Returns in purified version
WASHINGTON - A large white tent complex on the National Mall stands outside
of the official celebration of the opening of the National Museum of the
American Indian building, but it is easily the week's most prominent
example of the interaction between Native and popular culture. The tent
houses the rebirth and revision of the "Spirit" dance production, which
toured commercial theaters with some success four years ago.
The production is a purified version, said its leading spirit, the musician
Peter Buffett, signaled by its revised title "Spirit: the Seventh Fire" and
the tent venue. Buffett has jettisoned most of the Broadway glitz of the
original, which he attributes to a set of investors and producers no longer
with the show. (Although the principles always resisted the comparison,
visions of a "Riverdance"-type smash must have played through their heads.)
Dispensing with a parallel set of non-Indian professionals, the show now
focuses exclusively on Native traditional dancers and Buffett's own mythic
The story remains basically the same. An urbanized Indian yuppie breaks out
of the space-time confines of his office cubicle, throws off his business
suit and journeys to his origins. In the original, the Broadway gypsy
dancers provided a narrative bridge with modern choreography, and the
traditional dancers appeared in set pieces. This time the Native dancers
carry the whole show.
"The first time around, I was kind of caught up in this whirlwind of
interest and excitement about the show," Buffett told Indian Country Today,
"and wasn't really prepared to take control of it.
"If you're not the one in charge in terms of putting up the money and
producing and all that, it's a little more difficult to make sure a vision
stays true," he said. His doubts began to grow with the PBS special, which
gave the original show its first wide airing, he said, but at the same time
"it was working for the audience."
"This isn't bad," he recalls thinking, "but it just isn't right."
When the original producers backed out and wanted to take the show off the
road, Buffett saw it as the chance to follow his vision. The new script
emphasizes both Native themes and a universal mythology of a hero's journey
of discovery. (The program explicitly refers to the scholar and PBS host
Joseph Campbell.) Raised in an affluent Omaha family, Buffett frankly
acknowledges that he came to Native culture as an ignorant outsider. His
interest was first aroused by his reading of "Son of the Morning Star", a
biography of Gen. George Armstrong Custer, and then deepened by James
Mooney's classic study of the Ghost Dance movement. Buffett's further study
found an outlet in his composing, including a segment of the soundtrack for
Kevin Costner's movie "Dances with Wolves" and the score for Costner's CBS
series "500 Nations."
This pedigree has put off some Indian critics, but Buffett has strong
support from the Native performers in his production. Some of the
best-known figures, or their siblings, have stayed with the new production.
The music and story collaborator is the imposing Chief Hawk Pope, who
narrated the original version; he is also principal chief of the Shawnee
Nation, United Remnant Band of Ohio, and in his roll call of tribes gives
long overdue recognition to the dispersed nations of the Miami Confederacy.
Marty Pinnecoose, Southern Ute and Jicarilla Apache and world champion
Grass Dancer, supervises the traditional dance. Patrick Shendo-Mirabal,
Jemez and Taos Pueblo, fills the role of flutist that his brother Robert
Mirabal starred in first time around.
The show also makes a logistical breakthrough that Buffett hopes will make
it more accessible to Indian country. In his planning he decided not to
rely on the confines of regional theaters, many designed for the Vaudeville
shows of the 1920s. Instead he commissioned an Italian-made tent complex.
The main conical tent, emblazoned with an eagle, stands 56 feet tall and
seats 750. Smaller tents house the shop featuring show merchandise and
Native crafts, an important part of the financing, and cast dressing rooms.
The main stage includes 40-foot scrims for IMAX-filmed interludes that are
part of the new vision.
It took several years of fundraising and planning, but the show finally
opened in Buffett's hometown of Omaha, Neb. in July, where the tent
survived severe testing from the local winds. It then had a well-received
24-day run in Milwaukee, where Buffett now lives. The opening on the
National Mall Sept. 22 was planned to coincide with the NMAI festivities as
a national debut and will be followed by extensive national touring.
Buffett is planning his next stops for San Diego and Los Angeles, where the
show will be economically feasible. But he hopes to attract the funding
that will make it possible to tour Indian country. "It's incredibly
important to take it to reservations," he said.