the land remembers, do you remember the land?

listen to the audio version here

We are in the midst of a great remembering. We’re remembering what it would be like to live in a world where there is ecological justice, where other species would look at us and say those are good people, we’re glad that this species is among us. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

this is Owning
this is Knowing
this is Forgetting
this is Forgetting The Land, is Forgetting Whose Land, is Acknowledging The Land, not to Remember the Land but simply to be right, but not right with The Land, just correct
this is Politically Correct

this is New York
this is New Amsterdam
this is West Village
this is East Village
this is Upper West Side
this is Upper East Side
this is Manhattan
this is Not Manhatta, Not Lenapehoeking, Not Wappinger, Munsee
Not Narragansett and Wampanoag
this is King Philip, is King Philip’s War, is Philippines
this is Not Massasoit, Not Wamsutta
this is naming streets after those you massacred

george emilio sanchez stands in a dark theater to the side of a projection on the back wall of trees and red lettering stating “NOT YOUR LAND” – Photo by Patty Ortiz

In December 2021, I scribbled a version of this on an envelope on my way to a meeting at Hunter College where I work. I was frustrated with the perfunctory nature of the trend in land acknowledgments. Or… rather… I was frustrated by the trend towards land acknowledgments that feel perfunctory. They show up as a re-calibration of correctness, not abolition of colonial constructs. When is land acknowledgment more than just “my bad, let me just update my language but not my thinking, being, doing.” When followed with the recognition that the acknowledgment is a small gesture on the way to the dissolution of the violence seated deep in our collective DNAs, I hear a consciousness. But, still…what is the point of a land acknowledgment when one hasn’t remembered the land under the concrete? Even sitting with eyes closed in a room or on zoom and rooted downwards or leading a group through an invitation to remember and reckon with ancestral legacies… how long til we resumed colonialist hierarchies, systems, aesthetics, language… time. What then? What next? Not next in a linear worship of Kronos way, but next as in next to me, who is moving with me? Who am I moving with? When does acknowledgment become invitation, summoning, and remembering into the land so we can walk, roll and sing with the land.

Once we heard no gunshot on these lands; the trees and stones can be heard singing. -Joy Harjo, “Bless This Land”

This spring, george emilio sanchez (he/him) and zavé martohardjono (they/them) each brought forward pathways to liberation through invocations of loss and land. With deep, mycelium-rich rootedness these works encourage an active listening to the land as the way to our great remembering. These works share kinship with one another as well as (quite hearteningly) others I saw very recently by devynn emory, iele paloumpis and mayfield brooks. Whether critical mass or critical community, I can hear the stones singing. Through word, song, gesture, image (and description) these artists activate a contemporary orature practice to bring us closer to the possibilities that we can bring the #landback. george’s “In The Court of The Conqueror” ran at Abrons Art Center March 10-20. It was a solo theater performance, with visual design by Patty Ortiz, about how US courts repeatedly diminished the Tribal Sovereignty of Native Nations, as well as george’s navigation of generational trauma and Indigenous identity within an Ecuadorian immigrant family. The performance I attended was also a duet with an American Sign Language interpreter. zavé’s “TERRITORY: The Island Remembers” invited us to consider colonialism via parable and to connect to legacies of revolution in collaboration with x, Ube Halaya, Raha Behnam, Marielys Burgos Melénddez, Julia Santoli, Katherine De La Cruz, Jordan Reed, Proteo Media + Performance, and Rosza Daniel Lang/Levistky. Produced and co-directed by Maya Simone Z, it premiered at Gibney April 7-9 as an activation of their week-long multimedia installation in Studio Y.

the projected image on a back wall of a dark theater of george emilio sanchez with long silver hair standing naked in front of a field with the caption “Indians lost their sovereignty” at the bottom. – Photo by Patty Ortiz

“In the Court of the Conqueror” begins with the Abrons Arts Center land acknowledgment. This opening allows george to recognize its collaborative and conscious construction before pointing out that the practice of land acknowledgments started in Toronto, Canada in 2013. However, the concession that we are on stolen ground still waits for a deeper understanding of owning. How could one steal what was never owned, what was never meant to be owned. How can one ‘discover’ lands that were already being lived with in robust and integrated ways before “The Encounter?” How do we uncover what has been insistently ungrown? When all of the built world – the architectures, the educations and the law of the land has been repeatedly, consciously, insistently designed against what Poet Laureate and Muscogee Nation member Joy Harjo calls the “great unknowing in this land.” The reality of theft remains excessively devious through a deep belief in a supremacy verified through divine creed, as george states:

The idea that these lands belong to anyone else besides the ones who were here first, the reality that a collection of invading Europeans could conger up, devise, manipulate and exploit their own law-making making, conceived in self-serving, unequal, unjust ways is to understand the line of division we all live within our blessed ignorance where white supremacy is the law of the land is only achieved by a belief that God is on their side. 

