by the older Indians. (Field Service, Regular Rolls, 11 July 1940)
To Boas she confided: "I doubt very much if I can find anything [in the way of artistic or dramatic material]; the Washington office doubts it too; but quite consciously they want me to produce something, imaginary if necessary ... that would draw attention to [the Robeson County Indians] in a better light than they have been in for some time" (7 August 1940). Reviewing her correspondence with her employers and mentors during her 1940 stay in Pembroke is intriguing: as soon as she gave less authority to "scientific" and documentary criteria and moved toward understanding the people's self-identifications, she was able to leaven their narratives with imagination to present a sympathetic portrait. Another letter to Ruth Muskrat Bronson demonstrates a shift in her methodology to relying more on Native rather than on scholarly sources: "Personally I believe there is plenty of dramatic material and enough capable and willing members of the tribe ... to produce something really creditable" (6 August 1940). She had no doubts about an Indian "beginning" from which the Robeson County Indians were descended, and repeatedly referred to them as a tribe.
Deloria's position, although officially under OIA auspices and supervision, was funded by the federal Farm Security Administration, which attempted to alleviate some of the profound agricultural inequalities and distress in Robeson County during the Depression. It established Pembroke Farms in the mid-1930s. This was a resettlement program offering Indian farmers loans to establish a small farming community. The land was cleared by the federal government, which also provided livestock, equipment, tools, fertilizer, barns, warehouses, and "even a school" (Oakley 52). In 1938 the federal government then sponsored the Red Banks Mutual Association, a farmers' cooperative that borrowed, farmed, and shared profits together (Oakley 52). The FSA linked both the pageant and an agricultural fair to its work with Pembroke farms. Mitchell hoped that a pageant would "enhance" the resettlement project's success "by the increase of the somewhat obscured cultural and racial pride of this group" (letter to John Collier, 11 July 1940). Deloria's brief was described in the archival record as no less than to facilitate a "rehabilitation" or "resurrection."
Another complicating factor was a class divide between "town" (about fifteen percent of the population) and "swamp" Indians (about eighty-five percent). According to Lumbee historian Malinda Maynor, the "town" Indians comprised an educated "leadership class ... who managed and produced the pageant and ... tried to control Pembroke Farms" (210):
The Pembroke Farms experience indicated that "town" Indians were better able economically and socially to confront segregation and benefit from the system. "Swamp" Indians ... had fewer opportunities outside farming and they marked their communities by their relationships to one another and as members of kin and settlement groups. (211)
Deloria was well aware of this divide, and referred to the "swamp" Indians as "the timid people," recognizing their reluctance to collaborate with outsiders. These boundaries were not, however, absolute. People were all related to one another, and Deloria's task was to navigate and negotiate the political cross-currents. Somehow, she was supposed to create a sense of possible unity and group pride among all the county's Indian residents. She interviewed everyone willing to talk to her and became an uncharacteristically assiduous church-goer, realizing full well that the segregated churches and schools were keystones of the community. She had inherited her family's characteristic charisma, diplomacy, and charm: Mitchell noted that a man who should have attended a Pembroke Farms meeting chose instead to go fishing for her, since she had enthusiastically praised his previous offering. Her modus operandi had always been to consult Indian peoples' oral recollections, stories that had sustained their communities over many centuries. Her nephew Vine Deloria, Jr. recalled:
Ella was fascinated with the Lumbees, and I believe if she had lived to give testimony on their behalf when they were seeking federal recognition she would have been a powerful witness.... She said that she spent as much time as possible with the Lumbee women and quizzed them about the names of plants, the kinds of food they cooked, the names used for the different animals, and the folk medicines they used. Tracing back from the colloquial expressions of these women and then comparing their slang words with words in other Indian tongues, preparing a sophisticated dictionary that she believed was very close to their original language before English words and phrases were added. (xvii)
Unfortunately, these research notes were lost.
By this time, community historical pageantry was no longer a mainstream "craze." The contemporary Works Project Administration's Federal Theater Project was threatened by (and eventually succumbed to) accusations of left-wing, even Communist politics. In a context over-determined by politics, Deloria took refuge in the supposedly neutral sphere of community and recreational development. Nonetheless, her aesthetic choices came to reveal her growing awareness of and appreciation for the people's varying positions and strategies to strengthen their Indian status with both state and federal governments. Her most daring narrative strategy was to focus a scene in the pageant on a figure from the recent historical record: the hero (or outlaw bandit) of post-Civil War reconstruction in Robeson County, the "Indian Swamp Fox" and "Robin Hood," Henry Berry Lowry.
