Who are you to tell this story?

Right now there is a need for our stories to be told from our perspective to illustrate the diversity that exists in the world.  When I say our, I mean American Indians.  But what happens when we tell do tell our stories and our own people don’t like it?  When you are trying to spread knowledge and stories, but the victims of the crimes and their families feel cheated and used, who are you helping?  As a writer, when you tell a story, who can tell it, when is it not “too soon”, when is just promotion to sell your work and profit from someone else’s misery.
While working on a devised piece on boarding schools, my theater group read brief pages from a book then improvised the story surrounding that page.  One person was then assigned to write out the scene we had just performed and the next week we would read the new scenes aloud.   We talked about it as a group and further changes may or may not happen, but the conversation did help us to understand the process as well as how others saw the story.  As a group of American Indian performers from different backgrounds and tribes, our understanding of the boarding school experience differed, as did the message we wanted to give the world.  As we read the stories from the book, that helped form our own interpretation of the actual incident. Not once did I consider how I was glorifying someone else’s pain or justifying the actions of the school administrators and parents.
These are the things that keep me from writing. I have so many ideas in my head, so many stories I feel need to be told, yet this feeling of betrayal sits deep inside shaking its head telling me it’s not my place.  But who’s place is it then? Who can tell the story?  Just this morning, as I was “researching” (procrastinating) to make sure I was going down the right path, I found a video from Adam Conover, from Adam Ruins Everything, telling the “True Messed Up Story of Pocahontas”.  Now to me, he’s not really ruining the story.  As native people we’ve heard the true story. We’ve listened to other natives tell the story, we may have even watched a PBS show or two about it. Yet it still amazes me that in this “everybody is native” culture that we live in, there is still shock. “I never knew that”.  Yes, I know the story because I had the pleasure of playing the role of Matachanna, Pocahontas’s sister, in a play, so I was aware, but is that it?Is it because of the obscurity of Native Playwrights and Screenwriters? Does it really take a non-native comedian with a TV show to educate America? Is it less threatening coming from a “celebrity” rather than the actual people living it?  Would people have known about Standing Rock had Shailene Woodley not been arrested with a t-shirt that everyone wants now, or Mark Ruffalo wasn’t live tweeting?  Don’t get me wrong, getting the message out there is appreciated, but I continue to wonder why, if native people have been given the raw deal, why is it so difficult to actually listen to the stories from those who live it?
It is encouraging that this past weekend 3 plays opened from 3 women playwrights, who happen to be native.  If it’s any indication of who should be telling our stories, I better get writing.
So off I go write.

1 thought on “Who are you to tell this story?

  1. Thanks for sharing, Jenn. When a story gets a hold on you and won’t let you go, you have to write it. What plays opened? What are the names of the playwrights? And, where are they playing?

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