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Squatters on Red Earth
My interview with the legendary playwright (and much, much more) Mary Swander
From the Press Release:
Squatters on Red Earth is a play written by Mary Swander under the guidance of members of the Meskwaki Settlement…The drama explores the issue of the white settler land grab from the Native Americans. The core story revolves around a peaceful encounter between the Meskwakis and the Inspirationists, a German Utopian group, all the while the colonialists were forcing the Natives from their land.
I don’t even know where to start when writing about Mary Swander. She is an Iowa international literary star whose work is honest and authentic, and her Irish roots are grounded deep in Iowa topsoil. Her work often transcends race, gender, generation, and culture. From her website:
Mary Swander is an award-winning writer of drama, poetry, and nonfiction with a national and international reputation. She has published books with major New York publishing houses as well as university presses. She has won grants and awards from such places as The National Endowment for the Arts, the Whiting Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her latest book is The Maverick M.D., a biography of Dr. NIcholas Gonzalez.
The Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame recognized Mary Swander recently by naming her as one of the four honorees for 2022.
Mary is a member of the Iowa Writers Collaborative. Read Mary Swander’s Buggy Land and Swander’s Emerging Voices. She founded Blazing Star Literary Journal and recently began a podcast, AgArts in Horse and Buggy Land.
Mary Swander is the Artistic Director of Swander Woman Productions, a theatre troupe that performs dramas about food, farming, and the wider rural environment. She is also the Executive Director of AgArts, a nonprofit designed to imagine and promote healthy food systems through the arts.
Swander’s productions include Map of My Kingdom, Vang, Farm-to-Fork Tales, and Squatters on Red Earth.
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I interviewed Mary last week about “Squatters on Red Earth.” We talked about how she came to do it, the process of how to take historical events and then build characters, dialogue, a story arc, and more. She made clear that the production was made possible only through the work of her collaborators:
This drama is enacted through the use of a crankie, a medieval puppetry device designed and built by Shelley Buffalo (Meskwaki Settlement.). Shadow puppets were made by Monica Leo of Eulenspiegel Puppets (West Liberty, IA) The music was composed and is performed by Laura Hudson Kitrell (Coralville, IA), costumes designed and made by Michele Payne Hinz (Cedar Rapids, IA). Brant Bollman from William Penn University (Oskaloosa, IA) directs. Rip Russell (Iowa City, IA) stars in the show with members of the Meskwaki Settlement School Youth Theatre Group.
Mary and her collaborators would love for this play to be performed at schools throughout Iowa. Unfortunately, Republican legislators in Iowa and elsewhere have decided to suppress any historical representations, books and other materials that don’t fit their incomplete, inaccurate and ultimately destructive white supremacist historical narrative. It’s hard for me to believe that important historical works like this that were once viewed as praiseworthy are now acts of resistance. Mary and I talk about this.
But more power to Mary and her friends. I can’t wait to see the play. Here is the interview.
Below is the press release, and below that, find links to our colleagues in the Iowa Writers Collaborative.
Swander Woman Productions Presents Award-Winning Author’s Play, Squatters on Red Earth
(May 15, 2023, Kalona, Iowa.) Swander Woman Productions will present three opening performances of Mary Swander’s new play Squatters on Red Earth:
June 9, 8:00 P.M., Amana Performing Arts Center, Amana, IA. (39 38th Ave., Amana, IA. 52203.)
June 10, 2:00 and 7:00 P.M. Wieting Theatre, Toledo, IA. (134 S. Church, Toledo, IA. 52342.)
The play is produced by Swander Woman Productions, a theatre company that creates and tours dramatic performances based on food, farming, and the wider rural environment.
Squatters on Red Earth, is a play written by Mary Swander under the guidance of members of the Meskwaki Settlement, and supported by grants from Anon Was a Woman Environmental Art Fund (The New York Foundation for the Arts) and The Iowa Historical Society, Inc. The drama explores the issue of the white settler land grab from the Native Americans. The core story revolves around a peaceful encounter between the Meskwakis and the Inspirationists, a German Utopian group, all the while the colonialists were forcing the Natives from their land.
By 1855, the Inspirationists had settled the Amana Colonies on what had been Meskwaki land. The Meskwakis, forced to move to a reservation in Kansas, longed to return to Iowa. The state agreed to the purchase, and the Inspirationists helped the Meskwakis buy back some of their own land. Once resettled, the Meskwakis canoed down the Iowa River to trade with the Inspirationists in their communal kitchens. The two groups, both grounded in their own spiritual traditions and a desire to be removed from the outside world, co-existed peacefully together. They exchanged languages, enjoyed trading food, beadwork and blankets. Every year the Meskwakis returned to harvest the lotuses, or water potatoes, that they had planted years before in a wetland that eventually became The Lily Lake.
Meanwhile, more and more white settlers poured into the Midwest and West, in fulfillment of American “Manifest Destiny.” Treaties, Indian Removal Acts, and outright genocide wiped out more and more Indigenous lands and lives. The U.S. government forced the Natives into smaller and smaller sections of land, mandating that they plow up the soil, and “root or die.” Yet, all the while, the Natives had a very sophisticated system of agriculture in place. For thousands of years, they had preserved the integrity of their own prairie ecology. They employed fire, grazing, no-till agriculture, organic pest management, companion planting, and food preservation.
Squatters on Red Earth will resonate with those who have desired a more comprehensive history of the United States. What civilizations, ecological and agricultural systems were in place before the white settlers arrived? And how do they compare to our present systems? What forces pushed the settlers from their European homelands, and in turn, pushed the Indigenous people off of their land? How did the concept of private property evolve? How did two communal groups hidden in the middle of Iowa become an example of peace and cooperation for the rest of the country?
This drama is enacted through the use of a crankie, a medieval puppetry device, designed and built by Shelley Buffalo (Meskwaki Settlement.) Shadow puppets were made by Monica Leo of Eulenspiegel Puppets (West Liberty, IA) The music was composed and is performed by Laura Hudson Kitrell (Coralville, IA), costumes designed and made by Michele Payne Hinz (Cedar Rapids, IA). Brant Bollman from William Penn University (Oskaloosa, IA) directs. Rip Russell (Iowa City, IA) stars in the show with members of the Meskwaki Settlement School Youth Theatre Group.
This performance is free and open to the public. Tickets–first come, first serve–at the door. Or, to reserve free tickets, put “Tickets” in the subject line and email email@example.com.
The play runs for one hour with a talk-back discussion following the performance.
For more information, please contact:
SWP Touring Director
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