First, We Dance. Next, We Decolonize Our Food Systems.

How the Indigenous artists of Dancing Earth are creating a creating movement.

Dancing Earth company members on stage at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO, September 2016. Photo: Paulo Tavares.

Who wants to talk about food? It’s hard not to love one of the most vital and tantalizing components of human existence. It is nourishment. It is communal. It is medicine. It is reflective of each specific culture that produces and relies on it for survival. Unfortunately, food is also political. The politics surrounding its production are layered and complex. Even so, it is not impossible for our society to grasp the harsh reality that there are oppressive food systems in place. As Henry Kissinger said in 1974:

Control oil, you control nations; control food and you control the people.

We need accurate and honest information about how our food is produced in order to make well-informed decisions before we consume it. The stranglehold on society of the colonization-meets-capitalism model maneuvers itself into our food production systems and denies us that choice. It’s a sinister model steeped in greed, violence, abuse and a fundamental lack of empathy. It’s also unacceptable. Colonization has literally severed the relationship between a majority of humanity and the food that sustains us. When we understand how all of this works, we understand the need to decolonize our food systems.

Dance is playing a role in making this happen right now.

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Dancing Earth is a dynamic group of Indigenous artists from various cultural and professional backgrounds. Their diversity literally dances messages that promote ecological and cultural awareness, healing and peace between all peoples. The company is celebrated for awakening its audiences to the dire need for our return to Indigenous food systems, to restore the balance on our beloved planet and to improve our health as individuals.

Rulan Tangen, Dancing Earth’s founder and artistic director, is renowned for her creation of masterful collaborative performances that ooze with both artistry and activism. She is a recipient of the Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow Recognition Award, which highlights artists who use their work to inspire positive change within the communities they touch.

Seeds: Re Generation is Dancing Earth’s current touring production. It calls for a return to Indigenous food systems while exposing audiences to First Peoples’ cultural practices and concepts of life. It emphasizes the importance of a respectful interrelationship between humans and all elements of the Earth. It also uses more than dance alone as a tool to awaken the audience. There is striking multimedia imaging, carefully adorned regalia, compelling musical arrangements, and drumming and songs from multiple Indigenous cultures. The following clip gives us a window into studio rehearsals, staged movement, and interviews with those involved in the production of SEED, expressing how and why the experience helped them grow as dancers, artists, and human beings:

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Why is all this so important? We, as a global community, are in the midst of turbulence, of chaos. Many of us are keeping a hopeful heart in the face of it, but it doesn’t negate the reality before us. We need to progress. We need change. Not soon, but now.

Let’s also look at this from an Indigenous First Peoples’ perspective. The Reservation Era in the US took place in the late 1800s. It contained them in compartmentalized spaces that restricted and, in some cases, terminated the continuation of their subsistence strategies — strategies in place for centuries before European colonization. In short: Native Americans lost the power to produce and create their own food.

Then, in an attempt to reconcile its relationship with the tribes, the US government used the military to ship rations of food to federally-recognized tribes as “compensation.” This was, and is, an utter failure as the government offered food rations containing of little to no nutritional value — sugars, white flour, cheese, canned foods with chemical preservatives, and so on. The result remains rampant Type II diabetes among Indigenous peoples.

This problem is also global: studies prove that other nations that suffered the invasion of uninvited Europeans now house Indigenous Peoples experiencing similar health crises. We need to reverse this, obviously. And while it may sound like a challenging task, it is not.

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Lebanese-American ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan witnessed the reversal of Type II diabetes symptoms in Native peoples through a “healing pilgrimage” that decolonizes their daily food intake. According to Nabhan, within 10 days, their weight and blood sugar levels were

…dramatically reduced and everyone felt healthier. The changes began so immediately that several participants had to seek medical advice to figure out how to reduce the hypoglycemic medications they had been self-administering for years.

How does dance apply to all of this? Let me direct you to a conversation between me and two women in the middle of a Dancing Earth performance in September 2016, in Durango, CO. They women were ushers for the show. Prior to the doors opening for the audience, they graciously led me to a place in the balcony where I could film them comfortably. At the beginning of intermission, I turned around to find them both crying. They gushed about the state of desperation our planet is experiencing and how we, as Earth’s inhabitants, own the responsibility to do whatever we can to repair this relationship, to restore the health of the planet. They asked me questions, such as “What can I do?,” “What can we do?,” and “How do we disempower those who bolster legislation that contributes to our planetary crisis?”

I realized then that spreading awareness of social, ecological and political change through performance does work. It forces us to look up from our tech devices that greedily vie for our attention and to contemplate our future as a global community. It is clear, too, that Tangen has developed a strategic plan through her creations. Her intentions are pure and committed and passionate — a vital contribution to establishing global consciousness.

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As a reviewer of some Dancing Earth performances as well, I’ve sat with many audiences  and witnessed their reactions. Each performance guides them through an emotional journey; we smile, giggle, wince, gasp, cry. It’s a multi-dimensional experience, including the sheer joy of witnessing once-thriving Indigenous food systems in their own dance of life, and the devastation and cultural death that occurs when these systems encounter the violence and oppression of European colonization.

There is no comparison to watching the staged embodiment of hope. Let us be inherently resilient. Let us rise again.