Beegle and Crawford had asserted: "In the historical pageant the community is the hero; in pageant drama the hero is a real or legendary individual" (37). Lowry could hardly be more suitable, since he had disappeared without a trace in 1872, making his character all the more amenable to legend-making. Deloria's interviews with local people convinced her that the time had come to portray him as a local hero, although she also recognized "a subtle timitidy [sic] about stressing the Lowry gang too much yet" (letter to Mitchell, 22 October 1940). "[I] think, with nice handling, we can use [the story] to add color and romance and human interest to the pageant ..." (letter to Mitchell, 21 August 1940). She labored also to make this "tall handsome man" acceptable to "white friends of the Indian" whom she knew would be in the audience: some, after all, were descendants of men killed by the Lowry band. Thus the pageant narrator's description makes him "a champion who risks his life to avenge his people.... Henry Berry Lowry was our hero; we look back at him with admiration for his fearlessness, for his leadership, and for the loyalty he inspired in his followers; and we are proud of the saying about the Lowry gang: 'They never molested a woman, nor harmed a child'" (Scene 3--"Pioneer Justice" 5). Long before the outdoor community drama Strike at the Wind celebrating Lowry, Deloria allotted him a role in The Life-Story of a People--more precisely, she allotted him a voice from off stage. In other words, his could not be the omniscient narrative voice, which would have awarded him too much political and textual authority. Yet it is the only scene with spoken dialog in the several hour production and leavened with humor, as a young man fancies joining the outlaws but is even more tempted by a whiskey wagon. Adroitly, Deloria injected comedy to divert attention from the scene's essential tragedy. To this day, people who remember little else about the pageant laugh over the scene.
Another essential ingredient for historical pageantry was "a central idea or theme of which the principal episodes are illustrations and the interludes are allegorical expression of the subject. Step by step the episodes and interludes build up the idea, until in the finale it becomes manifest to all and the pageant then rounds itself off to a natural close" (Beegle and Crawford 50). Again, a unifying concept was readily available, the by then rather cliched one of "progress." Yet again, as in the 1920 pageant, Deloria rejected mainstream definitions of cultural development for an Indian one. The pageant's publicity flyer asserted that it presented "a complete picture of a unique group of Indians; for we are unique in many respects, particularly in this: What we have attained has not come through idle waiting for possible Federal help, but through industry and sobriety and a consistent determination to survive." (Indeed, in a letter of 21 August 1940 to Mitchell, she wrote: "I admire these people tremendously, and think they have an awful lot to commend them.... [Other] Indians [are] so used to getting help from US which is taken as no more than their due.") The flyer continued:
The pageant theme is based on this obvious truth: That those people who live in close partnership with God's earth, and in a harmonious relation with Nature, find for themselves a way-of-life that is satisfying to the spirit. Our people have done this and have learned thereby to live in serenity and simplicity; loyal to the land of their birth and to its government, and true to the God who made them. (n. p.)
According to Beegle and Crawford, "[Pageantry] differs radically from the theater ... in almost every respect.... Its actors are amateurs; in its structural aspects it is narrative rather than dramatic; and the scale and sweep of its movement are large.... The story of a pageant is, generally, the life of a community told in a series of chronologically arranged episodes" (12). Deloria actually downplayed the conventional linear, chronological plot pattern of mainstream pageants, writing to Mitchell on 2 October 1940: "[A]fter all, it isn't so much a chronological tale as a series of pictures showing the start of these people." Another memory still cherished by the local community is the grandeur of the pageant's "Symbolical Prelude," in which Deloria's sister Susan's artistic talents came into play. It evokes "Primitive Religion," "Primitive Sorrow," and "Primitive Hospitality" offered to the Roanoke colonists: "A wandering spirit-people, fair and good, / I send to you, for they have lost their way, / Unused to trackless country" ("Primitive Hospitality" n. p.). Deloria had recognized, decades earlier, that corporate Indian ceremonies could be adapted to pageantry: indeed, they were pageantry. Since she could not locate verifiable or specific "Indian" ceremonies in Robeson County (and only one melody located in her historical research), she staged a re-enactment of a detribalized Southeastern Indian green corn dance. To her, it was a useful all-purpose ritual, as was "praying for rain" when new crops were planted. "I wish you could see it--you will--the very beautiful and reverent way those college girls enact it," she wrote to Mitchell on 22 October 1940. "The boys form a chorus to chant the melody while they perform, and join them in the final step. A pantomimic dance, it is, with the implications very obvious, though nothing is said. I rather look for that dance to cut a dash, because it is very racially true, without any false notes. No modern instruments."
