On Traditional Ohlone Land: Dancing Earth at Alcatraz

“As contemporary people we’re taking the responsibility to create the songs and dances that speak to our time now…and creating intertribal and global indigenous relationships, and creating new languages of collaboration…sharing what is appropriate to share in order to learn from each other.” (Rulan Tangen. Personal interview. 21 August 2018.)

This year, like many years before, in the twilight before dawn, boats will run from one piece of traditional Ohlone land, San Francisco, to another, Alcatraz Island, for the Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Gathering. This is a day of solidarity by, for, and with Indigenous people.

And this year is special. On October 8, 2018, for the first time, the City of San Francisco will officially celebrate Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day. It also marks 49 years since the “Indians of All Tribes” occupied Alcatraz in protest of the discrimination, land rights restrictions, and living conditions of all Americans native to Turtle Island, or the United States.   

This year, visitors to the island will experience GROUNDWORKS, a multidisciplinary and mobile performance art installation grounded in contemporary dance and traditional ceremony, curated by Dancing Earth Indigenous Contemporary Dance Creations.

Dancing Earth, founded in 2004, “promotes biocultural diversity through Indigenous dance and related arts for the education and wellness of all people.” Founding Artistic Director and Choreographer Rulan Tangen, a Kennedy Center Citizen Artist and Blade of Grass Fellow among many other accolades, shared that the processes and productions initiated by Dancing Earth are community led and community oriented. Tangen’s process is to “transform by opening hearts,” and her work engages issues from environmental stewardship to the preservation and sharing of indigenous culture.

Tangen identifies as “Kampampangan/Norwegian with ceremonial hunka ( adopted ) Kulwicasa Oyate Lakota tiyospahe” Through GROUNDWORKS, Tangen explores the question: Whose ground are we on? [1]

A woman holding dear antlers, one is held by her head, the other by her hip.

Photo by Paulo Tavares

According to Tangen, “decolonization not only happens through our intent but through our process.” [2] Therefore, Dancing Earth’s process of collaboration begins with the understanding that they are visitors in someone’s home. When Dancing Earth arrives in a community, it is by invitation. Upon arrival, they listen first. Critically, they “come with something to give rather than extract.” Dancing Earth ensemble members share their skills as arts facilitators and contemporary dancers. They engage with elders and community members in conversations, visioning sessions and movement workshops to explore indigenous knowledge. Dancing Earth also welcomes collaborating community members to be a part of the dance production and choreography process itself. Tangen recognizes that everyone enters where they are most comfortable, that, “sometimes they want to witness and guide, sometimes they want to experience.” Tangen described GROUNDWORKS as the product of years of nurturing cultural relationships with California First Nations friends, relatives and collaborators. Dancing Earth is the product of a web of global indigenous kinship and exchange.

Tisina Parker (California Miwuk, Paiute, Pomo), dancer and project coordinator for GROUNDWORKS, emphasized that Dancing Earth is mindful to respect the autonomy of the cultures with whom they collaborate. Their pieces “carefully include what [local collaborators] want to share without appropriating it.” They contain elements of the ceremony without revealing the sacred, and “share [only] what is appropriate for public sharing.” Parker described the effect of the process on her: “[it] strengthens connections to my Indigenous identity and allows me to carry traditions forward in a contemporary way, express my heritage outside of the box … [and] … experience creative growth.”

Dancing Earth manifests the cultural heritage and prevailing existence of Indigeneity. Central to their work is the truth that Native peoples are living, contemporary people, who practice traditional and ceremonial cultures while innovating and creating new forms. Tangen’s audiences have experienced the traditional Western theater presentation of dancers on a proscenium stage, but that stage is overlaid with projections of red desert landscapes of infinite blue skies and rich red sand, and dancers clad in contemporary yet traditional garb undulate, the wind blowing in their hair. Dancing Earth incorporated elements of aerial dance, contemporary and traditional indigenous song, spoken word poetry, and reinterpreted traditional dance into these productions.

These performances demonstrate Dancing Earth’s understanding of metaphor, indigenous strength and beauty, and a deep understanding of the body, gravity, and contemporary ensemble dance practice.

Although I have not had the opportunity to preview GROUNDWORKS, I imagine that it employs some of the same “performance ritual” visual elements, and co-mingling of global indigenous forms as past Dancing Earth productions, with specific attention to site.

Both Tangen and Parker identified Alcatraz as a place for the activation of reclaiming Indigenous Land and a profoundly symbolic location for Native people in the Bay Area. Tangen described the performance as “an offering to the community in a way that is location-based…an offering to the land and intertribal community platform.” The site also liberates Dancing Earth from the Western stage. GROUNDWORKS will be performed among the thousands of individuals visiting the island and throughout multiple sites on the island.

Tangen and Parker stressed that GROUNDWORKS is an effort to connect people to activism through art, bring awareness to social and environmental justice in a digestible and beautiful way, to inspire each other, and to inspire artists and activists to keep moving forward.

For Tangen, this work is about collaboration and resilience. In a time where protest is the predominant mode of combating colonialism let us not forget the power of art, culture and beauty and the necessity for healing in imagining and creating the world in which we want to live. Dancing Earth is a living, collaborative manifestation of this vital process.


[1]  August 23rd interview at the Kennedy Center with Denise Saunders Jones of the International Association of Blacks in Dance.
[2] Blade of Grass

PUBLISHED October 1, 2018

POSTED IN In Dance

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