Native American culture is vibrant and illuminating. A new course by Dr. Shannon Epplett explores the arts and ideas of contemporary Indigenous artists.
“The idea is to make the culture hide in plain sight and make these artists visible,” said Epplett, an assistant professor of theater at Illinois State University. He began teaching the drama class “We Are Still Here: Native American Popular Culture” in the spring of 2022. “People often dismiss Native American culture as historical or traditional, as something that only exists in the past. course is to examine the work created by and for Indigenous peoples today, in order to make Native American America visible and present to non-Indigenous people.
A registered member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Epplett drew inspiration from members of the tribe for some of the course materials, including the young adult novel by Angeline Boulley The Fire Keeper’s Daughter. Released in 2021, the book is set in Sault Ste. Marie, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Epplett knows the region well since his mother’s family has been from the “Sault” for at least seven generations. “Growing up, I spent every summer and vacation in ‘the Soo,’ and Boulley really captures the place in writing,” he said. “The sense of place, the land, is really important in Native American culture.” Epplett noted that his tribesmen were not expelled from their land in the same way that other Native Americans were displaced. “We were instead assigned to plots of land in the area. So we still live in our traditional environment.
By diving into the media, students also glean the basics of culture, belief systems and people’s names. “Our tribe is called both Chippewa or Ojibwe, which are both interpretations of the same term,” Epplett said. The Europeans adopted the name another tribe used to describe them, referring to the way they made their moccasins. “Ojibwa is how it was rendered by Francophones. Chippewa is how it was rendered in English,” he said. “Anishinaabe is the term we apply to ourselves, it roughly means ‘the breath in the body’, ‘the spirit in the flesh’, or simply ‘the people’. Officially, my tribe is called the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, but other tribes say Ojibwe or Anishinaabe.
Daughter of the Fire Keeper, which features an Anishinaabe teenager often compared to “Ojibwe Nancy Drew,” offers students a potentially new perspective on storytelling. “It’s really cool to see a place that you know so well portrayed in a book or movie, and to see it portrayed in a distinctly Indigenous way, from an Indigenous perspective,” Epplett said. Other tribal sources include Edward Benton-Benai’s The Mishomis book and the 2016 independent film INATE/SE by Adam and Zach Khalil. “The film is a reimagining of the prophecies of the seven fires as they appear in Benton-Benai’s book, and is filmed in Sault Ste. Mary,” he said.
For the course, Epplett aimed to include works that students could connect to. “They talked about young people on the TV show Reservation Dogs, about Native teens in Oklahoma. It also helped recognize co-director Taika Waititi for directing and starring in Marvel movies,” Epplett said. He added that many students were also connected to Tracey Deer’s 2021 film Beans. The film follows a Mohawk girl during the 1990 Oka Crisis in Quebec. “We barely know about the Oka Crisis, but everyone was 12 or 13, had a first crush, and tried to rebel against their parents by staying out late or hanging out with the ‘bad kids'” , did he declare. “These are the things that the main character experiences, in the context of a violent land confrontation between the natives and the Canadian army.”
The course also explores Native Americans making music, such as The Halluci-Nation, John Trudell, Tanya Tagaq, DJ Shub, and Snotty Nose Rez Kids; producing social media, such as comedian Tonia Jo Hall’s “Auntie Beachress” character and The 1491s; and the creation of visual arts, such as Cannupa Hanska Luger, Kent Monkman and Wendy Red Star.
Exposure to native culture is even more vital in places like Illinois, Epplett noted. “It’s especially important in a state like Illinois to show that Native people are alive and present,” he said. “Illinois, Indiana and Ohio were cleared of Native Americans in the 19th century. There are no reservations or native communities here like there are in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Chicago’s urban Native community was created by the Relocation Act of 1956, moving Indians from the reservation to the city, hoping that we would assimilate. In Illinois, for example, Native Americans are particularly invisible, outside of sports mascots and place names.
Although Epplett said his original intention was to try to avoid the “sad Indian narrative”, he quickly realized that celebrating artists and art meant walking with all the stories. “I don’t teach the class from the perspective of history or trauma. It’s about the art that native people are doing now,” he said. “Trauma, history, identity inevitably play into this, but the focus of the course is to appreciate the story, appreciate the film, and look at the artwork aesthetically.”
“Art and artists bring another dimension to understanding,” Epplett said. “You can read all the anthropology, history and political theory, but I think some things have to be felt to be understood. Art does that. It instills empathy and understanding.