A scene from 2007 debut run of the opera 'Pocahontas: A Woman of Two Worlds.' That production, staged in Virginia to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, was uncontroversial; such has not been the case with the current one in Duluth, Minnesota.

Amid Protests Over Casting, 'Pocahontas' Opera Opens in Duluth


A Minnesota production of the opera "Pocahontas: A Woman of Two Worlds" sparked controversy when it was revealed that no Native talent had been cast in a principal role.

Lyz Jaakola, an operatic mezzo soprano and member of the Fond du Lac band of Chippewa Indians, came out against the production in an interview with the Duluth News Tribune. "To me, seeing any non-Native Pocahontas ... non-native Pocahontas' mother, any extras in buckskin would be enough for me to cringe," she said. "Poor Pocahontas has been dragged around enough."

Duluth Festival Opera director Craig Fields countered that few Indians auditioned for the opera, and that his casting process was "blind"—meaning that he did not ask those trying out whether they were of Native heritage. "My personal feeling is that the work succeeds on its own merits, whether it is performed by a Native American or not," Fields said. A number of Fond du Lac performers were in the cast, but played secondary roles as singers and dancers.

Jaakola felt that Fields didn't try hard enough to attract Native talent, and added that "If I were casting an Indian opera and I couldn't find 'enough Indians' to help me, I simply wouldn't do it. ... But that's my cultural paradigm." During the very early planning stages, Jaakola had been involved with the production, specifically to find Native talent to perform. However, due to clashes with fields and a suspicion that the project would never get funding, she left the team.

The opera opened as scheduled on Thurdsay, September 21, and was performed in the auditorium of Marshall School. Outside, Jaakola and members of the American Indian Movement sang songs, played pow-wow music, and carried signs with slogans like "Stole our land—now our culture."

"The people who know the truth of Pocahontas are Pocahontas' people, and they are the ones who would tell her story.. and they are the ones that should tell her story," Jaakola told a reporter from WDIO TV on the scene. "There are times when when we are not represented appropriately in the media and moves and songs and it needs to stop. It's 2011 and this kind of activity can't continue." As an alternative to the Pocahontas performance, Jaakola organized a "Native American Music Showcase" at a nearby church.

The opera was written to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the colony of Jamestown, in Virginia, in 2007. Neither composer Linda Tutas Haugen nor librettist Joan Vail Thorne are American Indian, but they did do extensive research on the subject that included meetings with Indians. For Clyde Bellecourt, co-founder of the Minneapolis-based American Indian Movement, that's not good enough. "It’s not an Indian people story," he told the Duluth News Tribune. "It’s [white people’s] story about our story. We don’t appreciate that.”

Despite the controversy, a reviewer from the same paper gave the opening night performance a rave review. "This opera is one of the most riveting 100 minutes I have ever attended," wrote Samuel Black.  He concluded with the observation that Pocahontas is "a thought-provoking blend of the tensions of the Jamestown encounter. We cannot change any of what happened there, but it is good to listen to beautiful music, and attempt to understand the complexity of human lives caught in transition."

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ljaakola's picture
Submitted by ljaakola on
I just want to respond to a couple of things here. The Natives "in" the opera were not "IN" the opera but Drum song & dance was inserted between scenes, in token fashion, to somehow justify their lack of Natives actually IN the opera. I have no problem with those guys - they undoubtedly were the best thing about the show. 2nd, I didn't walk away because I suspected it wouldn't get funded. I expected the state arts board wouldn't fund it, even hoped they wouldn't fund it. I thought they would see it for what it was - a feeble attempt to connect to what the opera company thought was a "sure bet" to get Minnesota's heritage & culture funds. However, I was unaware that the arts board read a proposal that stated that I was a co-director. I never agreed to co-direct. That was a lie. But the state arts board thought I was involved and granted them $100,000 to do the show. I had already walked away because of some other sneaky things the artistic director had done. To point out how out-of-touch that director was, he tried to write what he thought was my Indian name... he wrote "Lyz Jaakola (Indian Name: Miigwech)" If anyone who knew ANYthing read that they should have known I didn't see that proposal. Same old story. Gave them an inch and they took a mile. They are performing Pocahontas Sept 30 (Grand Rapids) & Oct 1 (Burnsville). I hope the Natives who are tired of others taking advantage of our stories and lying about our consent to access grant money go and tell Duluth Festival Opera that we don't appreciate this kind of appropriation. Miigwech bizindaawiyeg