A Penobscot Musical in the Making

Last Monday, May 21, I was lucky enough to get up to Orono to see a staged reading of Donna Loring’s musical play, The Glooskape Chronicles: Creation and the Venetian Basket.  I love visiting that UMaine campus: between its proximity to Indian Island and its strong Wabanaki Center, it has a vibrant local indigenous presence, and Native events like this one are well-attended, community gatherings.

In fact, this play was partly an outgrowth of a really nice collaboration between Margo Lukens, a professor in the English department, and William S. Yellow Robe, Jr., (Assiniboine), one of the preeminent indigenous playwrights working today, and a frequent writer and teacher in residence at the university.  Lukens and Yellow Robe have been doing community theater with local Penobscots for a couple of years now, and out of that work, something incredibly exciting is emerging: a new literary tradition of Wabanaki drama.  (In addition to Loring, a talented young woman named Maulian Dana also has a play in the works.)

One of my students guest-blogged here last summer about Loring’s impressive memoir of her years in the Maine state legislature.  Now “retired,” Loring is working full-bore on writing and other media productions, through her new nonprofit, Seven Eagles (and that link is really worth visiting, because you can see a trailer of Glooskape, as well as descriptions of Loring’s other projects).

Glooskape opens on three contemporary Penobscot women at a camp deep in the Maine woods: Hazel and Georgia have moved out there to try to live more traditionally and simply; their friend Jane, a Vietnam veteran, is visiting.  The women share their knowledge about the old ways, but the scenario is thoroughly modern, and the dialogue often hilarious, as the women outwit a pushy game warden (deliberately mispronouncing his name “Jeckin,” the Penobscot word for “buttocks”), and tease Hazel’s grandson Little Bear, who also comes for a visit.  These visits prompt Hazel to tell creation stories of Gluskabe, the Wabanaki trickster/culture hero; when, midway through the play, she learns she is terminally ill, her storytelling takes on extra urgency.

Though Glooskape is still a work in progress, and still in search of a composer, the staged reading suggested plenty of places where song and dance will enhance not only the stories, but also Loring’s innovation.  During a talkback after the reading, Loring noted that in her research into the Gluskabe tradition, she learned that these stories were often sung.  So she is not thinking (necessarily) of a “musical” in the Judy Garland or Glee sense, but as a way of updating and revitalizing Penobscot tradition.  In this sense, Loring’s play is like the Venetian basket referenced in her title and on the poster.  Made by Maliseet Medicine Man Charles W. Solomon, the basket was made out of Venetian blinds, as a comment on how Wabanaki people can adapt to a future–one in which trees are under very serious threat–while still keeping their traditions and culture alive.

What I took away from that was that this “first Penobscot musical” could shake up my expectations of musicals, of theater, and of Native American representation. . .while still being eminently, vitally Penobscot.

For news and updates on The Glooskape Chronicles, watch the Seven Eagles website!

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Guest Blogger Renee Poisson reviews Donna Loring’s book

We need to face the fact that this country was built on the bodies of Indian people—indeed, there was a holocaust on these shores. Once we know our country’s history, we can work to improve policy and practice. Then and only then will we be capable of empathy with other countries and cultures. Then and only then will we be prepared to look outside our protected shell and actually help other countries. Then and only then can we start building a new legacy of respect within the global community. The struggle to educate and be educated continues.
Donna Loring, In the Shadow of the Eagle: A Tribal Representative in Maine

Donna Loring sheds light on a variety of issues—Native and non-Native—throughout In the Shadow of the Eagle. Spanning three years, 2000-2002, Loring shares the many intricacies of politics from her perspective as the representative for the Penobscot Indian Nation in the Maine legislature. Through these genuine, thoughtful, and informative journal entries, we learn how little attention is truly paid toward issues concerning the Wabanaki of Maine and other tribes across the nation.

Loring tackles many issues throughout the time periods her journals highlight, beginning with the Offensive Names Bill. This bill effectively cut the word “squaw” from public use—just as any other word considered offensive toward women or a class would be. What was most surprising was not only that a bill such as this was needed within the past decade or so, but also that there was a great deal of opposition to its passing. In one particular instance, Loring recalls a home-run moment as she voiced her reasoning behind her support of the Offensive Names Bill toward a local business owner: “Do you feel guilty earning money from a name that is abusive and dehumanizing to Native people?” (26). Assertively, Loring calls out the ignorance still prevalent in present-day New England in that Indians and their history and culture is little more than an artifact to be remembered for tourism purposes. Luckily, this attitude is certainly changing, and Loring is a driving force behind the transition toward equality.

The effort to create enough support for this bill was immense, and yet as soon as this victory was accomplished, Loring was hard at work yet again. The tribal legislative representative has some influence in committees, but cannot vote. Because this position is on the unique side (Maine is the only state to have tribal representatives in its legislative body), there are no other models of representation on which to base any restructuring. Unfortunately, Loring was not able to gain a vote within the committees or any other legislative level. Along with this, any mention of Indian-run casinos (or even paying less fees for bingo games) is practically the equivalent of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre to the Maine legislative body.

In spite of these setbacks, Loring was able to help create and draw support for a bill requiring the teaching of Maine Native American history in the K-12 educational system that is created with input from tribal members and historians. This is a huge deal, as it will lead to a whole new generation of respect and understanding for the culture and history of the Maine tribes. As Loring aptly describes this bill, “They will come to know who we are and know our struggles and our accomplishments. We will become real human beings to these children and they will honor Maine’s first people when they become adults” (253).

Loring’s honest accounts of her struggle to represent the larger issues of Native rights—“Native rights” being an umbrella term covering environmental, educational, social, gender, legislative, and other factors—sheds light on issues that are so often swept to side or put on the back-burner for other issues that may or may not report better to the majority audience.

Her journals are one more way to enlighten the world at large—especially New England. Loring’s open and genuine reflection makes it impossible not to follow even the most complicated political explanations. This paired with the hard-hitting action and well-articulated speeches concerning many of the different issues mentioned make for a great, informative read that will quickly bring you up to speed on Maine politics concerning Wabanaki rights and issues.

Renee Poisson is a Senior majoring in English at the University of New Hampshire.