Friday, October 24, 2008

My Little Papoose

Last Sunday, Ian and I drove to Burbank to see a Syzygy Theatre Group production of William Saroyan's "Love's Old Sweet Song." Not only was it an insight into Central California life in the 1930s, it was also a glimpse into how "Okies" and Indians were perceived out here during the Dust Bowl era.
What struck me was a couple of things: writer William Saroyan (pictured below), although born in Fresno, was the son of Armenian immigrant parents, and his heritage was just below if not right on the surface of his works. (Incidentally, his writer son, Aram Saroyan, was one of my grad school fiction instructors at USC.)
But Saroyan pere's depiction of ignorant, slovenly, lazy and scheming Okies from Muskogee (see above photo, courtesy of Katherine Bedoian) seemed to belie someone who could identify with negative stereotypes of any kind.

Now, I wasn't around then, and my move to California has hardly brought on any kind of discrimination, so I don't know what migrant workers from Oklahoma were like or how they were perceived back then -- nor do I know why "Okies" were interchangeable with "Indians" -- but the depiction seemed so superficial and dismissive.

(As a disclaimer, I should say that the production itself was quite lovely and well done, particularly for a small 98-seat theater whose cast numbered 1/4 of the number of available chairs. Also, this might go without saying, but nothing on this blog is necessarily representative of the views of Variety.)

That's not to say that I think every migrant worker from Oklahoma in 1939 could be equated with My Fair Lady's Henry Higgins ('enry 'iggans), but I guess I was just hoping for a little more nuance. Despite being from Oklahoma and being 15/32 ( 1/32 shy of 1/2) Native American, I've never felt like the pejorative "Okie" or "Injun." Not to be overly dramatic (and Ian might label this as a grump post), but I felt somewhat betrayed by a person, a playwright no less, who should have been able to see shades of gray.

But I also thought about my daughter, who, although definitively blond, is just about 1/4 Indian -- Cherokee and Creek. Her mother and her mother's family is from Oklahoma, a place she's visited only three times in her almost two years.

I want her to be proud of her roots as much as I want her to be proud of being a native Californian, heck, a native Angeleno.

(On the right is a picture of my mom with C when she was about 3 weeks old. On the left is a picture (of a picture) of my grandma, my mother's mother, who was 100% full-blood Creek.)

There is one photo, the only one of its kind, in which C most resembles her Native American relatives. I call it my papoose photo. And it makes me proud. I only hope it will do the same for her.

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