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Vibrina Coronado

Vibrina Coronado in action during the first week of classes.

American Indians on center stage

Visiting professor offers insight into Native American-authored plays in spring course

By Pauline Oo

Jan. 19, 2007

Storytelling is as old as civilization, and it is certainly not unique to the North American Indian culture. But stories from this culture--written and performed by American Indians--began surfacing on theatrical stages only in the 1970s. (American Indian literature hit the shelves in the 1960s.)

"Prior to that, plays, television shows and films tended to focus on stereotypes--images of the American Indian as a savage or noble sidekick, like Tonto in 'The Lone Ranger'--because they were created by a non-native author," says visiting University of Minnesota professor Vibrina Coronado. "Indians now have a voice because of the American Indian Movement [in the 1960s] and other folks who would stand up and say, 'we don't look like that or act like that.'"

American Indian stereotypes are one of several topics Coronado will address in her class, American Indian Theatre (AMIN 5920) this spring. Students in the 15-week undergraduate course will learn about the cultural and artistic origins of 20th century American Indian theater and gain an understanding of how the works of Native American playwrights from various tribal groups relate to broader political, social and cultural contexts. "I designed the course after looking at other American Indian theater courses offered at other universities and drew on my own knowledge of the subject," explains Coronado, who arrived in Minnesota in August after three-and-a-half years at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke. "We'll be reading plays by American Indian authors, such as Lynn Riggs and William Yellow Robe, Jr., and I will also have some local playwrights, like Marcie Rendon, visit the class. We'll view some videos and do in-class readings of the plays."

Vibrina Coronado
Vibrina Coronado

Theater is one of Coronado's areas of expertise. The petite and animated woman of Lumbee Indian blood spent 10 years in New York City in professional theater, making costumes for Broadway.

"All cultures have performances as part of their creative expression," says Coronado. "What this class shows is that Native Americans have taken a Western or European form and molded it into their way of expressing."

Did you know?

* The University of Minnesota's Department of American Indian Studies, established in June 1969, is the oldest such program in the country.

* The American Indian Movement, or AIM for short, got its start in Minneapolis in 1968. AIM introduced legislative language in 1977, which recognizes state responsibility for Indian education and culture. This legislation was adopted as a model throughout the country.

* The musical Oklahoma! was adapted from the 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs by Cherokee Indian Lynn Riggs.

* The Lumbee tribe is the largest tribe in North Carolina, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi and the ninth largest tribe in the nation. The tribe name comes from the Lumbee River, which flows through Robeson county.

For example, the notion of "main characters" is absent from Native American theater because it doesn't fit with Native culture. "Many native-authored plays have more of an ensemble; not one or two main characters with the rest supporting," she says. "All characters have equal weight because some [Native playwrights] have argued that you don't make one person more important than another. You always come from a community. [Not having a main character] is a way to both honor community and individual."

The traditional dramatic elements of conflict and climax are also often absent in Native American theater.

"My hope [for this class] is that students who are non-theater folk will get the chance to see what plays can be, and that non-Native students have the opportunity to see Native Americans as living, breathing human beings just like everybody else," says Coronado.

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