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Amid Protests Over Casting, 'Pocahontas' Opera Opens in Duluth

A Minnesota production of the opera "Pocahontas: A Woman of Two Worlds" sparked controversy when it was revealed that no Native talent had been cast in a principal role.
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A Minnesota production of the opera "Pocahontas: A Woman of Two Worlds" sparked controversy when it was revealed that no Native talent had been cast in a principal role.

Lyz Jaakola, an operatic mezzo soprano and member of the Fond du Lac band of Chippewa Indians, came out against the production in an interview with the Duluth News Tribune. "To me, seeing any non-Native Pocahontas ... non-native Pocahontas' mother, any extras in buckskin would be enough for me to cringe," she said. "Poor Pocahontas has been dragged around enough."

Duluth Festival Opera director Craig Fields countered that few Indians auditioned for the opera, and that his casting process was "blind"—meaning that he did not ask those trying out whether they were of Native heritage. "My personal feeling is that the work succeeds on its own merits, whether it is performed by a Native American or not," Fields said. A number of Fond du Lac performers were in the cast, but played secondary roles as singers and dancers.

Jaakola felt that Fields didn't try hard enough to attract Native talent, and added that "If I were casting an Indian opera and I couldn't find 'enough Indians' to help me, I simply wouldn't do it. ... But that's my cultural paradigm." During the very early planning stages, Jaakola had been involved with the production, specifically to find Native talent to perform. However, due to clashes with fields and a suspicion that the project would never get funding, she left the team.

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The opera opened as scheduled on Thurdsay, September 21, and was performed in the auditorium of Marshall School. Outside, Jaakola and members of the American Indian Movement sang songs, played pow-wow music, and carried signs with slogans like "Stole our land—now our culture."

"The people who know the truth of Pocahontas are Pocahontas' people, and they are the ones who would tell her story.. and they are the ones that should tell her story," Jaakola told a reporter from WDIO TV on the scene. "There are times when when we are not represented appropriately in the media and moves and songs and it needs to stop. It's 2011 and this kind of activity can't continue." As an alternative to the Pocahontas performance, Jaakola organized a "Native American Music Showcase" at a nearby church.

The opera was written to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the colony of Jamestown, in Virginia, in 2007. Neither composer Linda Tutas Haugen nor librettist Joan Vail Thorne are American Indian, but they did do extensive research on the subject that included meetings with Indians. For Clyde Bellecourt, co-founder of the Minneapolis-based American Indian Movement, that's not good enough. "It’s not an Indian people story," he told the Duluth News Tribune. "It’s [white people’s] story about our story. We don’t appreciate that.”

Despite the controversy, a reviewer from the same paper gave the opening night performance a rave review. "This opera is one of the most riveting 100 minutes I have ever attended," wrote Samuel Black. He concluded with the observation that Pocahontas is "a thought-provoking blend of the tensions of the Jamestown encounter. We cannot change any of what happened there, but it is good to listen to beautiful music, and attempt to understand the complexity of human lives caught in transition."