The "agitators" started in soon after Margo
Lukens began teaching a class in Native American literature at the
University of Maine. The UMaine students — Penobscot and Passamaquoddy
— discovered aboriginal plays in her classes and had a thirst for
The students were responding to familiar issues and situational humor
in plays like Dry Lips Ought to Move to Kapuskasing by Canadian Cree
writer Tomson Highway. The play's conversations and relationships
tapping into the cultural undertow resonated with students like Dale
Lolar of Indian Island in Old Town, Maine.
"The work we did in Native American literature
caused me to pause and rethink," says Lolar. "The stories took me back
to my childhood, helping me learn more about myself. After reading
that play in her class, I wanted to do more than that, and I kept
bringing it up."
Inspired by their interest, Lukens developed a new
graduate course in Native theater for spring 2003. Of the 10 students
who signed up, more than half were Penobscot or Passamaquoddy. It was
the first time Native students were in the majority in one of her
That January, Lukens and a handful of the students
traveled to Rhode Island to attend the Trinity Repertory Company's
reading of Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, written by Assiniboine playwright William Yellow Robe. Following the production,
actors and members of the theater company joined Yellow Robe on stage
for a discussion of multiracial identity.
For Lukens, it was a watershed moment.
"It was emotional and interesting," says Lukens of
the evening in Providence. "I'd also heard people on Indian Island
talking about racial prejudice depending on whether someone is full or
mixed blood. That's when I knew that, if the Maine community could see
this play, it would be so healing and an opportunity for healthy
That semester, Yellow Robe accepted Lukens'
invitation to visit her class at UMaine, and conversations began in
earnest about the utility of theater as "a tool for expression,
healing and letting the world know the humanity and perspective of
Native people." In some ways, says Lukens, Native theater echoes the
oral traditions of the past and "the way people used to receive that
kind of information."
"There is emotional and temporal/physical
involvement of people — from the actors to the audience — in Native
theater. That's part of the power of it," she says. "Audiences come
expecting to have their emotions engaged. Actors give voice to
characters that can work through and experience issues that we find
"Native playwrights often write merciless satire
of people and institutions and forces that cause pain. They write of
genocide, loss, stunted growth of generations of Native people. But
when they take those themes on the stage in the caricature of nuns or
(Gen. George) Custer or the enemy of the people in such a way that
provides some release and relief, the playwrights and actors — and,
ultimately, the community audience — get the upper hand."
Yellow Robe, who has been writing plays for three
decades, as well as acting and directing, says his works are "an
examination of humanity — how to nurture and maintain humanity in this
pop culture of materialism."
"It's also about how to nurture and maintain your sense of humanity in
the face of great adversity," he says. "Margo's work is looking at the
issue of white privilege."
Lukens' Ph.D. research at the University of Colorado focused on
four 19th-century women — Margaret Fuller, Harriet Jacobs, Sarah
Winnemucca and Zitkala-Sa — who subverted literary and imaginative
paradigms of the dominant culture to express the particular reality of
women marginalized because of gender or ethnicity.
During a 1999 UMaine sabbatical, she researched
the literary history of Maine's Wabanaki people. She sought
out-of-print story collections of Wabanaki storytellers from the late
19th and early 20th centuries, and on the recommendation of a local
tribal leader, she discovered Aboriginally Yours, Chief Henry Red
Eagle, an anthology of writing by Henry Perley of Greenville.
Lukens also teaches what she calls "the literature
of mixed blood," in which authors or their characters are of diverse
racial heritage. In Anglo-American literature, especially that of the
19th and 20th centuries, mixed blood often was emblematic of
disadvantage or convoluted loyalties; sometimes the idea of mixed
blood inferred tragedy, a sense of doom over the character, or an evil
that must be overcome.
In more contemporary Native literature, there's
been a shift, with authors "beginning to see a different way of
dealing with mixed blood and its widespread incidence," Lukens says.
"What comes up is the idea of mixed blood having the potential for an
amalgamation of strengths instead of weaknesses. Through cultural
connection, the person goes through the difficulties of mixed
heritage, but overcomes through ties to the community."
The first semester of her graduate course in Native theater,
students performed two plays on two local radio programs: Yellow
Robe's Better-n-Indins and Indian Radio Days, written by Choctaw
playwrights LeAnne Howe and Roxy Gordon.
Later that year, members of the Penobscot
community asked Lukens to serve as an adviser for their staging of
scenes from The Independence of Eddie Rose. The production was part of
Domestic Violence Awareness Month on Indian Island. The poignant play
by Yellow Robe raises issues concerning sexual abuse, alcoholism and
"It was held in the community center with an adult
audience during the day," says Lukens. "It was very powerful. There
were people in the audience who wept. It was at that moment that I
learned how powerful this could be and how an amazing, instantaneous
connection to deep issues can happen.
"My touchstone is that there are Native people for
whom this is working."
In fall 2004, Lukens secured a Visiting Libra
Diversity Professorship for Yellow Robe, who spent 10 weeks on campus,
teaching playwriting and directing Better-n-Indins at the Cyrus
Since then, the presence of Native theater in
central Maine has grown from a novelty to a nuance. This past
September, UMaine's Readers' Theater featured two plays by Yellow
Robe, Falling Distance and A Great Thing, performed by the playwright
and three local Native actors, with Lukens reading stage directions.
In the community, members of the Penobscot
Players, a group formed by Dale Lolar that includes other students who
took Lukens' classes, gather informally for readings when not giving
"There are all kinds of dynamics when you grow up
in an oppressed situation," Lolar says. "What happens when you put a
lot of this stuff away is it stays inside you. But when you read this
stuff (in literature and plays) happening to someone else and it's so
similar, it reaffirms your own experience. Revisiting it helps to make
sense of things you're struggling with and sheds light on your
identity. To take that out and share it with each other, there's a
sense of community that happens. We are all survivors."
While Lukens' scholarship is in Native American literature, she
sees herself more as a facilitator than an authority on the subject, a
position that has everything to do with being sensitive to a community
finding its voice after generations of oppression.
"It's important always to be in consultation with
the community," says Lukens. "It's also important that the publication
of any of my work does no harm, that the Native community doesn't feel
disempowered or that something was stolen from it."
According to Yellow Robe, Native communities "are
tired of academics putting them under the microscope." But with
Lukens, the relationship is different.
"They've never felt that with Margo, because they
know they're being considered as human, not a theory or a research
project," he says. "She wants to present documentation of life
lasting, a framework of a new wheel to provide accessibility for
Native and nonnative people to present ideas. Almost like a new
thought," says Yellow Robe, who returned to UMaine a year ago where he
is a part-time instructor in the English Department.
This past fall, Yellow Robe taught a 400-level
topics course in Native American drama. In December, his play A Stray
Dog was staged at the Public Theater in New York City as one of five
productions in its Native Theater Festival. This spring, he is
teaching Lukens' survey course on Native American literature while she
is on sabbatical. In addition, he has been asked by some members of
the Penobscot community to help them write a play.
"The Native community must know this is an
achievable art form that they can develop," he says. "The nonnative
community must know that this is the voice of their neighbors that
they've not heard before and that they were not taught to listen to.
It's not a question of being politically correct, it's a question of
being aware of your environment, society, people who live in your
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from the current issue of UMaine Today Magazine.