Dancing ‘round a tipi: research into the life and work of Reginald and Gladys Laubin

This text was originally a conference paper, presented at the American Studies Association conference in 2008. Since then I have been working on other publications, but am returning to this material (and my work on the appropriation of Aboriginal dance in Australia) for a larger book project looking at appropriation in dance across the US and Australia.

Dramatic splashes of red and black radiate out from his serious, dark eyes. The colour rolls down over his high cheekbones, disappearing into black hair, fastened in plaits that drape over a boned breast plate that rests on his powerful chest. A long black and white feather is tucked behind his right ear; it announces tribal rank and affiliation. His tort abdomen ripples above a leather breech-clout. A hunting knife hangs from a leather thong, resting on his muscular thigh. Bronzed hands move deftly through the sign language of the Sioux.

In his white-fringed buckskin, with red trimming, he squats by a fire next to his dark haired female companion. He signs the story of “The Battle of the Washita River”, a story of a Kiawa boy's encounter with General Custer. At the end he empties his smoking pipe onto the fire, which flares. Male and female chanting voices rise with the flames and the camera pulls away to reveal a row of T-pees in the snow.

This man is the image of serious concentration, smouldering power constrained by deeply held regard for nature. He is noble, savage, elemental; a man of the land. Some years earlier the same warrior had been captured in an ecstatic jump on a poster encouraging adventurous, post WWII Americans to ‘Go West’ for their holidays. He was a young man in his prime in feathers and fringe, with a dark tan, a painted face, long dark plaits, this time his 'ancestral breach-clout' exposed his fine legs, all the way to his waist. He was a portrait of honed, constrained but volatile masculinity and...he was a complete fake.

Reginald Laubin had made a career out of what what Rayna Green and Philip J. Deloria have each called “playing Indian”. With his wife Gladys, Reginald had ‘played’ Indian for prestige and (some) profit for almost 70 years.

Interviewed in 1946 for a radio program called Dance Horizons, Reginald was asked by Hazel Lockwood Muller (Supervisor of Lectures and Dance programs with The American Museum of Natural History) how he first became interested in “Indians”. Reginald replied:

I guess it all started when I was a bit of a boy. I asked my Dad for a cowboy suit, but my brother Al chose an Indian suit. When Dad brought the suit home, there was a nice bow and three arrows with the Indian suit [….W]hen I saw all the feathers and fringe and the bow and those arrows I didn’t want any more cowboy suit.”[i]

So the young Reginald, always handy with his hands, set about making his own Indian outfit.

I got feathers – white turkey feathers they were – from the Swift Packing Co. and painted their tips with Indian ink so that they would look like eagle feathers. Oh, I tell you, that feather bonnet was a beauty! And then I made my first drum from Mother’s wooden chopping bowl, covered with an old parchment diploma I found in the attic. It had belonged to a minister but now was an important part of my savagery. Soon after that, I learned my first dance steps from a couple of Indians who came to town with a motion picture show. That dancing thrilled me so that I made up my mind right then that I was going to be an Indian, and I’ve been one ever since.”[ii]

Reginald met Gladys at art school in Detroit. “He was always drawing and painting Indians,” said Gladys, “and after school he would practice shooting with his bow and arrow. I used to watch him shoot [….] one of his arrows must have belonged to Cupid.” Muller asked: “Did Reg use Indian music to help Cupid along Gladys?” “Yes” was the reply, “and the neat of the drums got into my blood I guess.”[iii]

Together Reg and Gladys felt they embodied “the true spirit of the old-time Indian.”[iv] Reginald was very proud of the fact that he liked living in a tipi. He had been making his own since the 1920s and wrote a book on the subject: The Indian Tipi: its history, construction and use (1957). “I have lived in a tipi at least a part of every year since I was ten years old, something that not even the oldest Indian today can boast”, said Reginald.[v] Gladys felt equally proud of her life choices too: “I was always interested in people who were downtrodden and misunderstood. When I was a little girl I wanted to be a missionary. Now the Indians tell us that we are missionaries from the red to the white race.”[vi]

As Walter Terry, a dance critic and fan of the couples work, told his readers in 1953, the Laubins had "broken ice on great North Western rivers for a winter swim”. They had “hunted with bow and arrow [and] passed sub-zero nights in a T-pee [sic]”. They had “learned an alien tongue” . They had ‘become’ Indians and they were, Terry confessed, “in the fortunate position of being objective about the very culture of which they are now part” (New York Herald Tribune, October). For this critic, and to the Laubins other supporters, they were much more and yet much less Indian than the Native American people they chose to emulate. They were, to quote Terry again, “more Indian than the Indian in dance authenticities” (New York World Journal Tribune, Feb, 1967), however, not being Indian at all, they were also spared from, what they themselves denoted as, the ‘artlessness’ of Native American peoples and the pollution that their contemporary state would visit on the proposed purity of their idealised history.