Of course, once the pageant replayed events in historical time, the ceremonial beginning in time immemorial was cast adrift, an unmooring reflected in the pageant's structure: historical time interrupted and disrupted the secure identity, wholeness, and balance of the traditional world. The rest of the pageant provided "scenes" and "glimpses" from 1885 onwards, featuring a myriad of community members and just about every Indian organization in the county. All the "pictures" depicted the initiative and hard work of the community in creating its own institutions during segregation. Thus what now seems a fragmentary or disjointed draft is disjointed, because myth, legend and history are in constant tension. A narrator was therefore necessary to link the presentation of each scene. The Dakota "herald" in The Fitly Years Trail and the "Voice" of Deloria's 1927 pageant at the Haskell Indian Institute had served this mediating function. The entire Life-Story of a People is presented as the findings of "The Last of the Indian Questors" and "From the [Modern] Questor's Notebook." (An earlier title for the pageant was The Modern Questor.) Deloria provided instructions for her all-Native cast, and free verse commentary for the eight-member interpreting chorus. She urged the actor who portrayed a youth seeking a vision in pre-Columbian times, "Please read and reread the following lines, and try to get all the implications you can from them; and so work out your own interpretation beforehand as much as possible." She continued:
In rehearsal, we will work out more, perhaps, but if you can get a lot of this by yourself it will have all the more significance for you. "Who am I? As an Indian questor, how should I feel? How behave? What is the best way to show intense feeling, from the standpoint of an Indian temperament? How does it differ from a white man's portrayal of his feelings? If naturally more subtle, to what extent must you make it a bit plainer, for a mixed audience of Americans?" ("A Symbolical Prelude" 2)
When "the modern questor" emerges at the end of the opening prelude, his mission has changed from seeking a vision: "[Y]ou begin to act the part of a serious research scholar, and read from your note book. You read one part, and then the scene is enacted on the stage. Then you read the next, and the next scene goes on. That is the structure of the whole thing, from this point on" (The Modern Questor" n. p.). The interpreting chorus describes his role:
The MODERN QUESTOR now takes up the search. His quest the same; only are the methods changed. He studies records; carefully he weighs Each point, for light upon his inquiry: Whence came his people? Whither are they going? What struggles have they known? What victories? ****** PAUSE ******* Out of his notes, he weaves an epic story. ("The Modern Q.uestor" n. p.)
From the standpoint of the federal agencies which had employed Deloria, the pageant was a success. Mitchell wrote to her: "It really was all a grand job"; "Its quality lay in its lightness of touch. Less professional hands and less sensitive hands would have tried to drive home the scenes by literalness, gaudiness, and noise. Time after time you used inference, shadow, and silence" (11 December 1940). To John Collier he added: "It was one of the few things in decades that has served to draw all the Indian people in the county together" (14 January 1941). It made money: "all bills relative to the pageant, and even $25. to refinish the playing floor of the gym, and still have nearly $300. to bank for the next time" (Deloria to Mitchell, 8 January 1941). Both the playwright Paul Green and Governor Broughton of North Carolina attended, and D'Arcy McNickle was present at the opening night. "White" newspapers throughout North Carolina applauded it. Mitchell and Deloria were both acutely aware of what she termed "a lot of nasty prejudice" on the part of whites against Indians in the county and surrounding areas. From the outset she knew that the pageant's aims and intended audiences were two-fold, and the accounts in the press demonstrate that she had fulfilled Mitchell's hope that "the pageant would appeal to a wider audience of more broadminded people in the state, who would then begin to respect [the Indians], because of knowing better their situation and efforts to get on" (Deloria to Franz Boas, 9 September 1940). For Deloria personally "It was a wonderful experience from which I am quite sure I gained more than I was able to give" (Deloria to John Collier, 8 January 1941).
