Life post-Christopher Columbus has not been good for America’s indigenous people.
Diseases nearly wiped them out. Wars raged. Their lands were stolen, their water sullied. And attempts were made to completely wipe out the culture through Indian boarding schools. In the 19th century, the men who ran this country decided the best path for Indians was a boarding school where children could learn European sensibilities. The government-run schools continued through much of the last century.
Children were taken off the reservation and sent to a school that insisted they speak English, cut their hair, and forget their songs, dances and other aspects of their culture.
Some students were abused, others exploited. But everyone was supposed to be someone they were not. The world premiere of “Shooting Columbus,” which Borderlands Theater opens Friday, imagines how a different past might have allowed for a different present and future. The play is a departure from traditional theater in its writing and its performing.
Playwright Denise Uyehara wrote the script 20 years ago, and then tucked it away. About three years ago she pulled it out and created a collective of indigenous and non-indigenous artists in Arizona, with an eye toward deconstructing the script.
“We wanted to highlight everyone’s talent in a way that traditional stage work wouldn’t allow,” says Rachel Bowditch, who jumped on board at the beginning of the process. Bowditch, one of the lead artists in the collective, is a theater professor at Arizona State University and one of the few involved with the production who has no Indian lineage.
“It’s been amazing,” she says about the experience. “It’s been completely cooperative.”
Creating the “Shooting Columbus” script was not done in a vacuum. Members of the collective did extensive interviews of elders and family members. They visited places such as Black Mesa in the Four Corners area where Peabody Coal has done destructive strip mining on Navajo and Hopi land. And they spoke to people who had attended those boarding schools where assimilation was the goal and abuse often the method to achieve it. A boarding school serves as the framework for this unusual theater piece.
“I’m learning as well,” says Ryan Pinto, a collective member and performer in the production. “It’s been very emotional hearing the stories in person and meeting the people who had gone to boarding schools and (were impacted by) the coal mines,” says Pinto, who is Hopi, Omaha Diné and Northern Ute. There’s much healing to be done, says Pinto, who is a dancer. And healing, he adds, can be done through art.
The spoken word, music, dance, videos are all incorporated into the performance.
“Ultimately,” says Bowditch, “the play is a reflection of what would have happened if settlers had never stepped foot in this country.”
This is not one you get to sit back and take in. You’ll be walking through the “theater” with other audience members. The play takes place at the historic La Pilita Museum. The audience will be broken up into two groups — one heads one way through the building, the other group another. They all have the same of experience but at different times. There is walking involved, but chairs will be scattered throughout the museum if people need to rest.
Pinto has been deeply impacted by his experience working on this play.
And he hopes audiences take away a better understanding of this country’s indigenous people. “I want them to know how important our culture is to us, and how our indigenous ways are connected to the earth. That’s medicine for us,” he says. “I want the audience to take away that medicine — the importance of Mother Earth.”
Mother Earth blessed the opening of Borderlands Theater’s “Shooting Columbus."
The play takes over the small La Pilita Cultural Center, but the bulk of the performance is on the outside patio. A gentle breeze blew for the March 30 opening, giving motion to the large cloth that covered the south wall of the center. One image would fade away and another would appear in this multimedia piece: of the land stripped by coal mining, a fence ripping a culture in two, Indian children solemn, short-haired and staring blankly at a camera. The heartbreaking images seemed to dance with the breeze, making moving pictures of these scenes from the past.
“Shooting Columbus,” a collaborative piece by the Fifth World Collective, made up almost entirely of indigenous people, is a time-traveling piece that wants us to see what possibilities existed if Christopher Columbus had never brought his ships to these shores. The land along Arizona’s Southern border would not be divided by a wall that prevents the Tohono O’Odham from traveling to important spiritual ceremonies. The Black Mesa plateau that runs across Navajo and Hopi lands in the Four Corners area would still be sacred burial grounds and be lush and livable with clean water because the Peabody Coal Mine would never have come in to destroy the land and break promises. And languages and customs would thrive because generations of indigenous children would never have been forced to go to Indian boarding schools where they were not allowed to speak their language, dance their dances or wear their hair in the customary braids. That cutting of the braids, one man says in a recording, “was like an invisible pain.”
The actors have dialogue, much pulled from interviews the collaborative conducted over two years, and often recordings of the people interviewed are interspersed.
Dance is integrated throughout. And music, often jarring and filled with tension, fills the air surrounding the dirt patio.
There are elements of this production that haunt long after it’s over:
There is much to drink in with this piece, which is packed with passion. And much to confuse. Perhaps this was intentional, but just as the white man has fractured indigenous cultures with its diseases and thievery and injustices, this play, too, is fractured. It jumps from scene to scene with more thought to movement than clarity. It was hard to decipher the message. But then, maybe the message is horrors have been committed against America's first people, horrors that began with the landing of Christopher Columbus’ ships. The beauty and harmony and respect for Mother Earth that was once a way a of life has been, and continues to be, viciously disrupted. In that case, the message is loud and clear and often eloquent.
Media used in Boarding School sequence. Music by Adam Cooper-Teran and Klee Benally.