You’ve reached an elevation of 10,000 feet. Sharp turns, CAUTION, 25 mph. I arrived to Ft. Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, already far from the humid streets of New York City, and slowly taking in the mountains circling the campus like a crown. I had been steeping in the landscape of Colorado since my flight from Denver the night before, eyes glued to the window as the San Juan Mountains rose up beneath us. (My seatmate had enjoyed this: “About the same size as Central Park?”)
In the evening light, a student made her way to the parking lot, her t-shirt reading “MY CULTURE IS NOT A COSTUME”. Nodding to myself: Yes, this is where I want to be.
I was in Durango to witness the September 9th premiere of “seeds : ReGeneration,” a project by A Blade of Grass Fellow Rulan Tangen and Dancing Earth, an Indigenous dance company of which Rulan is the founder and artistic director. Before touching down I had been following along online, and one of Rulan’s Facebook posts stuck with me in particular:
10 years of elders recognizing our distinctive cultural expression as a powerful transmission for transformation, and giving us stories about waters, seeds, plants and foods. 6 years of development of dances of ecologically focused messaging. 9 months of intensive rehearsal preparation. ‘they tried to bury us but they didn’t know we were seeds’ … this is the re-story-ing of bodies, waters, land. dedicated to the peaceful protest of Standing Rock, NO DAPL. JOIN US
I approached “seeds : ReGeneration” with this in the forefront of my mind. Like so many of our Fellows, Rulan’s work is intricate and deep. How to enter it with reverence? How to listen and amplify? I began at the Center for Southwestern Studies, where I was welcomed by the words of Havasupai Elder James Uqualla in the film “seed | in protection of mother earth.”
It was good place to begin. With Uqualla’s words lingering, it was time for Dancing Earth.
The premiere began on the outside of Ft. Lewis’ Community Concert Hall, as Rulan told me beforehand, “where all Native people began, dancing on the land.” Uqualla was also part of the performance, and as though emerging from the screen where I had just seen him he led the opening ritual accompanied by Dancing Earth company members, while Rulan invited the audience to add to a mandala in the center of the courtyard.
Once inside the concert hall the performance was transporting, a remarkable blend of movement, spoken word, music, video, and costume. In one of the most arresting scenes Rulan strutted onstage in a dress gnarled with trash, and began to snatch up blue fabric that had been laid gingerly at the front of the stage. Picking up speed she wrapped the blue of the river around her body, as the dancers’ movements became tortured and painful to watch.
Gradually, the scene changed. With the smell of burning sage drifting through the theatre, community members came onstage and there was movement again, and light. This movement built to the last scene, where Rulan and company members emerged as corn in a glowing green field. Both nights I witnessed the performance the audience burst into applause at the end of this scene. But the performance was not quite over. The spectacle condensed to focus on one dancer, seated in the front and center of the stage, singing a capella a sweet song without words. And what was she removing one by one from her bowl? Seedlings, barely visible from the audience. Very slowly, the other dancers approached the front of the stage, adding small purrs and bird calls to the woman’s song. And as each dancer received a precious seedling in their hands, they finally lifted the seeds, to us.
Update, Oct 28, 2016: Since this post was published the protests at Standing Rock have only intensified. For further reading and to stay involved:
Joelle Te Paske is Programs and Communications Manager at A Blade of Grass.