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'Urban Rez' shines light on LA's indigenous people 'declared extinct' by government

by Michelle Lanz and Elizabeth Nonemaker | The Frame

Larissa FastHorse, playwright and choreographer of Cornerstone Theater Company's "Urban Rez."

Larissa FastHorse began her artistic career in ballet. Now, she's a choreographer and playwright, but the job title that probably best describes her is “theatrical activist.”

FastHorse is Native American — specifically, a member of the Lakota Rosebud Sioux — and the issues she cares most about are prominent in her new play, “Urban Rez,” where "Rez" is short for reservation.

The story is told largely with non-professional actors in outdoor spaces, through the collective known as Cornerstone Theater Company. Cornerstone has launched a six-year enterprise called The Hunger Cycle, in which they premiere nine plays examining the issue of hunger — whether for food, a sense of belonging, or — as in FastHorse's work — for culture.

As FastHorse told The Frame: "The native people of this area are suffering from . . . hunger for their own culture because they're not recognized." In fact, many of the indigenous peoples now living in Los Angeles are officially declared extinct by the U.S. government. 

In "Urban Rez," a band of storytellers mingles with the audience, relating their experiences as Native Americans living in Southern California as they grapple with the possibility of federal recognition, at last. When The Frame's John Horn met with FastHorse, he began by asking her about the current makeup of indigenous people in Los Angeles.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

L.A. County has the second densest native population in the country. The first densest would be the Navajo Reservation. There are still some 560-some recognized tribes in this country, and I would say there are probably several hundred of them in L.A.

How many of those tribes are native to Los Angeles and how many were forcibly relocated to Southern California?

Well there are no federally recognized tribes in all of Los Angeles and Orange County. According to the government, there are no indigenous Indians at all in Los Angeles. Of course, there are thousands of them here from many different tribes.

One of the things that the show tries to dramatize is the way in which Native Americans are depicted in popular culture. How important is it that, when people go to this show, they reevaluate the way in which pop culture has treated Native Americans just in the last couple of decades?

It's hugely important. Because the second most defining and damaging influence of this country, after the United States government, is popular culture. And the way that they have depicted Native people, the way they have written us in and out of the narrative of the U.S. culture selectively turns into history and truth, which is insane, but that's what happens with our culture.

There are important things that a lot of people, like myself, would not understand. Like tribal headdress. It's incredibly important and sacred, and yet the way it's used in movies or television shows is incredibly offensive to people who care about that.

Yes. I'm Lakota, and my people are one of the tribes that are often depicted in pop culture and history. We are a people that do use these headdresses. Every single feather that is on that headdress has to be earned with a proper ceremony and through extremely difficult life situations, either rescuing or fighting or doing outstanding service to the community. And to just throw something on your head to represent that is really hurtful. 

Can you talk more about your own tribal background, where you grew up and how you became a playwright?

Yeah, I'm enrolled in the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, which is the Sicangu Nation. I grew up primarily off my reservation in South Dakota. My dad worked for the state, so we were moved 100 miles away to Pierre, South Dakota. [That] was really fortunate because that's where I got my education in the arts, which I wouldn't have gotten if I had stayed on the reservation. I started my career as a classical ballet dancer, which was a long, rare, strange journey. I did that for 10 years professionally, and then I landed here in Los Angeles, where my husband's from, and I found writing through acting. I tried acting — it wasn't my gig. So I originally started in film and television writing. I had sold a couple TV shows. Again, it just didn't feel like my world.

And then Peter Brosius' Children's Theater Company of Minneapolis commissioned me — he found me through the Sundance program and commissioned me to write my first play. And I realized I was home. [Theater] was dancers with furniture. I recognized these people and I knew how they worked and I understand how stage works. So from then I studied on my own and I became a playwright.

How important was it in your earliest work that you address the things that are personally important to you, like tribal recognition?

Identity politics has become incredibly important in my plays. I think that's a result of living in Los Angeles for so long, and getting to understand the incredibly damaging and difficult position the federal government has put the people of this area in, in their quest for recognition. Most of the people here were declared extinct pretty recently, like in the '50s and such. So it's really a very new, painful, raw wound for them to try to be recognized again. That's something that's become important to me also with the rise of DNA testing, and being able to trace our ancestry. That has actually opened more problems for tribal nations because many of us did not traditionally define membership as something biological. For instance, my tribe membership was ceremonial. These are opening up all these crazy questions that we've been forced into by the federal government and the way they recognize us. 

As the play dramatizes, there are some incredibly arcane and punitive rules that the U.S. Government, and especially the Bureau of Indian Affairs, seems to have. There's one I was surprised by: that if a group applies for tribal recognition and they are denied, that's it, right? There's no appeal. 

Yes. That is currently the process we live under. Traditionally it takes 20 to 30 years to get tribal recognition. And in that time your application is returned again and again for edits. But once it's denied, you may never apply again.

Can you talk about how "Urban Rez" came to be and how it fits into Cornerstone's "Hunger Cycle" series of plays? 

Originally, Cornerstone had asked me to write a completely different play about community gardens. But along the way, Sigrid Gilmer's play ["Seed"] ended up covering that territory, so they asked me to come up with something else. I always credit my husband — he came up with the idea of hunger for culture. [It] made sense to me as far as the political issues that the native people of this area are suffering from; it causes them to have this hunger for their own culture because they're not recognized. They have no land, they're actually declared extinct. So they have a very distinctive hunger that is hard for many of us to understand.

And the way in which the play is presented is a critical aspect of its performance. [In downtown L.A.], the audience kind of wandered about in this space near the L.A. River and the Metro Gold Line. There are conversations that are happening that audiences can listen to or ignore. How important was the staging to the story you were trying to tell?

It was essential to me. As an indigenous artist, I've been wanting to do something in this format for a very long time. When I talk to theater people I generally talk about immersive theater, and these things that come from a Western tradition. But actually I was taking all these different indigenous theatrical forms and putting them together into one piece. Our pieces are traditionally performed face-to-face, on a human level and human scale. [It's] so that we have to see each other, and we have to relate to each other directly. That's how we pass on our stories, and I want our audiences to have that experience. 

It's easy for me to identify the ways in which my mind was changed, the ways my eyes and ears were opened. If you are somebody in the company, or somebody spectating who is an indigenous person, what are they getting that somebody who's not indigenous isn't?

Indigenous people who've been coming to the play have reacted incredibly positively to it. Lots of people said, It's just like going to powwow, only you get to eavesdrop on everybody openly. You don't have to pretend! But it's also been very moving. I've had several people, artists, give me gifts afterwards because they said they can't talk about it yet.

It's too raw.

Yeah. All native people are invisible in this country, have been written out of the narrative, or written out of history. When you're that invisible, to see yourself is an incredibly moving experience. It's been pretty deep. A lot of tears. More tears on this show than I've seen on any other show I've done.

Cornerstone Theater Company stages "Urban Rez" outdoors at Kuruvungna Springs at University High School in West L.A. through May 1.

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