Academic and writer Beth Piatote talks about her play Antíkoni and Native American humanity

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November 19, 2021

An event involving treatment of the remains of an ancient human provided the impetus for Beth Piatote’s writing of Antíkoni, a Nez Perce adaptation of Sophocles’ 5th century Athenian tragedy Antigone.

Piatote is a professor of ethnic studies and comparative literature at University of California, Berkeley. Her interdisciplinary research engages fields including Indigenous studies, American studies, literary studies, legal studies, and women’s and gender studies. 

She is the author of the book The Beadworkers: Stories, a collection focusing on the Native Northwest and contemporary Native American life. Her 2013 monograph, Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship and Law in Native American Literature, explores how Indigenous literature grappled with the legal interventions into Native American domestic life during the “assimilation” era of the early twentieth century. 

Beth Piatote at the Barrett Fountain (photo by Alex Young)

Piatote spoke about her work on Antíkoni at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University on November 10 in a conversation moderated by Honors Faculty Fellow Alex Trimble Young.

In 1996, Piatote, a member of Chief Joseph’s Tribe and the Colville Confederated Tribes, heard about the skeletal remains of a prehistoric Paleoamerican man being found on a bank of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington on July 28 of that year. One of the most complete ancient skeletons ever found, it was named Kennewick Man by scientists and the Ancient One by Native Americans. 

The remains were determined to be genetically linked to modern-day Native Americans. A debate over what to do with the remains ensued, with scientists pushing for the skeleton to be made available for research and a group of tribes advocating for a proper burial. Two scientists sued successfully to get access to the remains, which a team of 22 scientists studied by assembling them into a full skeleton, then deconstructing the skeleton and putting bones through CT scans and other forms of testing.

Piatote said that based on the treatment of the Kennewick Man/Ancient One, “what I found out was that the way Native Americans think about their dead is not recognized as a human connection.”

“If Native Americans are not brought into the question about what it is to be human, then we are not seen as human.” 

Piatote said that ancient literature poses questions about what it means to be human and that she decided to use Antigone as the basis of her retelling of the Greek tragedy focusing on Native American humanity. She wrote her adaptation, titled Antíkoni, in 2016-17.

In Antíkoni, a Native American family is torn apart over the fate of ancestral remains held by a museum. As Kreon, the museum director, and Antíkoni, his fierce opponent, argue over the terms of repatriation, a chorus of Aunties comments on the conflict through mythic storytelling and gossip. 

The play was presented in 2018 at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. The museum setting underscored contemporary struggles over human remains and highlighted questions posed by the original: What do the living owe the dead? What are the limits of human laws in the face of eternal values? And what is the price of sacrifice?

“We felt we were pushing the politics of the play by staging it in a museum that was built over the remains of the bodies of our native ancestors. We were able to use the setting to make difficult points and bring awareness to the issues,” Piatote said. 

Piatote said she is working on a re-adaptation of Antíkoni and hopes to present it in the round “to intensify the feelings” of the audience. 

Young said Piatote has inspired his own work on how settler colonialism and Indigenous resistance have shaped U.S. culture.

“The idea that the violence of the settler colonial frontier was necessary to introduce a sense of cosmopolitanism to the hundreds of diverse Indigenous nations of the North American continent is a pernicious and persistent lie that Antíkoni, Professor Piatote’s rewriting of Sophocles’ original, undoes with decisive force,” Young said. 

“In her play, the contemporary inheritor of Antigone’s legacy is not the privileged bearer of “the Western tradition” but rather the Indigenous woman who, in an evocative phrase from her play, lives ‘in the shadow of the law.’ Interweaving Nez Perce stories into the Athenian original, Antíkoni presents to its audience a rich vision of Nez Perce life in its relation to both Indigenous and settler cultures, and in so doing argues that a cosmopolitan future can only be achieved through the abolition, rather than the affirmation, of the many forms of ongoing settler colonial violence that still structure our relations.”

Young added that “Antíkoni offers just the sort of urgent challenge to injustice, the commanding grasp of history, and deeply human sensibility that is both local and global that we hope Barrett students are someday able to articulate in their own work.”