For the Robeson County Indians, it was their pageant. When white women from neighboring Red Springs wished to play the white roles, the Indians riposted that they had blondes of their own; they had had enough of white people playing them. One reason I found locating even a draft of the pageant difficult was that the community maintained a group silence about it, fearing that outsiders would co-opt their production. Probably few cast members had a complete script (in the sense of a fixed text), only directions for their roles. Deloria entrusted her notes to the family whose cabin she had lived in, and even Vine Deloria, Jr., as representative of her literary estate, could not persuade them to release whatever documentation they possessed:
[I] was stymied. "Miss Ella said to keep this safe until she returned," I was told in no uncertain terms, and they refused to show [the pageant book] to me. I tried to explain that "Miss Ella" had died in 1971 and was not going to return, and that as her nephew I was in charge of her literary estate. But Ella had put the fear of God into them, and they truly believed that big New York producers would try and get the manuscript away and produce it up north. So far as I know it still resides in some mysterious location in a Pembroke attic. (xvi)
Had Ella Deloria not also made a scrapbook of news clippings for the Office of Indian Affairs and kept a draft copy in her unpublished personal and professional papers, the pageant would not have survived textually. It would, however, have continued to live on in memory. Deloria had collaborated with the Robeson County Indians to produce a useable public history, one that Maynor describes as "a common narrative of Robeson County Indian history that did not depend on a tribal name but instead on agreement about the identity markers that defined Indian community" (208). She provided them with a ceremony, in the most basic sense of a ritual designed to make a people whole, so that the people might live. "However," Maynor notes, "just as Pembroke Farms had failed the county's 'swamp' Indians, the pageant production also overlooked their articulations of Indian identity. The pageant illuminated a social and economic division within the Indian community that had been brewing for many years, but the more obvious and bitter disagreements between 'town' leaders obscured its political importance" (212).
From the project's inception, in fact, Mitchell and Deloria had envisaged a more populist endeavor, and they exchanged concerned letters about admission fees. He felt $1.00 was too high but, she explained, it was "just as well, charging a dollar, because it was important not to go into the hole the first time, before the majority of the people could get the vision of its value and worth-whileness.... But now they are sold on it, as are all the Pembroke business men who, I am sure will give it their support for another time" (8 January 1941). He had wanted an outdoor production, but she demurred: "It is extremely cold hereabouts, after sundown, no matter how agreeable the day.... And it does seem so important for these people to show up under as little adverse circumstances as possible, [for] this their first community attempt" (22 October 1940). By the time the 1940 pageant was over, however, she was well aware of unresolved matters, most importantly, input from the "swamp" Indians. Their potential contribution was so important to her that she was willing to revise the pageant, since she viewed them as needing "the pageant's benefit even more than the progressives in town--the owners of little businesses, the school teachers and the landed farmers. As I go about visiting my friends out there I find a keen interest in self-expression that was lacking before" (28 October 1941). Her enthusiasm was so great that she was willing to make house-to-house visits among the "swamp" people to heighten their interest.
When she returned in 1941--supported financially this time by the Indian community, so that she was their agent, not a representative of regulatory bureaucratic government policies--she found that the pageant had rekindled memories that the "swamp" people were now willing to discuss. From Columbia University as early as January 1941 she was brainstorming future productions with Mitchell. For as soon as the first pageant had ended in 1940, she received more responses from women:
The Pioneer Church scene evoked an awful lot of interest. The young women who acted in it came back repeatedly to tell how a grandmother or aunt or mother said, "It made me very sad. That's exactly how we used to come together to meet the white pastor ... only, some of the women who tramped three and four miles to arrive would have their shoes tied together and slung over their shoulders. And some should have corn-cob pipes to puff on, under their sunbonnets, while they listened to the preaching." etc. etc. So I know that there is a wealth of material for color, yet to be tapped. (8 January 1941)
The option that Mitchell and Deloria entertained was a radical one. In effect, they wanted to return the practice of pageantry to its European origins, bringing it to the people. In 1941 the regional Farm Security Administration finally sponsored an agricultural fair, and its success among both "progressives" and "the 85%" affirmed beliefs she had practiced since her 1920 pageant. Excitedly, she visualized arranging "great get-togethers by communities, at the various school centres, and there work[ing] out little impromptu festivals, pageants, what-you-will, in which the spirit of getting together, and having fun together, will be the chief aim." She went on to say, "I believe many things would come out in impromptu performances proffered by the people themselves if their enthusiasm is kindled enough, that would in the end materially enrich the pageant. Obviously we can't find things out [by] asking--they must come out spontaneously." But the town leaders--some of them shrewd businessmen who knew the pageant purse could not bear such expense--were not enthusiastic: "[T]hey don't catch the vision that more people wanting the same things will in time help the whole community, and that they can bring this about by supporting projects that include all the people. It isn't enough that I work in all the people I can from that larger group. The influence of the pageant and of similar effort doesn't reach the majority because they have no real part in it out where they are." She concluded: "The fair was successful because it belonged to the people and got them to doing things. That is why I believe in taking pageantry out to the people not only to see but to act in, and to add to, their own knowledge and experience" (28 October 1941).
