Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today
Playwright William S. Yellow Robe Jr. prolific author of over 45 plays centering the Native American experience died on July 19. A citizen of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, Yellow Robe was an educator at the University of Maine. He was 61 when he died in Bangor after a long battle with health problems including diabetes and congestive heart failure.
Although well respected within the mainstream theater community for his commitment to the craft, he was not as well known outside Indian Country. His influence on Native theater, however, was significant.
Some of his better-known works include two anthologies, “Where the Pavement Ends: New Native Drama,” and a collection of one act plays, “Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers and Other Untold Stories,” about an all Black regiment during the Indian wars.
Of mixed Native and African American heritage, Yellow Robe grew up in Wolf Point, Montana, on the Fort Peck Reservation and frequently drew from that experience in his work. Drawn to writing and theater in his childhood, he was encouraged by a middle-school teacher to try playwriting.
He attended the University of Montana where he studied writing and theater. Initially interested in an acting career, he was disappointed by being repeatedly cast as a stereotypical Native man. He decided then to create his own plays and Native theater groups.
“Bill Yellow Robe was a pivotal Native playwright for pretty much any Native playwright who’s writing today,” said Mary Katherine Nagel, citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, attorney and playwright.
Yellow Robe’s plays have been produced all over the country including La Mama Theater in New York, New York’s Public Theater and Trinity Rep at Brown University.
He was a member of the Penumbra Theater Company, the Minneapolis Playwright’s Guild, the AMERINDA-American Indian Artists Association and a member of board of advisors for The Eagle Project Company, a New York based theater company and a founding member of the American Indian Playwright’s Guild and the National American Indian Theater and Performing Arts Alliance, to list just a few.
He won several awards and honors for his work including the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Writer’s Circle of the Americas, a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Residency and the Native American Achiever’s Award from the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian. In 2020, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Montana. A few weeks before he died, Yellow Robe was awarded $40,000 from the New York Community Trust’s Helen Merrill Award for Playwriting.
According to former student and mentee Rhiana Yazzie, founding director of New Native Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, Yellow Robe was passionate about theater and encouraging Native Americans to create their own theater.
Yazzie, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, recalls that Yellow Robe was a big man with a reputation for a direct and frank manner. “Honestly, he was kind of scary; he didn’t tolerate mediocrity, lying or fakeness,” she said.
“He was uncompromising in centering the experiences of Native people in his work; his truth telling was unapologetic about what it is to be Native.”
According to Yazzie, Yellow Robe didn’t stoop to translating his plays so that non-Native audiences could more comfortably understand them.
In 2016, Yazzie and members of the New Native Theater performed Yellow Robe’s play, “Sneaky,” at the main water protector camp just north of the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.
In “Sneaky,” three Assiniboine brothers whose mother has passed away decide to give her a traditional funeral. The problem is that her body is at the local morticians where a White funeral has been planned. Although the brothers don’t fully understand the details of a traditional Assiniboine burial, they steal her body anyway.
“Sneaky is about how the brothers really don’t know what to do but at the same time are figuring it out with the help of this deep sort of cultural memory; it’s essentially about the whole process of decolonizing,” Yazzie said.
Yazzie and the theater group performed the play in the open air, as daylight faded people shined their car lights on the players.
“People had such deep appreciation for the play; I still remember an elder from Fort Peck in the audience who was just laughing and laughing. People were so excited to see a play that centered them,“ Yazzie said.
Yellow Robe always mixed comedy with tragedy in a way that was very culturally specific, according to Yazzie.
Although Yellow Robe’s work focused on the Native experience, he had great admiration and respect for White mainstream playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill and was a stickler for professionalism.
“He could be very strict about the craft; he would make actors repeat scenes over and over again,” Yazzie said. “He was a classicist but with a Native perspective.”
A great lover of Spam, Yellow Robe was always joking about the various iterations of Spam and frybread even publishing a poem entitled, “Spam Rite” in the anthology, “I was Indian: an Anthology of Native Literature.”
In her memorial about Yellow Robe, published in American Theatre magazine, Yazzie wrote. “Bill’s plays were for Native people, period. But the honesty, the craft and artistry he channeled into his plays from his life’s broken hearts, hard-fought wins and unexpected joy-that was for everyone.”
Yellow Robe is survived by his widow Jeanne Domek-Yellow Robe of Maine and sister Karen Yellow Robe of Wolf Point, Montana. Funeral services have been held.