Outdoor Dramas Tell Tales Of Indian History
By Charles Flowers
XENIA, Ohio - Fire arrows streak across the night sky, punctuated by black powder explosions and the thundering hooves of horses. Fort Boonesborough is burning. Again.
This is the nightly performance of Blue Jacket, the story of a Shawnee war leader who began life as a white boy named Marmaduke Van Swearingen. Taken in by the Shawnee Tribe when he was 17, Blue Jacket (Swearingen) lived between several cultures, marrying first a white and then a Shawnee woman, negotiating a series of broken treaties for the Shawnee, and resisting by force of arms the growing horde of frontiersmen who pushed the Shawnee off their land.
The long-running play is only one of a dozen outdoor dramas which deal with Indian subjects. At least three feature the stories of whites who were abducted or otherwise lived with Indian Tribes. These were popular subjects a century ago, and their appeal is still strong. In Radford, Va., outdoor theater-goers can see the drama of Mary Draper Ingles, who escaped from her Shawnee captors "and fled 850 miles in 42 days through the wilderness of Kentucky to her home in Virginia's New River Valley."
In Prestonburg, Ky., travelers flock to the Jenny Wiley Theater to see the re-enactment of the story of the theater's namesake. The playbill says it this way: "After her children were murdered by Indians, Jenny Wiley lived as a captive of the Cherokees for nearly a year before she escaped to freedom and reunited with her husband."
And throughout the United States, other tales of Indian history unfold nightly under the stars.
In Logan, W. Va., The Arocoma Story plays for five weeks each summer. This is a Pocahontas-like story of "Indian princess Arocoma and her ill-fated love for the British soldier captured by her father in the West Virginia hills near their home in 1780."
In Farmington, N.M., Black River Traders recounts the story of a Navajo trading post, a "struggle for survival by the Indians and white traders as the two cultures worked to understand each other."
Another favorite theme is loss. The Lost Colony is billed as a "symphonic drama" of the Roanoke Island settlement on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The drama "depicts the valiant struggle of 117 men, women and children to settle in the New World." All of them disappeared without a trace. The play is staged weekends throughout the summer in Manteo, N.C.
Lost River: the Story of the Modoc Indian War is staged outdoors in Alturas, Calif., near the historic home of the Modocs who battled 3,000 U.S. Army troops for nine months. The play's producers call it "the only Indian war fought in the State of California."
Another California play, The Ramona Pageant tells the story of two star-crossed lovers, Ramona, the half-Scottish, half-Indian bride of Alessandro, a member of the local Cuahilla Tribe. The play, adapted from the novel by Helen Hunt Jackson, was first performed in Hemet, Calif. in 1923.
And the story of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and their leaders Junaluska, Tsali and Sequoyah is told through an outdoor drama staged each summer at the Tribe's Cherokee, N.C. reservation. Unto These Hills, taken from a Bible quotation, was written by Kermit Hunter with musical composition by Jack F. Kilpatrick and McCrae Hardy.
But the accepted capital of outdoor drama seems to be Ohio. Here, besides Blue Jacket, which has been staged every summer for 18 years, travelers can also see Tecumseh! in nearby Chillicothe. Tecumseh was a Shawnee leader who helped unite several tribes in the Ohio area before his self-prophesied death at the Battle of the Thames in the War of 1812. The drama of Tecumseh! has outlasted even Blue Jacket.
Other grist for the historical drama mill here includes The White Savage, the story of Simon Girty who was allied with Indians and the British during the American Revolutionary War, and Trumpet In the Land, the story of Ohio's first missionary to the Delaware Indians. Both dramas are performed in New Philadelphia, Ohio. Trumpet celebrated its 30th anniversary this summer.
"There's a need to go back to a study of the land and the people that were here before," said Blue Jacket playwright W.L. Mundell, who now lives in Northport, on Florida's Gulf Coast. "This is not a subject that has been adequately covered in America." Mundell is also working on outdoor dramas in Texas and Colorado.
For sheer theatricality, it's hard to beat Blue Jacket, with its cast of 60 performing in an outdoor amphitheater that seats 1,500 near this Miami River Valley farming town. Before night falls, theater patrons can take a backstage tour that explains how the fort can be burned again and again (kerosene-soaked rags in the timbers), how the long rifles are fired (loudly), and how the 17 horses play such disciplined roles (with great care).
Also, before each performance, Gregory Brightpath Hunt, the sole full-blooded Indian in the cast, talks about native ways and answers questions from audience members.
Hunt is a striking physical presence, and when made up in warpaint as Death Rider, he is even more imposing. Hunt is a member of the Wolf Clan of the Eastern Band of Cherokees, and is also active in the Native American Performers Association and the American Indian Movement. He also owns his own company, Feathers On the Wind! He shared a saying that he said exemplified Cherokee philosophy: "Yesterday's history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That's why they call it the present."
But he was even more compelling in character when he said of the site of Blue Jacket:
"Every blade of grass has been washed with the blood of my red brothers and sisters."
The subject matter has been worked to comic extremes. In one scene, where Daniel Boone is supposed to Caesar, an escaped slave who joined the Shawnee, and a few other men what a great shot he was, the explosion that knocked off the tip of Chief Cornstalk's spear happened before the Boone character got his shot off.
Nonplussed, "Boone" ad-libbed: "White man's magic."
As in all historic tales, there are many disputes over the truth of the Blue Jacket story. A key friction point is whether Blue Jacket killed his biological brother, Charlie Van Swearingen, in a battle.
"There's a lot of controversy over whether he killed Charlie or not, but in my play he did," Mundell said.
History is big business in these parts. Scott Galbraith, the marketing director for the drama who played the part of Blue Jacket himself for five years, claimed the outdoor drama had nearly $9 million in economic impact in the Miami Valley last year.
The productions are a community effort, he added, from the non-profit corporations that produce them, to the educational outreach to the Keeping the Tradition Pow-Wow, Ohio's largest. In the winters Some patrons come every year to see the changes in Blue Jacket. Others, like this reporter and his son, are first-time visitors.
"That is not uncommon," said Galbraith. "There is a tremendous amount of interest in this sort of subject matter around here."
Galbraith, who has relatives in Florida, also credited the Seminole Tribe for inspiring the graphic design for Blue Jacket. He praised the designs for the Kissimmee Billie Swamp Safari.
"A lot of the impetus for the designs for our brochure came from the Seminoles, and the (Mashantucket) Pequots," he noted.
Death Rider's speech:
This sacred ground, which you call your land, never belonged to you, fellow-man. It has always belonged to the Great Creator.
Look at the earth around you. Do you think it has anything to say?
Look at the forest and at the stone. What stories do they have?
Listen to the stream nearby... singing lost songs to lost children. Do you hear the earth?
It tells you that the Great Creator put it here in order to offer his children all that grows upon it. The Great Creator put it here...and from its womb...he made man.
...You killed us, and we fled before your numbers and your power, until we came to this sacred ground.
Do you hear it? Do you not hear the ground say that this is so?
-- From the drama Blue Jacket by W.L Mundell