Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up For Them)
I often wondered why some of us born, raised and educated on an Indian reservation would love Broadway musicals? And then it hit me!
During the darkest days of the boarding school nightmare there was that ray of light and song that brought joy to our hearts: Putting on a Broadway play. There were the costumes and makeup with the accompanying hilarity when we saw our schoolmates shape change.
I recall my sister Ethel and Phyllis White Eyes standing on a stage in the gymnasium that had also been made over for the production rendering a wonderful adaptation of a Broadway song from the 1920s. And the school always put on a Christmas play. A shy and tiny Arlene Clifford would stand in the spotlight and sing Oh Holy Night and it was mesmerizing.
We put on a Christmas play at Little Wound Elementary School in Kyle one year and I think I was the only one in kindergarten that could read so I did the narrative of the play. Billy and Johnny Bear (both now deceased) were inserted into the skin of a makeshift camel. Johnny was the rear end and he tried to climb out of the camel suit gasping for air when Billy nearly gassed him with a resounding fart that echoed through the school’s gym.
I’ve never seen such a sight as the Lakota elders nearly falling off of their folding chairs in laughter.
I suppose that the music and laughter we shared on the stage or in the audience on those nights of song became embedded in our hearts and minds of the good times.
The first Broadway play that stuck in my mind when I was a teen was Mary Martin and the beautiful music from South Pacific. My brother Tony had a radio that we had to hook up to a car battery because the house we lived in near Windsor, Colorado that summer of 1949 while we worked the long and grueling hours in the sugar beet fields, had no electricity and no running water.
Tony would turn on the radio as soon as we got up in the morning and we would hear “Some Enchanted Evening” blaring away on that little radio and when we got out to the beet fields it would still be playing in the back of our minds. That is until my cousin Sonny Torres drowned it out with his rendition of “Let the rain drops fall, la la la la!” And my sister Lillian would join in with some of the songs she learned at the boarding school. It made looking down those endless rows of sugar beets a little easier.
I looked in my movie file and found VCR’s of South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, Oklahoma, Carousel, The King and I, Chorus Line, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Mama Mia, Les Miserable, and Evita to name a few.
Every musical tells a story, a story of love, of sadness, of hope, of joy and sometimes a story of extreme sorrow. I wanted to see if the movie La La Land held true to these sacred traditions of the Broadway musicals and so I rented it and discovered that it is all of that. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone did everything to take us back to a time and place that is distinctly Broadway. And they pulled it off.
My daughter Marie loved The Sound of Music and she really surprised me one day when she asked if I could get the movie Evita. We watched it together and we thought it was great and it got panned by the critics and they were especially hard on Madonna although we thought she was fabulous in the role of Eva Peron. Maybe the high society critics considered her not good enough for the role. Snobs!
I served with a Chief Petty Officer from Oklahoma and you can guess what he went around singing all day long. He couldn’t carry a note in a bushel basket but he was enthusiastic about his home state.
And finally when I grew up I made a beeline for Broadway on my very first trip to New York City. The first musical I ever saw live was Les Miserable and then The Phantom of the Opera. And I have made it a point that every time a get a chance to go to New York City I see a Broadway musical.
For every drop of rain there’s a flower and that flower, the love of musicals, grew in my heart at a place of pain and sorrow, the Indian boarding school.
There was sadness, but there was song and although sometimes the sadness was overwhelming, it is the songs I remember. The songs pulled me through the sad times.
Give my regards to Broadway!
(Contact Tim Giago at firstname.lastname@example.org. Giago is the founder of the Native American Journalists Association and his book Children Left Behind was awarded the Bronze Medal by the Independent Book Publishers Associations)