An Open Letter About “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” in Minneapolis


 rhiana yazzie 2.jpgDoes

Minnesota know itself well enough to responsibly produce a show like

“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson?” The title makes the play sound

like a fun, maybe even gory, critique of our seventh president, about

whom most Americans have heard contradictory ideas. Whether or not

we’ve investigated the subject, it sounds like attending this play

will likely cast a clearer light on a shadowy part of American

history, one that might include a critique of the spectacular

violence waged from 1829-1837 by the slave-holding president dubbed

Old Hickory.

Maybe the

play will take Andrew Jackson’s campaign of ethnic cleansing head on?

Maybe it will acknowledge the thousands of Native Americans he

killed. As a Native American, a playwright, a musical theater fan and

artistic director of New Native Theatre, I say right on. What a

wonderful opportunity and contribution to American theatre to see a

play responsibly take up these important issues, issues that have

determined Native American inclusion and access. We need as many

advocates in the media as we can get.

But that’s

not what happens, instead this script, written by J. Michael Friedman

and Alex Timbers reinforces stereotypes and leaves me assaulted,

manipulated and devastatingly used as a means to a weak and

codependent end.

On June 6,

2014, Minneapolis Musical Theatre opens “Bloody Bloody Andrew

Jackson,” a co-production with the Hennepin Theatre Trust. It’s

taken four years for any company in the Twin Cities to approach this

offensive play since it debuted in New York in 2010.

Could it

be because in Minnesota we have a relationship with Native Americans

and their experience collectively embraced? Could it be that we know

our history, the legacy of the vicious founding of this state and its

violent dealings with Native Americans? Could it also be because

Minneapolis is home to the founding of the American Indian Movement?

Could it be for these reasons we can see that the play is an exercise

in racial slurs against Native Americans justified with a thin

coating of white shaming? Why would we together be bothered with it


But soon

it will be performed and the character Andrew Jackson written by Alex

Timbers and J. Michael Freedman will spew unchallenged racial

epithets five times a week on soil that is still yet recovering from

our own troubled history. Soil where blood has been spilled and land

has been taken and people have been shoved aside. There is nothing

about this history that is "all sexy pants," to quote the

marketing machine that accompanied this show.

The truth

is that Andrew Jackson was not a rock star and his campaign against

tribal people – known so briefly in American history textbooks as

the Indian Removal Act is not a farcical backdrop to some emotive,

brooding celebrity. Can you imagine a show wherein Hitler was

portrayed as a justified, sexy rock star? This play exacerbates the

already deficient knowledge our country has when it comes to Native

history; in that context, a false story about this country and our

engagement with Native American people is unforgivable.

I saw this

play when it debuted at the Public Theater in New York in 2010 and

was invited to speak with the authors among a group of other Native

American artists to openly discuss the play’s inaccurate history and

depiction of Native Americans. It was dubbed as an Emo rock musical

paralleling George W. Bush’s rise to power and the following Tea

Party movement.


Minneapolis Musical Theatre producer and director, Steven Meerdink

says, "this show really falls short on is its lack of

transparency of the fact that it does not try to accurately present

historical events and figures. The authors deliberately skew,

distort, satirize, blur, and condense roughly 60 years of history

into a 90 minute play. There are things presented in the play that

never actually occurred, and many other things presented that may

have occurred – but with dates, circumstances, or relevant people

changed." Meerdink says this will appear in a program note.

The most

common defense of the play is that it’s a South Park kind of

aesthetic, therefore it’s an equal opportunity defacer. Meerdink

echoes what I’ve heard the authors and original producers say in

person and in print, "There are ugly things said about many

groups of people in the show – the British, the Spanish, Native

Americans and European Americans." But Sesame Street has me

thinking, one of these things is not like the other.

The first

time the British are depicted, they are flogging Jackson. But in that

scene Jackson never once makes a racially based insult. When the

Spanish are introduced, again, not one racial remark made to insult

them. Instead they are simply and accurately called Spaniards.

But in the

introduction to this roundhouse fight with them, Jackson begins a

joke, "Tell me what’s the difference between a little homosexual

Indian boy and George Washington? Besides the fact you’d murder

either of them without thinking twice?" This joke goes

unchallenged except for the Spaniards calling back, "You are the



authors may have thought this was a joke, perhaps even the producers

and the majority of the audience in New York when it premiered did

too. But in Minnesota, it’s not funny at all. Maybe in the world Alex

Timbers and J. Michael Freedman live in, Indians are not targets of

racial violence today. Maybe the murder rate of Native Americans in

their world isn’t astronomical.

Maybe in

their world, gay Native Americans don’t have the highest suicide and

murder rate in the entire country. Then again, maybe they are right,

these unfortunate Indians are murdered without a second thought.

Maybe that’s the political comment they were hoping to make with this

scene and asking their audience to be aware of and call for a change?

It is

these moments of unchallenged cruelties raged against Native

Americans that leave me pained, even more so than the untrue history.

I want so badly to be on the same side as the authors, I know they

want to prove Jackson was a troubled character in American history

with a terribly violent, unstable, genocidal mind.

