This country seems confused when it comes to Native Americans, casting them as aggressive and primitive or peaceful and wise; thriving with casino money or languishing on reservations; interchangeably using the terms Indian, First Nations People and Native American. The culture is, in turn, deified by quasi-spiritualists and defiled by ignoramuses. Native American history is lamented for the genocide perpetrated upon them, yet agents of their subjugation, like Junipero Serra, are sainted.
Maybe confusion is good. Maybe it signals suspension of belief in myths and stereotypes, a respite when questions arise.
Last year, Wayne Coyne of revered band The Flaming Lips tried – and failed – to defend a young hipster friend’s appropriation of a sacred Native American headdress for fashion and giggles. He apologized. Maybe we’ve rounded a corner to an angst-free relationship with Native American culture and history.
If so, works like the play IYA The Esselen Remember are helping. It’s a collaboration between playwright Luis “Xago” Juarez (the Re:Alisal series, Mi Abuelito Fue Bracero) of local theater company Baktun 12, and Louise J. Miranda Ramirez, Tribal Council Chairwoman of OCEN (Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation).
Ramirez, descendent of one of the few Esselen families long ago counted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has been searching for ways to preserve their history, language and culture.
“We knew we’d do something, we knew we wanted a story about us,” she says. “What it’s like to be Esselen, what we went through.”
The story of IYA is set on the Monterey Peninsula, centers on an Esselen family, and opens as they are preparing a Native American appropriation of Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a scene as warm and familiar as a Norman Rockwell painting, but with a radical subtext – it might read: Europeans colonized a continent full of millions of peaceable citizens, decimated them through warfare, scattered them through forced relocation, and stole from them using obfuscation. The dinner is called Survivor’s Supper.
The play weaves in the tribe’s creation myth (which springs from Pico Blanco in Big Sur), historical accounts of the Spanish Mission period, the Mexican-Californio era and U.S. occupation and settlement. It stays local, though, with the story of a construction site at the Monterey Regional Airport in which the buried bones of an ancestor – a baby – are uncovered. That’s based on real events in which Ramirez consulted with Native American monitor teams at construction sites at the airport and on Lighthouse Avenue in New Monterey where suspected Native American bones were uncovered. IYA means “bones.”
“If my grandson goes with me [around the Peninsula],” she says, “I say, ‘We did a burial there. We did a sacred prayer there.’ When we do a reburial, I make sure we have other tribal members there.”
It’s about remembering. Much of the storyline chronicles actual events, in documentary theater style.
It starts with research, says Juarez in an email: “Through conversations with [Ramirez], listening to interviews done for radio with other tribal members and research of their history dating back to the Pre-Spanish occupation.”
One passage contains a song preserved by an anthropologist in the early 1900s called “The Blind Man’s Song,” which the anthropologist interpreted as a story about a blind man who plays flute so well a woman who hears it wants to marry him, but for some reason doesn’t. Ramirez has a different take on it.
“We reviewed it,” she says. “Based on the words of the song, the word is ‘there is the meat.’ She takes him hunting and points him in the [right] direction for his arrow, and he provides the meat for the [tribe]. Then she marries him. The people always knew where they were hunting because they could hear that song. ‘There is the meat. He no wa chit na toe tek.’”
Juarez says he believes in the story, and in the vein of his Baktun 12 comrades, he injected conviction: “Applying a short agit-prop [agitation propaganda] take within the story to convey the absurdity around the European disruption of their way of life.
“I grew up here, in Esselen land, and I believe it’s extremely important that everyone in this region learn this history in elementary schools.”
There is resistance. The play is part of November’s CSUMB Native American History Month celebration, which has included a talk by Stony Brook University assistant professor Joseph M. Pierce of the Cherokee Nation, and a workshop on indigenous peoples.
But, ironically, this is the first year that the Esselen tribe has been invited to participate. (Full disclosure: My wife Enid Baxter Ryce joined the organizing committee this year.) Their previous exclusion was a point of inter-tribal contention. Monterey County is, historically, their homeland so in the broader sense we are all their guests.IYA is getting a staged reading on Thursday and Saturday. Both days are free for all to attend. It is the Esselen’s gift to us, as is customarily offered to guests by a gracious host.