History of Restoration coming alive in show

Ryan Winn

What is sometimes lost in the story of Menominee Restoration is that many people acted because it was asked of them. Ada Deer, Sylvia Wilber, Shirley Daly, and countless others became involved with the movement to restore their tribe’s federal trust status because their parents and community asked them to do so. The leaders of DRUMS, which stands for Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Stockholders, put their Creator-given talents to work.

It was a reoccurring theme I encountered when researching for a script that the College of Menominee Nation was producing. A version of that story is being staged as dinner theater at the Menominee Casino Resort on Dec. 17, and the public is invited to witness the celebration.

The Menominee Tribal Legislature joins CMN in supporting the Menominee Pageant Players’ Guild’s performance of “50 Years of Restoration — Dinner and a Play,” which is an original script commissioned for that evening. It will mark the first time the guild has performed a show that was not connected to the annual contest powwow, and it came at the request of tribal legislator Myrna Warrington.

Warrington is the unsung catalyst behind CMN’s theater program’s success, having suggested many of the college’s most fruitful endeavors. She not only urged the college to create a theater production course more than a decade ago, but she also introduced community member Gerald Sanapaw to the theater department.

In that meeting, Sanapaw, a gifted dancer in his youth, expressed his vision of the Menominee Pageants revival after a nearly 40-year absence, thereby inspiring the revival that continues to this day. Further, it was Warrington who suggested that CMN create what became a reader’s theater production of the restoration story in 2018, and now she again acknowledged the power of Menominee theater to convey their story.

In her request, Warrington wrote, “I’m on the committee to plan activities for the 50th restoration celebration and it would be everyone’s dream to have dinner and a shortened version of the termination-restoration play.”

The Pageant Players accepted the request, CMN and the legislature lent their support, and the result is a 45-minute show that includes split-stage storytelling with narrators and reenactments, archival images shared on a drop screen, and a live drum group to begin and conclude the festivities.

What cannot be overlooked is that the theater producers are sharing this story to honor the Menominee people in a way that reflects their values. The DRUMS branch in Keshena emerged from a meeting in Milwaukee, as the federal relocation policy had lured some Menominee out of their homeland with promises of good-paying jobs and urban opportunities. Lloyd Powless and his Chicago counterpart, James White, were part of the movement to restore the tribe’s federal trust status, and their invitation to Menominee people living on their ancestral lands helped spark the restoration movement.

The many leaders of DRUMS, both in the community and in the cities, rallied their fellow Menominee to their cause. They asked for people to join in peaceably assembling, petitioning elected leaders, voting in tribal elections, and marching to Madison to get the governor’s attention. Menominee people answered the call and helped convince Gov. Patrick Lucey to visit their community and join their cause.

The leaders asked the Native American Rights Fund and Sen. Ted Kennedy to join them in supporting their restoration legislation. They spoke before a House Subcommittee on Indian Affairs and made their case asking for termination to be overturned.

They even appealed to President Richard Nixon, who not only signed the Menominee Restoration into law, but also stated, “By restoring the Menominee Indian Tribe to Federal trust status, the United States has at last made a clear reversal of a policy which was wrong, the policy of forcibly terminating Indian tribal status. I especially salute the Menominee people and DRUMS leaders for their persuasiveness and perseverance in using the tools of the political process to bring about peaceful change.”

Of course, persuasiveness and perseverance are hallmarks of the Menominee people, who carried out what was asked of them to support their ancestral values. They used diplomacy in the 1850s to remain on a portion of their original homelands, convinced Wisconsin Sen. Robert M. La Follette to support legislation creating the Menominee Mill in 1908, and won countless other victories opposing mines, supporting language revitalization, and championing tribal education.

A condensed version of recent Menominee history will be reenacted at the Menominee Casino Resort on Dec. 17 at 5 p.m. Tickets for the dinner and show cost $20, and you can call 715-851-0607 to purchase them. Come join us in honoring the story of the heroes of Menominee Restoration.

Ryan Winn teaches courses in communication, English, history, and theater at College of Menominee Nation. For more information about the school, visit www.menominee.edu.