As Denver changes and grows, its past is more hidden. New buildings dwarf the old, and as we move further into the 21st century, without effort, Colorado’s history becomes more a distant memory. Who was here when it was carved out? What sacrifices were made? Who benefitted? Who lost? What are the residual outcomes today?
The story of the American West has been romanticized in books and especially film. It’s how most have learned about this time in history. Hollywood for the most part has chosen to marginalize and paint indigenous people with one broad brush. Rarely has the story of the West been told from the perspective of Native Americans, with rich spiritual and cultural traditions, which populated the lands Christopher Columbus ‘discovered.’ Black Elk Speaks, a production of the Aurora Fox Arts Center, is a re-telling of the story that recounts the history of Native Americans from the arrival of Columbus through escalating incidents like the Sand Creek Massacre culminating in Wounded Knee.
The story is told on stage through the voice of Black Elk, a Lakota Sioux, seer and medicine man. The play was first produced in 1995 at the Denver Center Theatre. At the time renowned director, donnie betts, was a member of the company, and he watched it from the wings. The play is based on the book, Black Elk Speaks by John G.Neihardt, and was adapted by Christopher Sergel. “They originated the piece from the book. The playwright actually passed away before the play was finished,” says betts. “So Donovan Marley who was the artistic director of the Denver Center and (I’m thinking) the widow completed the script. And then from there they did a production here in Denver with an all-native cast. Most of the actors were from Canada.”
Black Elk Speaks has only been produced three times previously. The Aurora Fox chose betts to direct this production. “The cast all being from the Denver area, is for me is what makes it very exciting, rather than having to go outside of Colorado to cast a show,” says betts. “And with the exception of one person they are all Native American.” As a young boy, Black Elk had visions of the decimation of his people, but being guided and protected by the spirits of his grandfathers, he survived numerous confrontations to tell the stories, even Wounded Knee. The play is a telling of the stories of various Native American chiefs and their people, including Red Cloud (Cheyenne), Manuelito (Navajo), Little Crow (Santee), and Crazy Horse (Lakota). Starting with the Tainos who met Columbus, it recounts the trust, mistrust, and betrayal that Native Americans across the continent experienced as their land was taken and their people slaughtered.
The mechanism for the narrative is an adaptation of these histories taken from the book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Although this was made into a movie, it tells the story of the demise of one chief and his people. In the play, Black Elk Speaks, his daughter, Lucy, encourages Black Elk to tell the story of Native Americans to a younger generation, in part because her son is misguided by the education of white boarding schools. This issue of not telling the whole story is still prevalent. Sarah Ortegon, an accomplished visual artist and former Miss Native American USA, plays Lucy. “I’ve been raised in Denver my whole life. I have gone back and forth to the reservation in the summers, and then I come back to the city,” says Ortegon. “And I never learned any Native American history throughout my whole entire schooling except for Thanksgiving. And I didn’t learn the whole truth about Thanksgiving.”
The telling of these stories to current and future generations is crucial. Interestingly both Sarah and fellow cast member Cosme Duarte (Red Cloud) commented that the impact of genocide among Native Americans was not on their minds until viewing the groundbreaking film about the Holocaust, “Schindler’s List.” Historic trauma and blood memory crept in. As youth, not growing up on reservations or disconnected from parents, they found themselves outside of their traditions and cultures. This play gives them a chance to re-connect and re-energize.
“For me this play has really just lit my heart on fire in a lot of ways, because not only do I get to do what I like to do…speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves, but in such a powerful way, with this play,” says Duarte. “I get to speak for 100 million people in two-and-a-half hours with my actions and with my words and maybe we can’t get everybody’s story out there, maybe we can’t reach everybody but the energy we have in this play has given me… has really turned me into a 20-year-old guy again.”
Native American chiefs were often young men, leading and protecting their people while in their 30s and 40s. Black Elk is older and has seen much in his life both through his visions and the trauma of death. Doug Good Feather, a Lakota, who has experienced his own trauma, having served two tours in Iraq in the Army, portrays him. For him becoming a warrior is a rite of passage, but the concept of the native warrior is different from western European definitions.
“There are other rites of passage, a warrior society where back then you would learn how to defend the people, how to take care of them, how to keep order, how to be a teacher, how to be a hunter and provide not just for the family but for the people. And today we still have that, and believe that,” says Good Feather. The Native American portrayed in the play were warriors peaceable, who protected their people first through treaties and negotiation, and when that was squandered, an aggressive defense became their only option, as their land was taken in the name of progress and personal wealth.
The point of Black Elk Speaks is for audiences to learn the truth. At the same time of the Civil War, the West was opening up, and so many Native Americans lost their lives, killed by the blue coats, as they were called, and not just the brave warriors, but also the vulnerable, women, children and the elderly. There are 16 cast members in the ensemble; the youngest is nine. When the massacres are re-enacted, you cringe from the sounds of gunfire. It’s difficult to watch as the bodies fall into the dirt and when this young actress fall the emotions well up inside you.
But as with many stories hope is offered in the end. After the scene of the Wounded Knee Massacre, at the conclusion of the play, this same young girl is offered a cup of water in a wooden bowl, a symbol of giving life, “to make live!” the entire cast chants moving forward on the stage.
“We want to entertain, enlighten and bond the community together. This show, probably more than any that we have produced in a long time is much more about confronting our history, confronting what happened, more than it is about entertainment value, said Charles Packard, executive producer, Aurora Fox. “There is beautiful singing; there is beautiful dancing; there is amazing story telling. But all of those things are there to give you a context of who the people were and are, rather than it is to entertain you the way a Broadway kick line does. And I hope that there is a bonding effect. When people sit in an audience and watch a play, they laugh and they cry and they applaud, and regardless of whether you know the people or not, you have that shared common experience, that momentary experience. I hope that they feel the bonding experience with the Native Americans that are certainly on the stage and hopefully in the audience, and that some commonality is found.”
Editor’s note: Experience Black Elk Speaks on the weekends through April 10. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sundays. For tickets and more information, visit www.aurorafoxartscenter.org or call 303-739-1970.