It really bothered the Laubins that American money was used to bring the dance of Asia, Russia and Europe to American audiences, and yet no one saw fit to finance the important work with which they were engaged. Even as early as the 1950s, although it would not become a real problem until the 1970s, the Laubins conceded that they would need to “move aside” when a younger generation of Native Americans were able to take up the challenge of knowing and presenting Native American dance for the world. But until then they (and their supporters) saw no problem with their appropriations, and they also felt that someone, somewhere should fund their work.[vii] Stated Reginald:

[I]it just seemed to Gladys and me that here, right at home, was an art too beautiful to be allowed to die. It was part of America. It belonged to us all. We decided to do something about it. Since the Indians had never regarded their dancing as art and few, if any of them, had caught the vision of it as such, we decided it was up to us to call it to the attention of the public. We decided it was time to take the Indian out of the third and fourth grade, out of the Wild West show, out of the mire of prejudice and misunderstanding. Nearly everyone said that what we wanted to do was impossible. No one could present authentic Indian dances to a civilised audience and have them well received. No one could assimilate the traits and characteristics of a foreign culture thoroughly enough to interpret it with authority.[viii]

They found their first academic support for this project with the anthropologist Dr Frank O. Speck from the University of Pennsylvania. It was Speck's rationalisation that: “We have expected Indians to become as white men. There is no reason to think that white men cannot become as Indians.”[ix] Having been one of the few “authorities” to encourage the pair, the Laubins were gratified when Speck eventually saw their performances and declared: “Reg and Gladys you are no longer white. You are now Indians.” Reginald also expressed particular pride in the fact that Speck introduced them to his friends as “assimilated Indians”.

The Laubins had an exceedingly long career as performers. They practiced their appropriations in the shadow of various shifts in race relations across the early to mid 20th century. They were intent on preserving a way of life that fascinated them. Their right to reproduce the dances, songs and stories of Native Americans did not remain unquestioned throughout their career, and they did find legitimisation through direct contact with and acceptance from some Native American, but their credibility as dancers also relied on their status as outsiders, part of the dominant group through which value could be conferred and assessed. They also had a very particular idea about what it was that deserved preservation.

When the Laubins met their first chief, Chief One Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota people, Reginald remarked on his “prominent Roman nose [...] brown leathery skin and faded grey eyes”. Although Reginald seemed relatively impressed by Chief One Bull’s physical features, features that marked the latter out as nobility, this Native American elder did not look like a ‘real’ Chief. When the Laubins were confronted with the material reality of life on One Bull’s reservation – the blankets, the dogs, the dirt – they were pointedly disappointed. But they knew how to rectify the situation: they returned to visit One Bull a few months later, bring with them a fine, white, fringed buckskin outfit and long feathered head-dress. After helping the old man into their ‘costume’, they were very pleased with the outcome. One Bull was transformed. His regalia now matched his sage profile. The Laubins went home happy with their conversion/intervention. Later, as Paul Christopher Eells (2009) and Star West Jones (2000) explain, the Laubins were ‘adopted’ by One Bull and his family. But, as Clyde Ellis (2008) suggests: “[t]he adoption story quickly became the Laubin’s most important promotional tool; it became a permanent part of their public performances [and] took on increasingly grand proportions over time” (p.17) 

As others have also suggested (Ellis, 2009), even the most discerning of performance critics were captivated by the potential of the Laubins’ appropriations. Writing for the New York Times in 1944 John Martin had this to say about these dancer/choreographers/ethnographers:

Theoretically there is little to be said in defense of dancers who go about doing “authentic” dances of other races, whose cultures and very psyches are alien. Why the same, indefensibility does not attach itself to the Laubins it would be difficult to say, but it definitely does not. When Reginald Laubin dances (and to him falls the greater responsibility here, of course) there is no sense what ever of a white man pretending to be an Indian [...] he simply presents the Indian in his own art. (April, 2nd)

Martin's inability to articulate exactly why the Laubins could not, at least for him, be accused of what in other circumstances would have been indefensible (the appropriation of the performance practices of a culture not your own), makes a little more sense when we place John Martin in his wider context as a dance critic and champion of American dance modernisms.

