Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Mixedbloods and Bloodlust in Cherokee Night

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Mixedbloods and Bloodlust in Cherokee Night

Article excerpt

AS STUDENTS OF American Indian history know, the early twentieth century was a painful time for native peoples in this country. Federal policies of assimilation and repression, coupled with high Indian mortality and poverty, resulted in a pessimistic literature by Indian writers that reflected social realities. The challenge for teachers and scholars, when introducing non-Indians to these early works, is to establish a context for them, emphasizing the achievements of Indian writers in tackling the prejudices of their time, while at the same time examining the writers' assumptions regarding native identity and cultures, assumptions which may since have proven erroneous.

The establishment of context becomes especially crucial when early and contemporary works are offered side by side as in Stories of Our Way: An Anthology of American Indian Plays. This anthology takes an important step in documenting American Indian dramatic literature, but Cherokee Night by Lynn Riggs should not be included here. This play has already generated its share of misconceptions, even in the minds of fairly informed critics. As recently as 1981, writer Paul Horgan called Cherokee Night "the greatest of Riggs's many Oklahoma plays" (Braunlich, "Oklahoma," 9.15) while Riggs's biographer, Phyllis Cole Braunlich, has asserted "unlike some of his dramas, this one becomes more contemporary with the passage of time" (218). The fact is Cherokee Night distorts native cultures and perpetuates racist stereotypes, demonstrating how authors of minority ancestry, with no real connection to their culture, may inadvertently reinforce the views of the dominant society.

Here then is the context in which Cherokee Night needs to be considered. American Indian writers of the 1920s and 30s, usually mixedbloods themselves, created some of the first modern mixedblood protagonists in American literature. These mixedbloods are rounded and complex figures despite the fact that their struggle to relate to both white and native worlds often ends tragically: At first glance, the mixedblood characters in Cherokee Night seem to belong to this more modern group simply because they dominate the play. The one-sixteenth Cherokee Riggs thought of himself as an Oklahoma writer, not a mixedblood one, but he approached Cherokee Night, his first and only "Indian play," with special passion.

Native experience in Oklahoma had been especially traumatic. By 1904, thanks to allotment, "Indian Territory" had been carved into a state, tribal governments had been abolished, and the practice of native languages and religions officially forbidden. Riggs wrote his melodrama (no pejorative meaning intended), hoping to capture the "darkness which has come upon the Cherokee and their descendants" (Riggs, qtd. in Braunlich, Haunted, 80). Cherokee Night consists of a series of related vignettes arranged to show the wrenching effects of forced assimilation on the Cherokee. Unfortunately, while the structure of the play is innovative, skipping back and forth between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Riggs's treatment of fullbloods and mixedbloods is irrevocably dated. He manipulates some cliches about Indians in order to debunk them, but much of his material is hobbled by his own unconscious stereotypes. Two especially noxious stereotypes dominate Cherokee Night: the author's view of the mixedblood condition as degenerate, and his belief in an innate "Cherokee bloodlust."

Riggs announces his focus on mixedblood identity in the play's stage directions where the principal characters are described as "all part Cherokee Indian--some a quarter, some a sixteenth or thirty-second" (Riggs, 132). Physical descriptions of these "part-Indians" do not include skin color, except in the ease of quarter or half-bloods, who are described as "dark." The rest of the characters are brown-haired or blond and are, we assume, white-skinned--hence, not subject to kinds of overt prejudice their darker-complexioned relatives might experience. …

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