Andy Sonnenberger, columnist
Let’s get one thing straight: the Faculty Choreographed Dance Concert did not disappoint. It was well presented and performed. However, in the spirit of the anti-racism rally earlier this year and the #HereAtIWU Campaign, a comment must be made about the content of one of the pieces in the concert.
The piece I am referencing was titled “Comanche Moon” and represented the sin of Wrath. Comanche Moon is a reference to the novel written in 1997, describing Texas rangers chasing a Comanche horse thief in the period before the Civil War.
The novel describes the burning of Austin, Texas and describes the rape of a white settler. I will not go into detail here to explain how this novel perpetuates the stereotype that Native Americans are violent and savage; however, this description certainly portrays the Comanche as barbarians.
In sum, choice matters. The title of the piece alone carries heavy cultural baggage of stereotyping and racism.
Furthermore, the intention of the dance itself is questionable. There was a clear choice to portray wrath through the portrayal of Native Americans dancing, and Native Americans were depicted as violent through dance.
In general, by choosing the title and the sin to portray, the dance concert, I hope inadvertently, helped perpetuate the racist stereotype that Native Americans are a savage people.
I say Native Americans and not Comanche for a simple reason – the music and the dress, complete with war paint, were not specific to a culture but instead was a “generic” Native American portrayal. In other words, a stereotype.
Perhaps most importantly, all of this stereotyping was done subtly. There were no headdresses, war chants or beaded clothing. Nonetheless, this portrayal was not honoring any Native American culture and was still a racist portrayal. Illinois Wesleyan University’s theatre department has been caught “playing Indian.”
While I do understand that the choreographer was brought in from New York City to instruct solely for that piece and that the full costumes were not ready until the week of the show, someone needed to recognize the significance of the choices made.
No one, faculty or student, expressed enough concern to prevent the final product from being racist. Art is an integral part of culture; art cannot exist for art’s sake, so the theatre department is not excused because it had to work within the deadline.
While this mistake may initially seem small, a broader context may help elaborate its significance. Native Americans have hundreds of unique cultures, and to lump them into one stereotype alone is disrespectful. But to incorrectly portray a group of people as savage and violent when the United States perpetrated a genocide against them is inexcusable.
For further context, the land IWU’s campus is on once belonged to a group of tribes collective called the Illini. An aggressive history does exist within Native American culture, but it is a history of American violence.
Unfortunately, the theatre department failed to recognize this history when creating wrath and instead perpetuated stereotypes.