In 2000, Jennifer Bobiwash left her tiny town in rural Ontario, Canada to pursue acting in Los Angeles. That's when she realized she was different. Not every girl grew up with a tepee standing in her yard, or as a member of the Ojibway Nation.
Bobiwash's humorous take of what it means to be a native person, a native voice, helped her reclaim the word 'Indian' in her upcoming, one-woman play at the Autry, "There is no 'I' in NDN."
The play is currently what Bobiwash refers to as a work in progress, and will be in the workshop phase in the upcoming week. She was selected as one of three writers, including Vera Starbard and Randy Reinholz, to participate in Native Voices' Playwrights Retreat and Festival of New Plays at the Autry National Center. The play debuts on May 28 at the Autry's Well's Fargo Theater, with a subsequent reading on May 31 at La Jolla Playhouse.
"My story has changed quite a bit, but it's the search to be Indian. For me it started because I moved to Los Angeles and all of a sudden I realized, 'Oh my gosh, I'm Indian.' There came a time when I had to define myself," says Bobiwash, who lives in Burbank and also produces videos with friend Geraldine Chases-her-Tail on the YouTube channel "Welcome to the Tipi." In the videos, she practices pronouncing words from an Ojibway dictionary — a language she never formerly learned, but just decided to try out in a funny way, creating online videos that poke fun at herself, other people, stereotypes and explore historical dates in native people and American history.
"I went full-on American Indian and grabbed every stereotype that I could. Through that, I said, 'Hey, I don't even know my own language.' So I had an Ojibway dictionary, so I just started flipping it open to try and pronounce the words," she explains. Other people started contacting her from within the Ojibway community throughout Canada and she had an opportunity to work alongside other playwrights with similar backgrounds, yet different tribes throughout North America in the Autry's Native Voices series. The Native American theatre company is dedicated to writing and producing inventive works from Native American playwrights.
"They've totally helped me find my voice as an actor, writer and entertainment professional in Los Angeles," Bobiwash says.
"Our main character Wanda is coming to the realization that she knows she's Indian, but because of the culture shock that she's experienced, she is just learning more about being Indian," she says.
The writer and actress prefers the term "NDN," sans the I, and explores that in her piece.
"When Columbus discovered America he thought that he was in India. We're choosing to reclaim that word and to not offend people by not using the other spelling of it, so it's just 'NDN,'" says Bobiwash, adding that she doesn't always consider herself politically correct, or a specialist, but chooses to express herself and poke fun at cultural labels regardless.
"When people give me negative comments I just say, 'Hey, I never said I was an expert.' I'm learning, I know nothing. That's why I'm doing this."
Where: Autry National Center's Wells Fargo Theater, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles
When: Wednesday, May 28, 4 p.m.
More info: (323) 667-2000, theautry.org