Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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Chief Shaking Spear Rides Again, or The Taming of the Sioux (1975)

Warren Graves
Warren Graves

Warren Graves

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Negotiating difference may be a key feature of the Canadian national landscape, if not a fundamental and defining feature of what it may mean to be Canadian. Canadian theatre has not shied from representing this negotiation in multiple ways: regional, linguistic, ethnic, and gender categories, to name only a few, are frequently at the thematic and ideological crux of how these negotiations play out theatrically. And amidst the welter of positivist and idealized models for addressing difference are any number of examples in which difference as a catchword for the multicultural realities that mark Canada as a land of immigration and colonial intervention is parodied.

Chief Shaking Spear Rides Again, or The Taming of the Sioux fits into the latter encounter model. In English-born (a Cockney who came to Canada in 1965), Western-Canadian Warren Graves's play, "commissioned by Walterdale Theatre Associates for their 10 th annual Klondike Days Melodrama at the Citadel Theatre, Edmonton, 1974" (Graves n.p.; Graves was the former Artistic Director of the Walterdale Playhouse at the time of the play's publication, and later its Membership Chairman), the Corn Exchange Theatre is threatened at the turn of the century by a rapacious land developer, Cramden Twinge. The theatre is run by a hodge-podge of English expatriates, an "alien group" (23). Their only recourse to save the theatre is through "the old Cultural Identity Preservation Clause," which states that if the group can find someone "'whose residence in the area commenced at birth and continues to be extant'" then Twinge will be unable to "foreclose" on the contract (22).

To the rescue comes an "authentic" Chief, literally a literary chieftain, Shaking Spear, who has had a vision: "The spirit tell me that my name from that day will be Shaking Spear .. And he tell me that I shall write the stories that he will tell me and that these stories will tell of my people and their ways" (26). The Chief then goes on to name, in a series of painful puns, the plays he has written: "First, there was 'A Midsummer Night's Sweatlodge'––a comedy. After that, the words came quickly and I wrote 'Two Gentlemen from Kelowna, The Factor of Venice, Henry Hudson Parts One and Two, Troilus and Kalynchuck' . then I got into the story of my people on the reserves applying for municipal status" (26). Walter Dale, the manager of the Corn Exchange, asks "What did you call that?" Shaking Spear responds, "Hamlet" (27).

Interestingly, these jokes make use of any number of well-known Canadian cultural referents, from the collocation of native spiritual culture and Shakespeare (the midsummer night's sweatlodge) to local Western geography and Shakespeare (Kelowna), the story of Henry Hudson, and the presence of a large Ukrainian community in Western Canada (Troilus and Kalynchuck). Especially noteworthy is how each of these referents has discomfiting resonances in terms of the colonial encounters that are a foundational aspect of Canadian culture: none of the referents necessarily denotes a comfortable negotiation or acceptance of difference.

In a final series of increasingly politically incorrect jokes, Walter asks Shaking Spear what inspired him to write The Taming of the Sioux. Shaking Spear first invokes "the story of my people and Sitting Bull when he fled from the longknives south of the Medicine line" before leading into the following exchange:

Chief: Then there was this girl I met once in Winnipeg. She was a Sue when I met her, but a Gros Ventres [Big Belly] when I left. (Laughs) That's what we call an Indian joke.
Walter: Oh I see.
Chief: Ethnic.
Walter: Yes, of course.
Chief: Like, "Hi, there Chief. What do you think of bilingualism"? Do you know what the Chief says?
Walter: I can't imagine.
Chief: (Folds arms) "White Man speak with forked tongue." (27)

The passage puts racist, white dialogue into aboriginal mouths. Ethnic jokes here are the domain of native culture even as offensive stereotypes are implicitly promulgated by white, settler culture. Shakespeare is refigured in aboriginal terms precisely as a means for diminishing the threat of alterity through stereotypical belittlement. Furthermore, the irony is that Graves has the aboriginal saviour of the colonial theatre being told the stories "of my people" by a spirit who has him writing take-offs of Shakespeare put into an explicitly Canadian context. So, a neo-colonial, English expatriate (Albertan) Canadian usurps the cultural authority of Shakespeare to foreground racist stereotypes of aboriginal culture in the name of a language not its own. The dynamic is exemplary of the sort of inauthentic striving after authenticity that gives shape to aspects of Canadian identity formations.

The dream of eradicating aboriginals' special status via a strategy of assimilation is one context for understanding the Graves play. In 1969, five years before the first production of Graves's play, a proposed federal government White Paper (see http://www.turtleisland.org/discussion/viewtopic.php?t=535) that sought to eliminate natives' special status became the focal point of bitter opposition that led to the government's repudiation of its proposed policy change. The Taming of the Sioux trope, in this context, reminds the white audience of its own material dominance in relation to native culture.

Moreover, the play shows Shaking Spear to have internalized the lessons of Sitting Bull's defeat or   "taming" (see http://collections.ic.gc.ca/beaupre/promme92.htm) by conforming to the stereotype of the randy native, impregnating Sue in Winnipeg and making light of Western Canada's other national fixation, official bilingualism. Shaking Spear voices the regional anxieties of English Canadian, Western culture with regard to its own capacity to deal with difference, whether aboriginal or French. Aboriginal culture is shown to allow itself willingly to be co-opted to colonial purposes (in this case, the saving of the Corn Exchange Theatre as a metonym for settler culture), thus perpetuating longstanding falsehoods about native cultures' complicity in their own demise.

The precise point of all this is to expose, in a Western Canadian regional context, the difference between a presumed Shakespearean authenticity and aboriginal inauthenticity, thus validating the former at the expense of the latter. The play, thus provides an important context for understanding how categories of difference in Canada are negotiated in local theatrical contexts. Those contexts play to localized stereotypes and anxieties brought about by Canada's colonial legacy and the ways in which that legacy has sought to address multicultural encounters.

Tellingly, Graves's take on the kind of theatre he writes and produces is as follows: "I don't mind saying I write for an old-fashioned commercial market . I think it's because I'm so conscious of my community theatre roots. We didn't have big budgets or get big government grants, so we had to learn how to attract an audience. We had to fill those seats and program fare which brought people in. I like comedy and romanticism, and you don't get much of that in Canadian theatre. Sexual aberration seems to be the big thing" ("West coast playwright still roots for amateurs." Calgary Herald Dec. 27, 1984: C1).

Daniel Fischlin

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Link to An Interview with Warren Graves

CASP gratefully acknowledges Warren Graves's permission to publish this play to its website. For a full-length interview with Warren Graves on some of the topics covered in the above introduction click here.

For another discussion of the representation of Indigenous culture via Shakespeare and settler culture, visit CASP's holdings on David Gardner's 1961 adaptation of King Lear.


 

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