Erin

Adventures in Imperialism

In Erin on October 18, 2009 at 11:02 pm

Ah, the school play!  Sharon’s post reminds me of the frequency with which our elementary school required us to engage in performances or activities that necessitated elaborate costuming–and, interestingly, the concomitant frequency with which these performances or activities involved  (what I now understand as) highly political, and potentially problematic, themes.  There were the Christmas plays, of course (the video of which, by the way, I think we should consider posting as a youtube clip!)…but there was also the Thanksgiving Play, which was truly cringe-worthy in retrospect.

The Thanksgiving Play was, perhaps, unremarkable in the sense that it was exactly what you might expect–especially in the South, in a Christian school, in the Reagan Eighties.  The class was divided into “Indians” and “Pilgrims,” who, in full costume, reenacted (with singing!) the mythical “First Thanksgiving.”  I remember that I, as a blond, was cast as a Pilgrim, while Sharon, who had darker hair and eyes, was cast (along with the rest of the less-Aryan-looking kids) as an Indian.  My only line in the play was as representative of the Pilgrim Women, who, when the time for the First Thanksgiving was determined, declared: “We’ll cook the meal!”  Interestingly, though I was (as I’ve mentioned previously) no stranger to the wonders of performance, this experience–on a stage, in front of a room of people, in a dress and bonnet–terrified me, and I recall that, despite repeated stage direction to the contrary, I steadfastly spoke my line facing the back wall.

All of this now, of course, strikes me as so deliberately gendered and racialized in its ideology as to be ridiculous–but I haven’t yet even approached the most incredible part.  This was a musical, after all, which meant that we learned and sang songs that purported to be representative of the respective Thanksgiving parties.  I don’t remember any of the Pilgrim songs–probably because they were so boring–but I do have vivid memories (complete with hand motions!) of the “Indian” song, which are…well, difficult to adequately describe with a single adjective.  The words went as follows:

We go hunting near and far,

[Something] with our long-nosed squaw

Pow-wow, pow-wow,

We’re the men of the old-old time!

For we are the red men,

Feathers in our headband

Down upon the dead men,

Mm-Pow-Wow!

Mm-Pow-Wow!

The song, like all of our songs, was accompanied by the piano, and made use of heavy staccato beats and minor chords–presumably to evoke the sense of a drum-beat.  It was entrancing to me, and, when combined with the “Indian” outfits complete with brightly-colored feathers from the craft store, it made me wish, heartily, that I had been so lucky as to be born a Native American.  The story, of course, omitted any reference to any colonial interactions with Natives that were more fraught with conflict than the division of labor for meal preparation.

That’s how it was: you wear a fancy outfit and sing some songs–and, *poof*, America!  The mystery of the Incarnation was similarly solved during the Christmas pageant, so it didn’t seem that the establishment of a new country on an already-inhabited continent should be any more complicated.  At the end of the day, everyone sets aside their differences and has a meal–which, coincidentally, just happens to look exactly like the Thanksgiving meal your mom makes, or at least, how it would look if it were made out of papier mache instead of Turkey.  It doesn’t matter that underneath their costumes, everyone is white and attends a wealthy private school, because hey, it’s about being Thankful for the Gifts of God.  And the Gifts of God just happen to include meat, corn, money and the land that was previously being kept company by the “red men.”

What’s fascinating to me now is how closely this political ideology was wedded to our school’s religious message–a fact that you certainly get a glimpse of in the general Gifts of God language.  Indeed, the Thanksgiving play wasn’t just an after-school event; we performed it for the rest of the elementary school during our weekly chapel: pray, sing songs about the greatness of God, learn about the greatness and beneficence of American origins (and the exotic backwardness of the Natives!) , pray some more, go back to class.  Remember kids: Columbus discovered America, and Jesus loves you!  Both facts, both repeated until you get them straight, incorporate them into the fabric of your self.

Oh, and don’t forget: girls cook and boys lead.  Class dismissed!

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  1. The only school play I can remember doing was about Huey Long. And his horse. I got to be a Girl On A Horse in the play, which thrilled me to no end. Ah, Louisiana.

    This reminds me, did you know that, in other states, they don’t take state history classes? When I tell people that my 8th grade history was Louisiana History, they think it’s HILARIOUS.

    Furthermore, I have started (and not finished) 3 blog posts. Ah, how that reflects m life.

    • I can’t remember whether Californians take state history or not, but I do remember that all of them have to do a project in elementary school that involves building a model of any famous California Mission. This seems just as silly to me, and much more complicated.
      Also, that post I did a while back about making a diorama of a person who inspired us? That was in Louisiana history for some reason…
      Also again, hooray for Huey Long plays! Did anybody get to play crazy Earl? What about a prostitute?

  2. Erin,
    I could have sworn the words went:
    We are the red men
    the feathers in our head men

    Although I guess that makes way less sense. But it has parallel structure!

    And I can still do most of the hand motions too. And I’m pretty sure it’s “greeted by our long-nosed squaw.” Does that sound right?

    • Yes, “greeted”! That was driving me crazy. I was trying to make it “meeted,” which was clearly wrong, unless they were also trying to recreate Tonto-esque broken English.

      Also, the other day I was recounting this song to one of my friends, and I actually started involuntarily doing the hand motions (especially around the line about the feathers). This was embarrassing, since we were in public.

      But seriously, how was this ever ok? The red men? The long-nosed squaw? The old, old times? Why didn’t we just call them savage primitives and get it all out there?

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