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Friendly Fire: A Forty-niner’s Life With the Me-Wuk People tells the story of the native people of the Mother Lode during the Gold Rush.
The public has never been well informed of the catastrophic impact of the Gold Rush on the indigenous cultures that had adapted themselves to the land (and the land to themselves) for many centuries prior to 1848.
Even the History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools slides over the painful topic. After requiring that “Pre-Columbian Settlements and People” be studied in their pre-contact state, and after describing the study of the impact of the Missions on the affected native cultures, the Framework goes on to describe the Gold Rush only in terms of its impact on Mexican Californians, earlier settlers from the States, and the new immigrants.
Friendly Fire does much to fill the gap. It tells the story in a way that is at once entertaining, dramatic, engaging, adventurous, humorous, and historically accurate. It comes complete with Resources that include generous excerpts from primary sources, suggested projects (relating both to history-social sciences and performing arts), an annotated bibliography, and a brief account of the survival of the Me-Wuk people after the genocide.
It is 1851. Jeff Blake has returned from the Gold Rush to his Missouri home town. He is telling his fellow citizens why he can’t stay, why he has to go back to California. Jeff had gone west with a group of eleven on January 2, 1849. He was dreaming of wealth. He shared all the prejudices against Indians that were universally held by U.S. citizens of the day.
Once in California his group finds gold but just enough to keep them alive, given the high prices. The leaders of his group go off to scout out better diggings. Taking possession of these diggings turns out to require committing an atrocity against a group of Indians. Jeff is swept into participating, but is revolted by what he has done and runs away from his group. Lost and injured in the mountains, he is taken in by a Me-Wuk village. He discovers that everything he thought he knew about Indians is wrong. He grows to understand and love their rich and complex culture, but he knows that destruction is coming, and soon.
The play dramatizes his moral awakening, his appreciation of the Me-Wuk world, and his struggle to deflect the catastrophe.
Friendly Fire was written by Rick Foster in 1995 while in residence at Sierra Repertory Theatre, in Sonora, California. Sierra Rep toured the play to Mother Lode and Central Valley schools in the fall of that year.
As of 2011, Duende has presented Friendly Fire to over 700 audiences including:
- Theatrical runs in Yosemite National Park and Sacramento’s California Stage
- Schools from the Sierra to San Francisco and from San Diego and Imperial Counties to Trinity County
- Museums like the Oakland Museum of California, the Southwest Museum, Arte Americas, the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center, and the San Jose Historical Museum
- The Tuolumne Rancheria and the El Dorado Band of Me-Wuk
- Annual performances at the Pinecrest Amphitheater in the Stanislaus National Forest
- The Society for California Archaeology annual meeting, the Trustees of California State University, Stanislaus
- Ethnic diversity programs for the Internal Revenue Service and the US Forest Service
- The San Joaquin Historical Society
- Lair of the Golden Bear, alumni Camp of University of California, Berkeley
Visit the Friendly Fire Resources page.
Suitable for grades 4 and up as well as adults.
- Can be performed in theater, classroom, multi-purpose room, gymnasium, or out-door space.
- Sound system is not required except for unusual situations.
- Performer will supply wireless microphone and single speaker if necessary.
- Special lighting is not required.
- Set up time is fifteen minutes.
Notes From a Teacher
Notes on class preparation by 4th grade teacher Tacy Rowan.
FROM AN ETHNOGRAPHER
“Meticulously researched and finely presented, Friendly Fire transports the audience into an understanding of what the Gold Rush was like for Indian people. It celebrates the vitality, humor, and humanity of Me-Wuk culture. But it also unflinchingly brings to the fore the terror that Indian people faced as they lost their land, their cultures, and their lives during the 1850’s. Friendly Fire is the only historically accurate dramatic presentation to confront the reality of the Gold Rush experience of Me-Wuk people. And every word in the presentation can be supported by historical documents. It is an experience not to be missed by anyone who thinks they know about California history.”
Craig D. Bates, Curator of Ethnography, Yosemite Museum
Author of Tradition and Innovation: a Basket History of the Indians of the Yosemite-Mono Lake Area
“Playwright Rick Foster’s well crafted works have been a huge success with both children and adults in our county. In addition to giving them an accurate sense of the historical times, they provoke the audience to think about the rich and complex development of our state. He has partnered entertainment and learning in a manner that is both enjoyable and educational.”
Celeste Boyd, Asst. Superintendent, Instruction
Tuolumne County Office of Education
“California history is the focus of our 4th Grade Social Studies program, and Duende’s production of Friendly Fire brought to life our study of Native Californians and the Gold Rush. Following a recent performance, one of my students said, ‘It’s like reading a history book that comes to life.’ It was clear that the production took their understanding to a deeper level. Visualization is one of the skills used to improve comprehension, so I was pleased when another of my students said, ‘I was making pictures in my mind, and sometimes the picture wasn’t pretty.’ I am glad that we raised the funds to offer this dramatic production to our students.”
Sue Cimino, 4th Grade Teacher
“Sierra Outdoor School has incorporated Friendly Fire into our 4th-6th grade curriculum for a number of years. Each time I see this play I’m amazed at how it grabs the attention of every single audience. Jaws drop and eyes are glued to the stage as each student finds a way to connect with the compelling stories of cultural interaction presented through this tale. I can’t think of a better way to make the complexities of human experience during the California gold rush come alive for our students.”
Hilary Hobbs , Program Coordinator
Sierra Outdoor School
FROM A NATIVE AMERICAN ELDER
“I think Friendly Fire does an excellent job of telling what the Gold Rush was like for Native People.”
Yosemite National Park
Availability and Pricing
Friendly Fire is available for booking now and indefinitely into the future.
Special California Central Valley, Mother Lode K-12 School Rates for performance and study guides
- $300 One performance at school
- $450 Two performances on same half day
- Note: For special rates at the Sierra Outdoor School in Sonora at Five Mile Creek contact Janelle McDonald at 209-532-3691.
San Francisco Bay Area K-12 School Rates
- $500 One or two performances in same school on same half day
- Note: For California schools beyond the Central Valley, Central Coast regions there will be a surcharge for travel.
- $500 One performance
- $800 Two performances, same day (including evening)
- $1000 Three performances, same day (including evening)
Museums and other venues
- $400-1500 Depending on size of auditorium, ticket pricing, etc.