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Family of blended heritage takes center stage at museum

WASHINGTON, D.C. – “Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers,” a play that explores racial ostracism and redemption, is being performed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Playwright William S. Yellow Robe Jr. draws a story of adult siblings, descendants of an African-American Civil War cavalryman and a Native woman, who find themselves driven apart by their mixed feelings about their blended heritage.

At its core, “Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers” is a love story. It begins with the grandparents, who find love and leave their respective peoples to start a family together, and continues with their modern descendents, who renew their love for each other and themselves.

“Whenever you hear a story about the Buffalo Soldier, it becomes that the Indian woman was raped,” said Yellow Robe, 50. “There is no conception that these people might have been in love and that they were leaping into new relationships.”

Indian tribes in the West have a complex history with Buffalo Soldiers, who were all-African-American units in the U.S. Army. Tribes gave them the name “buffalo.” But the soldiers were assigned by the U.S. government to subjugate tribes, making them enemies to many. Still, in some instances, Indian women and African-American soldiers married.

For their descendants, prejudice isn’t only historic, as eldest brother Craig Robe explains in the play: “I saw myself through eyes that weren’t mine, then I got on my own and saw myself different.”

Yellow Robe, like his characters, is Assiniboine and also descended from these African-American cavalrymen.

The production is presented by the museum in conjunction with its exhibition, “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.”

“This is an opportunity to provide our audiences with greater insight into the ‘IndiVisible’ exhibition, and to allow the local African-Native American community to share their story on stage through Bill’s words in the play,” said the museum’s Vincent Scott, who is directing the play.

Scott began reading Yellow Robe’s plays in the early 1990s when Scott was teaching at Fort Peck Community College on the reservation in northeastern Montana, where the playwright is from. Since then, Scott has wanted to direct Yellow Robe’s work because of its themes of heartache and hope. Now Scott said the museum can bring these stories to the public.

“For myself it is an ongoing process of acceptance; there are moments of good and bad,” said Yellow Robe, who divides his time between writing and teaching literature at University of Maine.

Yellow Robe finds forgiving a necessary part of dealing with history, without forgetting the unique ways his family blended traditional Assiniboine and African-American culture. That synergy gives texture to his life and work like bannock and pork-neck bone, or corn soup and spare ribs, or R. Carlos Nakai and Duke Ellington.

At the museum, the play has inspired sharing among the cast and crew about the universality of knowing and respecting one’s family ancestry, said Scott. He hopes that will resonate with audience members, too.

“Discussions during break times often occur among cast and crew that allow opportunities for company members to share their own experiences of living with mixed heritages or being tribal members,” Scott said.

While the characters in the play confront the different ways in which they have dealt with their mixed-race heritage, there is one character, a young niece, who embraces her whole identity, proudly dancing in regalia, and giving her family hope.

“There are a lot of Native families in Montana who have come up to me and said, ‘That’s our story,’” Yellow Robe said. “The play itself is now reaching communities where people are now facing this reality, because to live in denial is the worst.”

Yellow Robe, who hopes someday to move home again to the Fort Peck Reservation, reflected, “It’s like the old people used to say: We are related to the world.”

View the “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas” exhibition online.

The American Indian News Service is produced for the National Museum of the American Indian by journalist Kara Briggs, Yakama/Snohomish. All content is free to publish or post. E-mail her at editor@americanindiannews.org. Visit the American Indian News Service at www.americanindiannews.org.