The persistent maintenance of more than one Doctrine of Discovery and the way legislation and jurisdiction perpetuate disappearance and destruction feed the conqueror’s courts throughout the densely packed and deeply personal show. george’s research for this work, the second in his Performing the Constitution series, included enrolling in a Masters in Legal Studies in Indigenous Peoples Law. His Covid lockdown was spent examining the sovereignty of nation, state and tribes and the many historic frames, cases and structures that enable planned and persistent legal genocides and erasure of loving stewardship of land and water.

george emilio sanchez stands with hands outstretched in front of projected video of george in sunglasses. Photo by Patty Ortiz.

By the end of In The Court of The Conqueror he appears on film, apparently naked as the day he arrived, in an open field in a gorgeously unfettered call to rouse ourselves from easy complacency and back to something raw and remembered.  Over many years working with him on First Amendment rights and sanctuary spaces, gun violence, union issues at the City University of New York, and guesting for his artist-activist incubator, EmergeNYC I know him to make work that cuts to the point and serves opaque processes and hidden histories to the people on a personable platter. His previous work “XIV” at Dixon Place in 2019 had brought legal precedent and autobiographical fieldwork together into a potently heady mix of the calculated way law and justice remain on the side of the invaders. Throughout “In The Court of the Conqueror,” he continues to merge his personal journey with the huge forces that feed our lives. Having been born in the United States as a brown-skinned boy to Ecuadorian immigrants placed me within cultural and racial parameters no one in my family, let alone myself, ever really comprehended. He winds youthful confusion, adolescent wanderlust and familial maintenance of colonialist legacies – I was 5 years old the first time my mother called me Indio de mierda – together with a newly acquired education in Indian Law.

The alchemy of george’s artistic voice operates where these issues crash into his own family’s experience in America. I also recognized how the colonizer and the colonized live in the same family. His eloquent and sometimes highly intoxicated quest for the origins of a self that has become hidden through years of migration and indoctrination reveals the complex melted knot that many of us must carefully and forcefully take apart as agents of change.

As a child, the tone of my mother’s voice whenever she called me this was enough, ‘Indio de Mierda’.  But as a child I didn’t really understand what she meant until much later in life.  But when I realized she was calling me an Indian made of shit…that wasn’t good.  It was vile, mean, and totally inaccurate. Maybe a piece of shit, but not all shit. So, clearly, my family in Orange County were not the ones to ask, “Are we Incas?”

In memory filled ricochets, george details a road trip in his 20s. He and buddy Nick make their way to Maccu Pichu from Santa Cruz to Mexicali to Mexico City to Merida and the Yucatan where they then detour to Jamaica because of Bob Marley and reggae and then from Kingston to Trinidad they fly to Caracas, Venezuela, get a bus to Santa Marta, Columbia, catch “el tren del muerte” to Bogota, almost 9,000 feet high in the Andes then a bus to Guayaquil, where after 20 years he reunited with members of his father’s family. But, he details being held down by cousins and having three inches of his long hair cut against his will. And then the cousin who cut my hair wagged it slightly in front of me and said, “No somos indios de mierda.”

george emilio sanchez stands with hands open with a projection of white branches on a black background on them and the wall – Photo by Patty Ortiz

The struggle through generational trauma and constitutional law is a massive effort. It can be quite a wave to face the energies and realities, but often Patty Ortiz’s visual collaboration fills out the epic levels of storytelling for an immersive experience. In addition to completing his law degree, George and Patty travelled across seven states and the ancestral homelands of Native Nations where the Supreme Court cases that are cited in the piece changed jurisdiction. The relationship to “place” seeps in through an autobiographical journey set alongside the overwhelming pattern of local courts siding with local tribes and the Supreme Court – in later appeals – siding with settler colonialist power grabs. The insidious threading of self-erasure within families and the explicit violence of planned genocide and white supremacist greed become entangled struggles. This is what history classes should look like. The work is full of many specifics of place-based cases and the times that they change. In fact, there are more than I can detail here, so if this work is presented near you, please get your learning on because as george states: we still have a ways to go before the arc of the universe emanates from a place of justice.

Bless the gut labyrinth of this land, for it is the center of unknowing in this land – Joy Harjo, “Bless This Land”

4 dieties played by Ube Halaya, zavé martohardjono, x, and Raha Benham sit at a tea table in front of a projected image of Ube and zave – Photo by Scott Shaw.