Forces far greater than low budgets overwhelmed the second production, which opened during the week Pearl Harbor was bombed. Subsequent performances were cancelled. The postwar era for the Robeson County Indians, no longer confined in their remote, centuries-long back-country fastness, was to transform their political agenda. But the impact of The Life-Story of a People did not really end then. The people did not forget the Dakota outsider who listened to them and encouraged them to speak in their own voices. The "vision" she outlined to Mitchell for future productions, in retrospect, is prophetic:
It wouldn't be exactly like anything else that has been done elsewhere, because the situation and the people are not exactly like other places. It would have to go by intuition, and enthusiasm, and a spirit of adventure ready to welcome any and everything that may and will spring from the attempts. These people ... really have a lot of talent that never comes out. Imagination--that's all it would take to do this, but it would be a sine quo non [sic], all right! I almost wish I had spent last fall on this first, but at that time I didn't know the situation--and the people didn't really know what I could do, and weren't sure I was for them at first.... Well, that is the closest to what I have in mind. Do you know if there is any such chance? (28 October 1941)
The "chance" had to wait until 1968, when Robeson County Historical Drama, Inc., was founded. The organization considered restaging the pageant, or producing a sequel to The Lost Colony, the option Deloria had toyed with and reiected in 1940. In the end, they gave center stage to "the tall handsome youth" who had been a shadow, an offstage voice in the pageant: the outdoor drama Strike at the Wind is Henry Berry Lowry's story. I believe this production owes more than may be realized to its predecessor several decades before the Civil Rights era, when Ella Deloria provided the Indians of Robeson County the chance to tell and own their story. As the Robeson County Indians--and her own Dakota people decades before--had taught her, "[I]n the end it takes 'the masses' to do things really" (Deloria to Mitchell, 28 October 1941).
NOTE: I am particularly grateful to Lumbee scholars Vibrina Coronado, Malinda Maynor, and Linda Oxendine for sharing their expertise and insights about Robeson County in the 1930s; to descendants of cast members for their memories; also to Ellen Arnold for encouraging this study. Participants at an Oxford Round Table conference on women's leadership at St. Anthony's College in 2005 made many helpful suggestions concerning the Dakota pageant (see my "Piety, Pageantry and Politics on the Northern Great Plains: an American Indian Woman Restages Her People's Conquest").
Because so little biographical information about Ella Deloria is accurate and because her personality springs forth most vividly in her unpublished letters, I quote from them liberally. Deloria's comments are professional and a matter of public record. However, as a Dakota, Deloria felt bound to establish social kinship relationships to those outside her culture with whom she was willing to work; hence the boundary between personal and professional writing is fluid. I am thus all the more thankful to the late Vine Deloria, Jr., for his permission to quote from her letters. At present I am completing a biography, A Vision of Double Woman: Ella Cara Deloria and the Profession of Kinship, which explores Deloria's negotiation of such apparently separate audiences.
I also wish to thank the following individuals and organizations for allowing me to quote from material in their collections: Dr. Harry F. Thompson, Director of Research Collections and Publications, The Center for Western Studies, Augustana College, Sioux Falls, SD, for Deloria's correspondence with Bishop Hugh Latimer Burleson; Ron Kjonegaard, Director of the Dakota Indian Foundation, Chamberlain, SD (the Dorothy Stevenson Hale collection and Deloria's correspondence with Virginia Dorsey Lightfoot); the Library of Congress and The Institute for Intercultural Studies (the papers of Margaret Mead); the American Philosophical Society (the papers of Franz Boas). None of these organizations could have permitted quoting from Ella Deloria's correspondence and other materials without the kind consent of her literary representatives: Vine V. Deloria, Jr., and Philip J. Deloria.
I acknowledge with gratitude curriculum and instruction grants from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 1992 and 1993; travel grants from the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta in 1998 and 2000; a Lannan Foundation grant to participate in a four-week institute on American Indian autobiography at the D'Arcy McNickle Center on American Indian History, Newberry Library, Chicago, in 2002; and UNC Charlotte faculty research grants between 1998 and 2007.
Beegle, Mary Porter, and Jack Randall Crawford. Community Drama and Pageantry. New Haven: Yale UP, 1916.
