I've become involved in a local production called Bottineau Jig that seeks to explore issues of multicultural and multiracial identity through telling the stories of historical characters that lived in this area in the era preceding statehood. Drawing extensively on music and dance (Metis, French-Candian, Dakota, Scottish, Haitian, Swedish, Yankee), the show seeks to not only tell the stories of people who are often forgotten about today, but also to open dialog about how we view multicultural and multiracial identities today.
Pierre Bottineau and his wife Genevieve were Metis - a culture of mixed-blood peoples, usually descending from a Native American (or First Nation) mother and European father. Historically the Metis were not only fur traders, but also served as translators and negotiators of treaties, and their culture, while far from homogeneous, incorporated aspects of many different traditions.
One of the stories I find especially intriguing is that of the Bongas. The Bongas descend from Pierre Bonga, freed from slavery in Haiti who entered into the fur trade in Canada and made his way to the area that became Minnesota, marrying an Ojibwa woman.
I play Henry Sibley. I admit to having some reluctance to the role, and not only because the acting and style of dancing are outside my experience. But when studying history I am least interested in the 'great white men'. I tend to be drawn to the stories of the ordinary people, the underdogs, the servants. Yet there is much I have learned delving even superficially into his story. Sibley comes into the area with privilege. He spends extensive time with the Dakota and Metis, and forms a relationship with Red Blanket Woman, with whom he has a daughter, but whom he does not marry or live. He showed a great deal of affection and respect for the Dakota, yet also led the force that hunted down and arrested the Dakota warriors after their uprising in 1862. He recommended executing many, many more than Lincoln ultimately authorized ('merely' 38), yet many, many fewer than the dominant white culture and his political opponents demanded. Ultimately, he's not a bad metaphor for my own life - striving to better understand and respect cultures other than my own, making some good choices, and some bad, and too often restricted by my own inability to drop my own privileges, prejudices and fears to fight for the rights of others.
The show is at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis, Fri. and Sat., April 1-2. For more information see http://janepeck.com/bottineau-jig-untold-tales-of-early-minnesota