Melissa Minkin is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. She writes about youth, education and the arts.
The Identity Dance: Actress Michelle St. John Used Personal Experiences as a Jewish Indian for Her Latest Role
This article is reprinted with permission of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 18--Four years ago, Sherman Alexie's film, Smoke Signals, became the first movie written, produced and acted by American Indians. Today, Alexie's new film, The Business of Fancydancing, might be the first to feature a character who is both Indian and Jewish.
Written and directed by Alexie, the film explores the complexity--even the messiness--of personal identity. The film centers on the fictional Seymour Polatkin, a gay Indian poet who seems to turn his back on his reservation in exchange for artistic success. He moves to Seattle and partners with a Caucasian man, but his poetry remains focused on reservation life. Returning to the reservation for the funeral of his friend, Mouse, Seymour tries to determine where he belongs.
No less complex is the personal identity of Agnes Roth, Seymour's former lover and the daughter of a second-generation Russian Jew and a Spokane Indian. An early scene is a collision of cultures as Agnes prepares Mouse's body for his wake. As Native drumming and chanting resonate in the background, Agnes wraps Mouse in Native-design blankets, lights some sage, pauses, then opens a prayer book and recites Kaddish (prayer extolling God that is said by Jewish mourners). Cut from the film were the more in-depth sequences interplaying images from the Holocaust and Native genocides.
Alexie wrote the part specifically for actress/vocalist Michelle St. John, who, like her character, is the daughter of a white Jew and Christian Indian. "I would never call myself Native American," said St. John, who rejects the term not only because she grew up in Canada, but because indigenous people "are members of our sovereign nations." Instead, she uses the terms "Indian," "Indigenous," or "Native." "Sherman asked me if I could think of something that would tie in the Jewish Indian thing. I thought, it's a funeral, how about Kaddish?" St. John said. "[My character has] chosen to move back to [the reservation] and assert her identity as a Native woman, but in that time of grief, what does she turn to? The Jewish thing."
The scene is based on St. John's memories of her grandfather's funeral--where Jewish mourning rituals bumped up against Indigenous ones. "On the Indian side, you start cooking, because people are coming over. On the Jewish side, I was told I can't come into the kitchen; I couldn't touch anything," St. John said. "How do I grieve if I can't cook? Kaddish became important."
As an adolescent, St. John was aware that she was both Indigenous and Jewish, and that neither side of her heritage fit into her Canadian suburb. "Word had spread that this brown guy and Jewish girl moved in with a little brown kid," she said. "We were the freaks of every neighborhood we moved into." During her 20s, St. John began to explore her Jewish roots, primarily through a friendship with a young Orthodox woman. But it was prejudice and racism that catalyzed St. John's Indian identity. "The world was not going to perceive me as a nice Jewish girl from New York," St. John said. "I came out brown, and that's what people see first... I'm a Native woman--I've never been mistaken for Marla Lieberman."
Today, St. John is examining her Indigenous and Jewish identities through a stage play called "The Scrubbing Project." Written by St. John and two other Native women (one of whom is also Jewish), the play will premiere at Chutzpah Jewish Play Festival in Vancouver in March 2003.
"We all have scrubbing stories--twisted aspects of being a [mixed-blood] kid," she said, recalling how she tried to scrub off her freckles because full-blooded Indians don't have them. Another actor remembers pouring bleach into her bath water, attempting to look more like her White mother.
"No matter what parents give you to balance [yourself] in the world, a child can still look in the mirror, and say it's safer to be White."
Still, St. John says it's sad how often her mixed identity confuses people. "I get tired of doling out the pedigree when I'm asked what I am," St. John said. "I'm me.''
The Business of Fancydancing (http://www.fallsapart.com/fancydancing/) is in theatrical release throughout the country. For information about The Scrubbing Project, see www.turtlegals.com.