Newcomb: ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’
By Steven Newcomb
Story Published: Jul 6, 2010
While in New York recently for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, I was invited by an American Indian friend to see the off-Broadway production “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” at the Public Theatre. Written by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, and directed by Timbers, the play is being described as “an irreverent Wild West rock musical” that “redefines America’s seventh president, a pioneer of humble stock who invented the Democratic Party, moved Indians west, and played a kick-ass guitar.” The reviews have been quite positive and the play ran through the end of June.
>From an American Indian perspective, however, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is a racist and dehumanizing portrayal of American Indians. It is an effort to be humorous by using and reinforcing the worst stereotypes of American Indians, and working them to great effect and laughter among the non-Indian audience. It does so by evoking the false images of Indian people that continue to permeate the mass culture of American society.
At the outset, the play portrays Jackson as a child, witnessing and experiencing his parents being killed by Indians (shot in the back with arrows). Thus, Jackson is immediately cast as a sympathetic figure in the eyes of the audience, while the Indians are framed as cold-blooded killers.
Historically, however, Jackson’s father, Andrew Jackson Sr., injured himself while lifting a log and died in 1767, at the age of 29, a month before Jackson was born. His mother also was not killed by Indians; she died of cholera while tending to wounded soldiers in the Revolutionary War. Clearly, historical accuracy was the last thing on the mind of the writers.
“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is said to be an effort to greatly entertain while drawing parallels between Jackson’s era and what’s going on today, with issues of populism, banking, the Washington elite, taxation and terrorism. In keeping with the last analogy, however, this means that the ones being associated with the issues of “terrorists” and “terrorism” are the Indians on the “frontier” who were attempting to defend their traditional lands and territories from American colonization. Jackson’s militaristic and bloody actions were his means of attempting to grow “the homeland” of the United States.
The play makes no effort to accurately contextualize what Indian nations and peoples were facing during Jackson’s era, and the script refers repeatedly to Jackson wanting to get the land “back” from the Indians. As if the Indians had taken it away from the whites to begin with, and Jackson was trying to win it back.
In another effort to be funny, the writers have “Indian” warriors (white cast members) dancing across the stage in drag, to illustrate what exactly is never made clear. Andrew Jackson captures an Indian infant as “a souvenir” of battle, and takes the child home to his wife Rachel. Later the boy comes on stage dressed in the ridiculous stereotypical attire that non-Indians associate with Indian people, and in another effort at humor Jackson mildly reprimands the child for a pastime of “scalping squirrels,” which would not meet with Rachel’s approval.
The play dehumanizes the Indian characters by characterizing them as stupid, and willing to sell their lands for a few blankets so long as you throw in some “dream catchers.” Having white actors in black face would be the equivalent of what Timbers and Friedman have done to American Indians in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”
The “Battle of Horseshoe Bend” involved the slaughter of nearly 1,000 Creek Indians, most of whom had almost no weapons, other than bows and arrows. Rather than deal with this, however, the section of the play that references Horseshoe Bend simply portrays Indians as lacking in intelligence in treaty making. The play also portrays Jackson as anguished over his Indian Removal Policy, which resulted in the Trail of Tears and the deaths of thousands of Cherokee Indians. History clearly shows that Jackson was unequivocal and unwavering in his support of Indian removal to lands west of the Mississippi River.
There’s simply no getting away from the fact that the backdrop of the play is Indian lands, territories and resources, and how effective Jackson was at acquiring them for the United States by any means necessary. And perhaps this was part of the subtext that the writer and director had in mind. If it was, the point is buried beneath the confusion created by the clumsy and dehumanizing use of Indian stereotypes in the play in a bid for cheap laughs.
Steven Newcomb, who is Shawnee and Lenape, is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery,” (Fulcrum, 2008) and a columnist with Indian Country Today.