The Oregon Trail
The play, "Home Again"
Oregon City, Oregon is the end point of the Oregon Trail. To commemorate that
there is an interpretive center in the shape of three enormous Conestoga wagons
which each house a different part of the pioneer experience. Visitors to the
interpretive center can experience the many stages of preparing for, and
traveling along the Oregon Trail.
However, to the native population, the Conestoga wagons are a symbol of death
and destruction. In fact, in Oregon City, a group of Native-Americans were put
on trial for the killing of a missionary, Marcus Whitman, and each was sentenced
to death and hung. Many native people still believe that their bodies are buried
beneath the wagons that thousands visit each year as a tribute to the pioneering
spirit of the early white settlers.
I was commissioned to write the play by a non-profit group who were largely
descendants of the Oregon pioneers. For years, they had told their story on
stage at a theater they created on the grounds of the interpretive center.
However, because the story of the pioneers' victory of spirit was also the story
of the defeat of the native people who were already settled in the area, the
earlier productions had sometimes met with protests from various tribes. I was
brought to Oregon City in an attempt to create a play that was mutually
sympathetic to both the native people and to the descendants of the pioneers.
This seemed to be a remarkably impossible undertaking, like somehow trying to
find a mutually sympathetic telling of World War Two story from the perspective
of both the Nazis and the Jews. Yet, I thought I found a way to do this in the
integration of the story of Dr. Marcus Whitman, the missionary who was killed by
the Cayuse Indians.
Whitman was a well-intentioned physician and missionary from upstate New York
who could foresee the eventual clash of cultures that was about to take place,
and who tried desperately to teach the Indians the way of the white man. His
lessons included farming and land ownership, concepts previously unknown to the
hunter-gatherer tribe. As the Cayuse became deathly ill with the measles brought
to them by the white man, Whitman attempted to cure their sick. Of course, this
was a futile effort and the tribe was decimated by the disease. Unfortunately
for Dr. Whitman, the Cayuse believed that if a medicine man tends to the sick
and the sick die anyway, it is because he possesses a bad spirit and he must be
killed himself in order for the dying to stop.
This is a rare moment in American history when both sides were right: The Cayuse
did what they had to do according to their beliefs and Dr. Whitman was correct
in what he was trying to do and he did not deserve to die. The laws of Dr.
Whitman's society were right in executing justice for his killers and yet the
Cayuse should not have been killed for simply following their traditions. I felt
that using this story as a base and extending the perspectives in both
directions could provide me with the mutually sympathetic perspective necessary
to make this play work.
The idea was to create two script development committees, one comprised of
descendants of pioneers, and another of native people. Because the tribe most
affected by this story was the Cayuse from the Western part of the state, we
wanted some of its members to be on the Native-American committee. My initial
attempts to solicit their support were somewhat less than successful. I was told
that not only were they not going to help me in my efforts, but also if I was
successful in completing the play, they might take it upon themselves to burn
down our sets.
From this less than favorable start began a very long process, which
remarkably enough led to the performance in the play of Native American actors
on the very site they had protested against. If nothing else, the process of
creating the show realized the goals of the production.
Unfortunately, the process was more successful in doing so than the play
itself. Part of the problem was that we never got the script and the production
in the sort of shape it needed to be in, and part of the problem was that the
goal of the show might have been slightly ahead of its time. There is a still
tension between these two communities and certainly there is tension over the
telling of their stories.
I still think this is one of the most compelling and important stories I have
ever come upon. Part of the problem, too, may have been that the context in
which it was presented -a family-oriented outdoor drama -was not the ideal
setting for this story. Whenever I have the time, I am determined to revisit
this effort and find the proper genre for the telling of this remarkable story.