Controversy embroils new History Theatre play about the American Indian Movement

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A 10-minute play by Navajo playwright Rhiana Yazzie is at the center of a controversy within the local Native American community. The play focuses on two fictional characters in 1968—the year that the American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded—and several real-life people from the time are mentioned. Those people include AIM co-founder Clyde Bellecourt, who was referred to in a recent draft as “Belly Court,” as a joke.

Next weekend, the History Theatre will premiere 1968: The Year That Rocked The World, which will play in the Minnesota History Center’s 3M Auditorium alongside the associated exhibit at the museum. The theater commissioned seven playwrights from the Playwrights’ Center—Rhiana Yazzie, Reginald Edmund, Christina Ham, Kim Hines, Kevin Kautzman, Dominic Orlando, and Mat Smart—to write plays focusing on the events of that year such as the war in Vietnam; the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy; the Mexico Olympics; Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert H. Humphrey; the election of Richard Nixon; and the Apollo 8 mission broadcast on Christmas Eve.

Yazzie’s play, The Corral, takes place during the time when the American Indian Movement was just beginning in Minneapolis. It is titled after a bar along Franklin Avenue frequented by many American Indian people at the time; the bar was the site of much police brutality during that time period, according to Yazzie.

Yazzie was actually commissioned to write two plays. The first play that Yazzie wrote took place in the same time period, but didn’t specifically focus on AIM. Yazzie said that History Theatre artistic director Ron Peluso asked her to write a second play that focused more on AIM. Originally, he had suggested that perhaps Clyde Bellecourt, one of the founders of AIM, could be one of the characters, Yazzie said.

Yazzie said she never wanted Bellecourt to be a character. “I said I think that’s going to be tricky,” she said. Peluso suggested that Yazzie interview Bellecourt, which at first she didn’t want to do. She had interviewed many members of the community, she said, including Pat Bellanger, a woman who was involved with AIM. But in the end she did agree to interview Bellecourt, with Peluso.

“They interviewed me for three solid hours,” Bellecourt said. Afterwards, Peluso promised that they would bring the script back to him, but that never happened, according to Bellecourt. “I never saw nothing,” he said.

While Bellecourt did not end up being a character in the play (both characters in the play are fictional) he is referenced along with several other leaders from AIM. In a draft of the play that Yazzie shared with some readers last week, one of the characters, Moon, calls out for help because he and the other character are both handcuffed to a light pole. They have been left there by the police—an incident that Yazzie said is based on a real incident that actually happened in 1971. Moon calls out for Bellecourt, calling him “Belly Court” as a nickname.

It was because of Yazzie’s use of “Belly Court” that Bellecourt found out about the play. Yazzie had shared the script with another AIM founder, Dennis Banks, who she and her boyfriend Vaughn Lodge visited in Bemidji, and Banks called Bellecourt and told him the name was used.

Lodge is a former member of AIM. He resigned from his position in October, according to Yazzie, and when he did, he had an argument with Bellecourt. Yazzie said she believes that behind the controversy is a personality conflict. “I just happen to be in the middle of it,” she said. “I happen to have a public forum at the moment.”

According to Bellecourt, his objections to the play stem from the fact that it doesn’t talk about the great things that the AIM movement accomplished. “It makes jokes about me and my brother,” he said. The play, he said, “doesn’t talk about hope, or about all of the accomplishments of the movement.” He also didn’t like that the two characters “talked like they are drunk.”

According to Yazzie, neither of the characters are drunk. One had been in the bar trying to make some money, and the other was looking for a television. 

Throughout last week, there were numerous discussions and confrontations involving Yazzie, Bellecourt, and other members of the community and people from the theater. “Clyde came into rehearsal on Tuesday night with four other people and said to the entire cast, ‘We’re here to shut this play down,’” Yazzie said.

Yazzie was told by Pat Bellanger, another AIM member, to sit down with Laura Waterman Wittstock, a writer who she was told “has some really good ideas about making it a more positive script,” according to Yazzie. Making changes to the character or story were not things that Yazzie was willing to do. “Why don’t you have Laura write a play?” Yazzie said, calling the suggestion that she change her script “outrageous.”

Beyond issues with the “Belly Court” moniker and some obscene language, Bellecourt said that he objects to not having been given approval of the script, which he said Peluso had promised. “I told him, ‘You made this promise that you never fulfilled. You’re just another white man with a fork-toothed tongue.’” Bellecourt said.

In response to Bellecourt’s threat of a protest, Yazzie sent out a mass e-mail to friends and colleagues. “I write to you with a plea for help,” she wrote. “My First Amendment Rights are being violated and I am being threatened by Clyde Bellecourt and his trademark of the American Indian Movement.” According to Yazzie, Bellecourt threatened to protest the play unless it was either pulled or she rewrote it- not just sentences and historical references, but entire characters and situations.” The letter was also posted on a new facebook group, called “Bully Court’s AIM Censors 1st Amendment.”

On Thursday night, the History Theatre made the decision to pull the play, substituting instead Yazzie’s other play about the same time period, according to Yazzie.

Yazzie said she considered the incident “an assault to my artwork.”

By the weekend, Bellecourt had a change of heart, and had agreed to meet with Yazzie. They both met with Peluso on Saturday at the History Theatre. Yazzie had agreed to make some minor changes to the script, and Bellecourt said he would take them back to the AIM Grand Governing Council and other community leaders, Yazzie said. Yazzie has posted the most recent draft of the script on her website.

At Monday’s rehearsal, Peluso asked Yazzie to make an additional change to the script. He first asked her to remove the reference to “Belly Court” completely—which she had offered to do when the controversy arose originally—and then suggested a change making explicitly clear that the name was a joke. Finally, Yazzie told Peluso that she wasn’t going to change anything else. “If you want to change my script, go for it. You have my permission,” Yazzie told him. “I’m done fighting for the peanuts that I have left in my artistic integrity,” she said.

“I’m disappointed by how everything unfolded,” said Yazzie. “I’m upset by Clyde’s bullying. No other writer would have to put up with that.”  

Ultimately, Yazzie said, she is baffled by the objections. “This play is so pro-AIM and so pro-Indian,” she said. “The fact that Clyde is even protesting it shows there’s a deeper vanity or vendetta or personal hurt that he was going after.”

In an interview on Saturday, Bellecourt said that he was waiting to see what the response would from the governing council would be. Depending on their answer, he said that he would consider not allowing the theater to use the AIM logo in the program. If they do approve of the changes, he said that one possibility that was discussed at Saturday’s meeting would be that AIM members pass out AIM literature at the shows. 

Peluso spoke with me about the controversy, but agreed to be quoted saying only that “we will be doing Rhiana’s play. We all found common ground and I appreciate that all involved were able to reconcile our differences.”


Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Collaborative.

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