Burleson, Hugh Latimer, Bishop of South Dakota. Papers March 24, 1883--November 19, 1923, folder relating to the Deloria family. Episcopalian Diocesan Archives for South Dakota. Sioux Falls, South Dakota: Center for Western Studies, Augustana College.
Deloria, Ella Cara. Author's Correspondence with Virginia Dorsey Lightfoot, Dakota Indian Foundation. 1946-1952.
--. Rough Draft of Pageant, Robeson County Indians, Pembroke, North Carolina. "THE LIFE-STORY OF A PEOPLE," ts. Deloria Family Collection, The Ella C. Deloria Research Project in Indian Language, Culture and History. Chamberlain, South Dakota: Dakota Indian Foundation.
--. "Other Activities of Ella Deloria." Margaret Mead Papers. Box 158, Publications and Other Writings. 1952. Writings by Others. Deloria, Ella. "Dakota Family Life" (c. November 1948). Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress.
--. Waterlily. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988.
Deloria, Vine. Introduction. Ella C. Deloria, Speaking of Indians. 1944. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1998: ix-xix.
Gardner, Susan. "Piety, Pageantry and Politics on the Northern Great Plains: an American Indian Woman Restages Her People's Conquest." Forum on Public Policy (online journal of the Oxford Round Table). Spring 2007 edition, http://www.forumonpublicpolicy.com/
Glassberg, David. American Historical Pageantry: the Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1990.
"Indian Pictures: Past and Present." New York: American Missionary Association, n.d. Dorothy Stevenson Hale Collection, "Pageants and Plays." Chamberlain, South Dakota: Dakota Indian Foundation.
Maynor, Malinda. Native American Identity in the Segregated South: the Indians of Robeson County, North Carolina, 1872-1956. Diss. U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2005.
Miller, Lee. Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony. New York: Arcade, 2001.
Milton, Giles. Big Chief Elizabeth: the Adventures and Fate of the First English Colonists in North America. New York: Farrar, 2003.
National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. Record Group 75, Bureau of Indian Affairs. Part 1, Central Classified Files, 1907-1942.
Oakley, Christopher Arris. Keeping the Circle: American Indian Identity in Eastern North Carolina, 1885-2004. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2005.
Official Personnel Folder--Ella C. Deloria. US Office of Personnel Management, OPF/EMF Access Unit. St. Louis, Missouri: NARA Regional Field Office.
Pollock, Della. "Introduction: Making History Go." Exceptional Spaces: Essays in Performance and History. Ed. Della Pollock. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1998: 1-45.
Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 1992.
Scott, James C. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
(1) For ease of citation, all quotations from correspondence from or about Ella Deloria, unless otherwise identified, are from the files of the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., and in its regional depositories in Atlanta and St. Louis. The letters are in Record Group 75, US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs. Part 1, Central Classified Files, 1907-1942. A draft of The Life-Story of a People can also be accessed here. "Weav[ing] an epic story" is how the interpreting chorus characterizes the pageant. The epigraph, however, is from the papers of Bishop Hugh Latimer Burleson in the Episcopalian Diocesan Archives at the Center for Western Studies, Augustana College, Sioux Fans, South Dakota.
(2) Scott differentiates "hidden transcripts" from their imposed public counterparts:
The theatrical imperatives that normally prevail in situations of domination produce a public transcript in close conformity with how the dominant group would wish to have things appear.... In the short run, it is in the interest of the subordinate to produce a more or less credible performance, speaking the lines and making the gestures he knows are expected of him. The result is that the public transcript is--barring a crisis--systematically skewed in the direction of the libretto, the discourse, represented by the dominant.... [A]ny analysis based exclusively on the public transcript is likely to conclude that subordinate groups endorse the terms of their subordination and are willing, even enthusiastic, partners in that subordination. (4)
Glassberg notes: actors appearing in "allegorical tableaux vivants to represent abstract virtues of the state or nation," such as "Columbia," or "the Goddess Liberty," "appeared in conservative guise, representing a stable equilibrium of classes and interests" (18).
(3) Although I quote from Pratt's and Scott's work with admiration, I draw upon their concepts suggestively. They were elaborated in geographical and historical contexts other than Native North America. Pratt's work focuses on South America at the end of the eighteenth century, and Scott's on peasant class relations in a twentieth-century Malay village.
(4) Recently, revisionist interpretations of the colonists' fate have been offered by Milton and Miller.
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
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