Seeing your own reflection in the eyes of others
A new play about shared Indian and Irish cultures and modern experiences, The Beta Cycle: Bitterroot, Berkeley, Belfast, Beta premiered on stage at the Longhouse in Squaxin territory winning a standing ovation for the seven member cast on April 13. The Open to All Possibilities Players headed by Salish director and poet Victor A. Charlo and producer Zan Agzigian brilliantly bring the Irish and the Indians into sharp parallel focus in this four act play. As far back in time as anyone can remember western hemispheric peoples have talked about, depicted on pottery and made sculptures of bearded people who “come from the rising sun.” The Utes and the Washo talk about “tall, red-haired people” in legend. Tupac Amur greeted Pizaro as did Montezuma greet Cortez as if noting the return of a long lost visitor from the past. Confirming legend and ancient oral history researchers note with increasing excitement the artifacts of early visits to the western hemisphere by peoples from Europe, Africa, the Pacific Islands and Asia. Evidence appears along virtually all the coastal areas. Indians in the Americas increasingly recognize the ancient connections between themselves and other peoples in the world. These ancient connections are being demonstrated in decidedly modern terms: In literature, poetry and theatre.
The four “short plays” of the title use wit, satire, pathos and artistic grace to draw the audience into the intense experiences of American Indians and the Irish with displacement, acculturation, and the eventual survival of ancient peoples in the Americas and in Europe. The cast was not always tight in delivery, but each member delivered an outstanding show. Co Carew’s eagle dance of nature’s story as Victor Charlo delivered a poem in one transitional interlude was wonderful. The words and movement combined to remind us of the immediacy of nature’s power and the cultural reality among Indians and the Irish of this knowledge. Russ Dupuis provided a constant taste of subtle humor and expressions of deep pain as he played one of the Indians in Bitterroot and as Chief Charlot in Beta. Pat Matt, Jr. delivered a strong presentation as the Man in Berkeley bringing a sense of contemporary Indian attitude to the play. David Dale gave a sometimes too fast delivery for the Irishman in Bitterroot, but he gave strength and believability to his parts. Karen Lewing was a steadying influence on the cast and a consistently strong character in Berkeley and Belfast. In many ways Ms. Lewing gave the audience Ireland. Sky Dupuis-Shortman is a young and developing actor who made his characters in Bitterroot and Beta typically shy while claiming their personal authority. The question throughout is, “ If a people is faced with extinction, how does each individual react? How do a whole people react? Charlo and Agzigian’s The Beta Cycle takes us through 100 years of American Indian and Irish responses to these penetrating challenges.
The question raised by this play is important to Fourth World peoples all over the world. It is notable that a Salish poet consciously recognizes that the Fourth World peoples of Europe experience the same personal and community tensions over efforts of invading populations to displace and threaten their very existence. The Irish (Ire) have deep tribal roots in the land. They are rooted in the ancient tribes of the Celts who spread out from their primordial homes in what is now central Europe. The Celts have part of their original population now located in Northern Italy, in Romania, the Isle of Man, Breton (western France), Wales, Kernow (Cornwall, England), Galicians of northwestern Iberic Peninsula and the Castilians. In Ireland the Irish have been occupied for more than 800 years (England still occupies northern Ireland—part of Ulster.) The wounds from that occupation continue to fester even as Ireland as a state now rises as a social, economic and cultural power.
The ties between American Indians and the Irish are recounted as hurtful experiences born from a common tormentor—England. The British instituted land tenure systems that rendered the Irish as virtual poppers in their own land as wealthy elites from Britain and France claimed precious land for their own economic benefit. The Irish were forced into the role of surfs eking out a life in the face of repressive government and social policies coming from London. Irish kids were removed from their families and sent to “residential schools” to “civilize” them and to force them to speak English instead of the Gaelic. Some Irish were picked by the English to administer the schools and policies of the London government because they were willing to accept England’s control of Irish lands and peoples. A kind of “Bureau of Irish Affairs” developed to administer England’s hold over the lives and property of the Irish.
English policy distained the Irish for their “drunkenness,” and what many regarded as their uncivilized dance, music, language and style of living. The Church and the government of England conspired to convert the Irish into a people more to their liking. The scars from this bitter treatment remain on the souls of Irish in Ireland as well as Irish in other parts of the world where many fled to get away from the great potato famine of the middle nineteenth century—a famine many charge even today could have been avoided but for the economic and social policies of the British government.
What had been the policies and colonial violence done to the Irish by the English were duplicated by the English against many different American Indian nations in the Americas from 1607 onward to the present day. First the English and then the government of the United States organized a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to control “the Indians and to remove them from fruitful lands” better used by those “destined to govern.” The Canadian government organized its version of the BIA and carried out virtually the same policies. Eventually Indian children from scores of different nations were herded into “residential schools” instituted by the government and often operated by Christian churches. Like the Irish residential schools, facilities were located far from the homes of Indian communities “to avoid the possibility that Indian children will be contaminated by the uncivilized savages.” Indian children were, like the Irish, beaten when they spoke their language, had their haircut, made to work long hours, and even sexually abused by headmasters (more than 7000 law suits have been lodged against the Canadian government and churches for alleged sexual abuse of Indian children).
The social behaviour and policies in broader society end up the same. If Indians or Irish were placed in public schools they experienced “shunning” and demeaning attitudes. Indians and Irish in the Americas found themselves frequently unable to find acceptable housing. The prisons disproportionately filled up with Indians and Irish. Self-hatred—despising oneself for being Irish or Indian—wishing that one could be from another kind of people lurks in the hearts of many Indians and Irish still.
As one Irish woman told me when I visited Dublin not long ago, the “Irish are only just now beginning to recover from the “troubles” experienced at the hands of the English. There is a developing sense of confidence and self-power among the Irish born from a rediscovery of their culture long buried in the peat bogs. Recalling their poetry, music, engineering, dance, science, and innate ingenuity the Irish have begun to reëmerge as a force in Europe. The Irish are after their 800 years of darkness reclaiming their identity as human beings.
It is sometimes necessary to see your own reflection in the eyes of others before you can see yourself clearly. The Irish saw in their most desperate times during the famine a great sense of good will when several American Indian tribes gathered money and food to send to the hungering masses. That gesture was not and is not forgot. Irish people seeing an American Indian will extend their hand in thanks and recognition of the time when virtually no other peoples in the world would help; American Indian people with so little of their own helped the Irish in their time of deep need.
The Beta Cycle has Indians and Irish looking into each other’s eyes and they see clearly their own reflection. The skillful writing and acting of The Open to All Possibilities Players is a new opening to closer communications between Fourth World peoples in the Americas and Fourth World peoples in Europe sharing and knowing a similar past and aspiring to a common future.