John Martin was a great supporter of Martha Graham and, to a lesser vigilance, Doris Humphrey. He applauded the rebellions of these famous dancing women who were both former Denishawn students and performers, pupils of Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn. In the late 1920s Graham and Humphrey had sounded the death knell for the exotic pageantry of the Denishawn Orientalisms. For this generation of American dancers, borrowing from the performance practices of other continents no longer served a purpose. They wanted to “dance America [...] from the inside out”, to quote Humphrey. Martha Graham’s early work showed a concerted effort to replace imitation with a dedication to the universalising principles of modernism and an early, considered association with Native American culture. She traveled to New Mexico in the 1930s and produced her ‘Primitive Mysteries’ from this experience. In 1932 she used a Guggenheim fellowship to travel and study Indigenous culture in Mexico. During the formative years of her development as a choreographer and her eventual embodiment of American dance modernism, Graham saw her work as “masculine and creative, rather than imitative” and believed that America's great gift to the arts would be rhythmic dance “rich, full, unabashed [and] virile.” (Graham in Koritz in Morris, 2005, p.86) Perhaps John Martin recognised a similar search for, and attention to, an American way of dancing in the appropriations of the Laubins. Their performances, as opposed to simply what they said about their performances, bore a similar intention to those of their modern dance contemporaries, the attempt to capture place through motion, not only to represent it but to be of it, through a universalising, masculinist but locally derived embodiment.

In her book The people have never stopped dancing: Native American modern dance histories, Jacqueline Shea Murphy (2007) expresses a similar sense of bewilderment in relation to the Laubin’s work, a bewilderment not unlike that expressed by John Martin some 60 years earlier. During the research for her book on contemporary Native American choreographers, companies and dancers, Murphy came across the Laubins’ 1977 book Indian Dance of North America and “pondered the oddity” of Gladys and Reginald. (p.2) The puzzlement these dancers inspired in both writers comes from the ambivalent response their life and work inspires in us all. They were not Native American but were supported as ‘Indian’ dancers by white New York critics and Native Americans alike. They came to their task with an abiding sense of altruism. Their intentions were noble, their zeal of missionary proportions. Reginald and Gladys dedicated their lives to the preservation, recording and conservation of Native American dance. Their appropriations came from a deep sense of appreciation. Their actions are defensible and indefensible, they are strangely appropriate and exceedingly inappropriate and this mix does not only come from looking back from the standpoint of our contemporary sensibilities.

Unpacking the shifting fortunes of appropriation, the source of Martin’s puzzlement and Shea Murphy’s bemusement, is at the core of my current comparative research project in which the Laubins are one couple among a selection of artists who presented Indigenous dance work (within post-colonial, settler societies) without being indigenous. Others to be examined include Ted Shawn, Ena Noel, Rex Reid and Beth Dean.

When you sift through the Laubins’ communications in the University of Illinois archives (and these dancers were prolific hoarders keeping not only every letter they received but also a carbon copy of every letter they ever wrote) you can trance the tension and continuous rhetorical gymnastics of the outsider wanting in. This need to find roots for their displaced national selves becomes apparent in this statement of intent made by Reginald to his biographer West Jones (2000): “I think that’s what so many of us are hoping to find – something bigger than life, bigger than ourselves” (p. 5)

As I move through the stages of this research, I continue to be enthralled by the disconcerting strangeness of acts of appropriation. Coming to terms with the life and work of Reginald and Gladys Laubin, juxtaposing their rhetoric with analysis of their dances (which exist in a series of films from which my opening descriptions were drawn), comparing their experiences and dance work with other acts of appropriation in dance across other continents, will contribute to the development of new ways of thinking about the way place – our disconnection from it, and our attempts to represent it and our post-colonial need to belong to it – fuel the ambivalence at the heart of local relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous inhabitants of colonised, settler, immigrant societies like America, Australia, and parts of Africa.

[i] Laubin, Reginald, Transcript “Indian Songs and Dances" – Dance Horizons series, American Museum of Natural History 1946, pg 1& 2, located at New York Performing Arts Library MGZMT 5-910.

[ii] ibid.

[iii] ibid.

[iv] Laubin, Reginald, “Teaching Indians to be Indians”, Reginald and Gladys Laubin Papers, 1862-1996, Record Series 15/34/50, Box 12, University of Illinois Archives

[v] ibid.

[vi] op. cit. “Indian Songs and Dances”

[vii] Laubin, Reginald and Gladys, “Why we Play Indian”, May 6th 1950, Reginald and Gladys Laubin Papers, 1862-1996, Record Series 15/34/50, Box 12, University of Illinois Archives.

[viii] ibid.

[ix] ibid.