The Legend of Spirit Rock and The Raccoon and the Blind Men

A theater review by Larry P. Madden

legeng rock poster

Once again the mid-summer has brought about pageant time for the Menominee Nation. This year’s dual production of The Legend of Spirit Rock and The Raccoon and the Blind Men made for a truly enjoyable night. This was also the second annual revival of the shows that originally ran from 1937 until 1971, and the mixture of recorded dialogue, pantomime, and live music and dancing made for another night that didn’t disappoint.

Under the direction of Mr. Ryan Winn and sponsored by the Wisconsin Arts Board, College of Menominee Nation, and, of course, the Menominee Nation proper, the Menominee Pageant will hopefully continue to honor the past and build into the future. Speaking of the past, the current production’s first run was in 1948 under the direction of the script’s author, Joe Keshena. It would run again in 1960 and 1966 with James G. Frechette’s adaptations to the script.

The storytelling ran the gamut of hardship to humor. The first show told of the responsibilities and tolls paid by the Menominee peoples, and the second showcased the tradition of using humor in an Indian way — exploiting, enjoying, and ending in sage advice from the Raccoon to end the parable. Surely the stories and their history could well be the complete tale told, but for the community involvement of actors, dancers, drummers, and singers coming together make it a truly Menominee effort.

Master of Ceremonies duties were performed by theatrical veteran of both radio and stage, Richie Plass. The Welcome included the Menominee version of the Snake Dance, led by veteran dancers, Darrel Delabreau and Jamie Awonohopay. Drum and singing was by the “Battling Bucks” and led Saptise Webster, whose expertise, along with the talent of his drum mates, showed in every song. After the pageant, I asked him how it felt to work on this production. Mr. Webster replied, “From the minute they asked we were all in . . . to be able to make music and history doesn’t happen often. When it’s in your own community . . . Hell yes, we are in all the way.”

A special dedication moment was held to honor the memory of Petronell Keshena Martin (2-3-1931 to 3-21-2017) whose talents as a speaker won her the Wisconsin Individual Forensic Championship not once but twice. Her advice on past pageants was invaluable to the resurrection of the art form. Through the magic of modern technology, her recordings of the past were digitized so her style and powerful rhetoric could be enjoyed once again. “The Spirit of the Menominees,” played by Joyce Wayka, was voiced-over with Petronell Martin’s original recording. “Pet,” as she was known to friends and family, once again commanded the stage through Joyce Wayka’s performance.

Representing the questions of the Menominee, Ms. Shannon Wilber, Ms. Karen Hoffman, and veteran thespian Mr. Lloyd Frieson filled the roles nicely. With many of the participants being grandsons, great and great-great-grandsons of James G. Frechette, the family pride was evident in masterful performances of Menominee life. Narrations by Richie Plass and Mr. Bruce Wilber Jr., pageant veteran and grandson of James G. Frechette, led the audience on a historic stroll through Menominee lore.

Returning from intermission, The Raccoon and the Blind Men, offered an excellent change of pace. The humorous old tale was acted out by Pershing Kaquatosh as the boy and Bradley Watson as the raccoon, with the two old men being played by Bruce Wilber Jr. and Mr. Bryan Wilber, with narration by the storyteller Ms. Shannon Wilber. This tale was followed by a fine victory song from the “Battling Bucks.”

Scene six of seven was a return to The Legend of Spirit Rock, where Richie Plass and Wilber set the story line. Darrel Delabreau, back from his vision quest, found his answer at the Spirit Rock and brought his findings back to the people. All the while, Nathaniel Madsen and his son, Jordan, under the direction of Winn, provided artful and magical lighting. With Plass and Wilber leading the way, Frieson tidily wrapped up the loose ends and celebrated the Spirit Rock’s existence and relevance to the future. The “Battling Bucks” intertribal song — with a call for the audience to join in — was a fine touch. Plass attended to the curtain call with a special appearance of the advisor to the directors, Mrs. Grace “Bea” Wilber. She in turn called out the director’s wife, Lindsey Winn, for a special gift, in recognition for sacrificing her family life for the pageants.

Wilber Jr. handled the closing narration and called the audience to join in on the traveling song. The technical aspects of the pageant are not to be ignored. Ms. Sabrina Hemken’s abilities to piece, patch, and deliver the sound were amazing. WAEWAENAN KETANAEN — a very special thank you to world famous artist Wade Fernandez who provided one-of-a-kind musical accompaniment, and to Jerilynn Johnson who welcomed me and my friend Jessika McCoy with a smile and a program — a delightful start to the evening.

Behind the scenes, literally, were stage director Mike Hoffman and assistant director Melissa Cook, who handled duties from small children to a horse with success. She shared, “I was most gratified to see it all come together, especially the child actors.” Hoffman stated that he found his role satisfying, an extension of his teaching career, “to expose people to new experiences is to create your next participant . . . whether it’s trapping, trout fishing, hunting, or acting . . . to mentor is how I like to lead my life.”

Wilber Jr. reiterated that the buildup and anticipation of the show really excites him but, “Once it’s over it leaves me wanting more.” The same could be said of his audience—we’re all looking forward to the show they’ll produce next year.

Larry P. Madden (Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Wisconsin) was born and raised in the Sturgeon Bay area. A recent graduate of CMN, he enjoys the Powwow trail and strives to maintain balance on the red road.