Where is

the line? Where is the satire?

This isn’t

the only instance where stage directions give insight to the authors’

points of view. After Jackson’s parents are killed, "Three young

Indian boys enter and dance around … taunting [Jackson] all the

while and pretending to shoot arrows at him. They’re really fucking

annoying." Because this is the post Broadway publication, I

can’t help but wonder if there is an allusion to the protests the

authors got from real Native Americans; and if not, it certainly sets

up what is yet come out of Jackson’s mouth. You Indians have "No

artistic vision. You’re savages! You’re soulless, Godless and well

you get the point." The play finds any and all opportunities to

berate Indian characters Jackson encounters.


watching/reading the play means putting up with 85 minutes of racist

tirades before getting to the last five minutes of white guilt. Well,

thank goodness it’s a musical and I can at least enjoy tapping my

toes, at least up until Ten Little Indians. Children’s songs and

nursery rhymes like this have socialized generations of children to

believe that Native people were expendable and that there was no need

to empathize with them; it was also used to attack African Americans

and to envision a future that doesn’t include adult Native or African


During Ten

Little Indians, ridiculous, inane, powerless Indian characters are

coerced into or are gladly signing their lands away for smallpox

blankets and dream catchers – dream catchers? Any Minnesotan should

know that’s Ojibwe not Cherokee. Then after hearing nine ways in

which Indians are killed it’s reveal that the last death is a


Wow. How

does that land here in Minnesota? Our state holds the record for the

largest mass hanging in U.S. history when 38 Dakota men were executed

in Mankato.

As the

play nears its end, finally, Jackson doesn’t relent on his nauseating

remarks about Native people and their culture. To justify his

defiance of the Supreme Court ruling that removal of tribes from

their land was illegal and unconstitutional, Jackson implores a

Native character Black Fox, "I wish you’d built symphonies in

cities, man, and put on plays and showed yourselves a little more

essential. You know, to the culture? And yeah, you totally were here

first, absolutely, but we don’t give a shit, and we never will."

If the

authors had any understanding of contemporary Native American culture

or artists, would they have been so quick to make such debasing

statements about Native Americans. Because, let’s face it, these

comments are not about Indians in 1838, this is about their sense of

the absence and extinction of Native peoples right now. Perhaps this

says less about the authors themselves and more about the erasure of

Native history in this country. But as artists, who are political,

and intentionally incendiary in so much of the body of their work,

there’s no excuse for this ignorance and there’s no excuse for the

way this ignorance is suffused throughout this play.

There has

to be a better way to make a political point. The first step is to be

smarter about your subject matter. Learn about the culture you’re

trying to make a point about. Ask yourself, how are contemporary

people living with this historical legacy?

If you

don’t know what Native American artists are doing right now here in

our state, go to All My Relations Gallery in Minneapolis, see great

Native American fine art. There’s nothing primitive about it and

there never was. See shows at my company, New Native Theatre, we

could produce four original musicals with the budget “Bloody Bloody

Andrew Jackson” has, with work about, by, and for Native Americans

that honors our cultures, our traditions, and broadens our

understanding of American history.


dance by Emily Johnson and Rosy Simas. Listen to First Person Radio

on KFAI. Read The Circle News. Or, look just 300 miles north

to Thunder Bay where Northwest Ontario’s largest regional company,

Magnus Theatre has a mandate to produce at least one First Nations

play a year from Canada’s ever growing canon of thriving Aboriginal


I grew up

in New Mexico where Native American culture is very visible. Most of

the normal markers of New Mexican culture take directly from the

architecture, iconography, and Native artists of the tribes that have

continuously lived there for time immemorial. New Mexico is not

perfect in its relationship with tribes, but certainly the dominant

culture in New Mexico embraces it, identifies with it, and protects



should be proud that this state is where so many great contemporary

Native American leaders have lived and worked. Those living in

Minneapolis should be especially proud that only a few weeks ago

Columbus Day was changed to Indigenous Peoples Day following the

example of Red Wing which made the change a few months earlier.

Perhaps the entire State of Minnesota will come next. These are

things to be proud of and these are the ways we as Minnesotans can

turn our trajectory from the violent past that was the founding of

this state to a more equitable home for all.


Minnesota, its audiences and artists, at that point yet of supporting

Native Americans and defending their humanity in the way that

audience did when I was a kid?

I hope so.

I think it

was an unfortunate choice for Minneapolis Musical Theatre to produce

this play and I have no doubt they played into the same disconnect

the authors did, not considering the effect it could have on real

people or that Native Americans might actually be audience members.

However, my call to action lies more with the authors who will

continue to profit from productions of this play. Their royalties

should go to places that actively do the work of dealing with Andrew

Jackson’s legacy – like the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource

Center, Ain Dah Yung shelter for homeless Native youth, the Minnesota

Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition, or many of the other worthy

organizations directly serving Native people – and don’t engage in

the play’s same laissez-faire attitude of lightly encouraging

audiences members to question over cocktails whether or not Andrew

Jackson was an American Hitler while aggressively dehumanizing the

people Jackson tormented. Because, he was.