I met zavé at george’s show in a synergistic connection with the other work that many artists are re-seeding about spaces of sharing. Especially in the late-days of Covid’s long energetic drain on my system arriving in the same proximal time/space is increasingly love’s labor. The spring was an onslaught of movement through spaces I’d lost the stamina for. It often felt as if none of the restorative care practices that many of us tried to activate could continue in the effort to “return to normal” and “get back to work.” Pavement started being pounded, crowded trains refilled and the crush and rush commenced as if short-term memory loss was a collective imperative for capitalists. I know the culture of the city leans heavily into a quick hit, like a fast-food bufo road to nirvana, but this is not how one best converges with the land. Better to seek a soft landing in sweet grass.

In zavé’s effort to make a work by, with, in and for community, the gathering (awkward as many of us are now) was as fresh as wild sunflowers. One of the ideas that artist iele paloumpis introduced me to was the idea of re-member-ing as the gathering back of the dis-membered. And in this way there was much and there were many to re/member with. Hunter alumn and collaborator Katherine De La Cruz greets me at the entry to Studio Y, Gibney’s Blackbox Theater and asks if I am dressed for a wedding or a war. With so much army green on and a bomber jacket, I concede I’m in a lot of conflict-based attire, but as fortune would have it, that lands me right next to Yanira Castro and we’re able to catch up on parental battles within NYC’s public school system. devynn emory and Reilly Horan cross the divide for a brief conversation, and at the interlude I track John Gutierrez and Kim Savarino for a hydration session and giggles.

zavé crouches on a table with a grimace like a SE Asian god face, other bodies lay on the floor – Photo by Scott Shaw

The ensemble of co-creators with zavé martohardjono as lead artist, co-creating, writing, directing, producing, designing multimedia and installation with Maya Simone Z. as Co-Director, Associate Producer, Raha Behnam as Co-creator, Writer, Performer, Installation Lead, Ube Halaya as Co-creator, Writer, Performer, x as Co-creator, Performer, Marielys Burgos Meléndez as Co-creator, Julia Santoli as the Music and Sound Director, Proteo Media + Performance Video & Projections, Jessica Ray as co-editor, rosza daniel lang/levitsky as Installation Artist and Jordan Reed, Katherine De La Cruz & Theresee Tull as Community Engagement Coordinators make this multi-disciplinary, interactive project and installation a relevant parable for re/membering a divided island in the midst of a climate crisis. The work began with a gently sung chant played out of the speakers. Over and over we were asked “Do You Remember?” But this remembering is both the re/membership of our gathering and the remembering into possible futures beyond. And, months later, as I drop back into my memories of the evening, I re-experience a rooting into the play space of possibility. Like joy as a methodology and pathway for surpassing survival states, play becomes a vital tool to dismantle the architectures of colonized culture. As an ambivalent achiever type within the marginalized place of dance in academia, I have come to hold play as our secret weapon. As I sat on the side of those dressed for war, I also sat with an acknowledgment of the land practices of guerrilla armies who tunnel underneath an occupied city and I remember that many species play for thrival. I remember the importance of mischief and monkey spirit.

x in dark theatrical lighting with blue wings, pink satin shorts and a pink leather harness – Photo by Scott Shaw

Western science has often simplified play into an evolutionary imperative of preparation for battle. The young play on their way to adult concerns like power. And, at first glimpse when I catch x tracking and hunting Ube to a finger-licking good consumption, it would be easy to relegate it to a mimicry of a larger violence. But throughout “TERRITORY: The Island Remembers,” zavé, x, Ube and Raha channel deities who reckon and romp through an energetic dialogue that lets pleasures of exploration, domination and release pass through the gathering just like the stalks of eucalyptus that were gifted out to the seated members of this brief re/union. I re/member a spirited ensemble shape-shifting with frisk and delight. Sometimes this trans/forming is a visual costume signifier such as x in a leather pink harness, with wings and a curly tail flitting, pouncing and melting in and out of pixie-dom or Raha clad in feathers, shifting and twitching with a bird-like head pattern. But quite often the shape-shifting was through delicious energetic ambiguities, like zavé’s enigmatic smile as our eyes make contact and their whole signature trans/figures in space and time.

Raha in lavender wings and feathers with arms outstretched. Photo by Scott Shaw.

Here was the great pleasure of shape-shifting magic, the one who is known and the one who is unknown, the ineffable and indescribably sacred. The ontological power of transitory states, the be-ing-ness of the threshold spaces. It was in the shifts, not necessarily always the shapes that the re/membering could awaken. Like the seasons, like when we stay in line with the changes of natural worlds and release the electric light, temperature regulated, Claritin popping practices and saturate in the bloom of an apparently undeveloped island that is projected on video at the beginning of “TERRITORY.” There are many streams running throughout the work from the collaborating community. With the various installation encounters, interactions and sonic spaces, the work is about much more than what the deities present to us attendees. Arboreal, avian and ants-eye views of the world shift in and out of micro and macro multiplicities. I see the adrienne maree brown-ism of “small is all” rippling through the entire planetary system that these royal beings ritualize with the finery and fancy of an indigenous futurism.


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