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For Indigenous Artists, “Visibility is Key” When It Come To Land Acknowledgments in the Theatre

Monday, January 20, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Nicole Gluckstern

Although the practice of land acknowledgement has long been the norm in activist circles, it’s one that still hasn’t proliferated very far into the mainstream. The first time I encountered one in a theatre setting was on the Canadian Fringe Festival circuit, where I’ve toured several times since 2007. In the last couple of years, theatre companies in the Bay Area have begun to regularly incorporate the practice into their own protocols, from California Shakespeare Theatre to Crowded Fire. And across the country, large regional theatres, such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, have made them a part of their etiquette.

At its core, a land acknowledgement is a statement that focuses attention on the Indigenous population and their ancestral territory. For nonnatives, the acknowledgement is an opportunity to reflect on and honor the traditional inhabitants of the space they are in, and for Natives, the acknowledgment can build connection with organizations interested in bringing more attention to Native issues and sovereignty. A land acknowledgement can either be delivered by a company member at the top of a show or crafted for a particular event by an invited member of a local tribe. In either case, practitioners say it should ideally speak to the relationship of the Indigenous peoples to their homeland, past and present.

Shannon Davis.

The delivery of the acknowledgement can take different shapes as well. For theirs, Crowded Fire first consulted a member of the local Ohlone community to help the company craft its verbal statement. Then, Crowded Fire hired notable Native street artist Votan Henriquez to design a visual to hang in its office hallway and travel with from venue to venue. Oklahoma-born, Chickasaw drag artist and theatre practitioner J. Miko Thomas, aka Landa Lakes, who co-organizes the BAAITS (Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits) Powwow, combines a ritual of song and dance that speaks to the Ohlone as a guest on their territory. For Native theatre-maker (and Theatre Bay Area’s new development officer) Shannon Davis—a descendant of the Potawatomi and Ojibwe people of Wisconsin, and the Sámi people of Sápmi—a willingness to match the form to the occasion is key. A land acknowledgment before a classic Shakespearean work may not be the same as one delivered before a conference such as one she recently attended about the effects of gentrification and connecting artistic communities in crisis with financial institutions.

“With that (particular) land acknowledgement it felt very important to me that it be more factual and educational and that it be more about land acquisition and money, “ she emphasizes. “I wanted it to be the start of a conversation.” Davis stresses that such conversations should not remain static.

Displaced and frequently dismissed, Native Americans number over 6 million—about 2% of the total US population—and their distinct issues are not usually at the forefront of any given news cycle. As Davis points out, Native communities around the country live in poverty, a situation exacerbated in places such as the Bay Area, where their traditional land has been priced out of reach. And, just as there is a struggle to maintain a people, there is a congruent struggle to maintain their traditional land. Because of this struggle, Davis asserts, a thoughtful acknowledgement not only honors the “caretakers of the land,” but “the land itself, Mother Earth.” It also acts as a “call to action” and an opportunity for education.

Of course, a call to action with no proposed action can feel like a hollow gesture, and there are some concrete actions theatre practitioners can promote along with their acknowledgements. One course of action championed recently by Cal Shakes is to donate to the Shuumi Land Tax, an initiative organized by the Sogorea Te Land Trust, who are working to return native lands to “Indigenous stewardship” within the Bay Area. (https://sogoreate-landtrust.com/shuumi-land-tax/). Another lies in the educational component, which Davis describes as “lifting up the issues,” faced by Native Americans in the spirit of engagement.

J. Miko Thomas, aka Landa Lakes. Photo by Jose Guzman Colon.

“There is power in...naming our issues and laying it out for an audience...giving them factoids and engaging just as a teacher would,” Davis explains. Thomas echoes this, affirming that “once spoken it’s hard to deny the relationship Natives hold to our mostly unceded land.”

So what are some steps that interested theatre-makers might take in adapting the protocol to their own productions? The best way, Thomas and Davis agree, is to reach out to the local tribes of your particular region for a consultation on how to craft an appropriate acknowledgement that speaks directly to their unique circumstances, as well as those of the company, production, or event. Websites such as https://usdac.us/nativeland and https://native-land.ca/territory-acknowledgement/ offer in-depth analysis of the practice and helpful guidelines for their creation and use.

Closer to home, TBA staffers are in the process of compiling a package of resources, including contacts to locals willing to consult about or perform land acknowledgements, and advice on how to work with them respectfully. The hope is to give Bay Area theatre companies enough information to further explore the idea on their own and consider the possibilities of its use, not as a performative gesture, but as an ongoing commitment to recognizing the Indigenous community and their traditional land. As Thomas notes, “visibility is key to normalizing the practice.” 

Editor's note: TBA’s “Land Acknowledgement Guide” is currently in process. We anticipate posting to our website in the beginning of February. A direct link will be added to this page then, and we will also announce the posting on our homepage, social media, and via the TBA Insider. Questions? Contact tba@theatrebayarea.org.

Nicole Gluckstern is an arts journalist and theatre-maker in San Francisco. You can read her most current work in KQED Arts, or stalk her on twitter at @enkohl