For a long time, Oakland activist and hip-hop theater artist Ariel Luckey (above, photo by Amanda Salzman) suffered the same social, cultural and historical amnesia that afflicts many of us. But he cured his amnesia by paying attention. And using everything he learned, he created a show.
Luckey grew up amid the rich, multicultural diversity of the Bay Area and knew his ancestry had Jewish and Christian roots, but he wasn’t clear what his cultural identity was, as he says, “besides being a generic American whatever.”
“I was coming into consciousness as a young adult, striving to understand who I am, where I come from,” Luckey says on the phone from his North Oakland home. “Asking deeper questions led to an interest in my family history and finding out where they came from, when they immigrated and what they went through.”
His first step was to interview his last living grandparent, his mother’s father, who now lives in the Midwest but spent much of his life on a Wyoming ranch, which, in the 1920s, really was the wild, wild West, with no electricity or running water, where the buffalo roamed and the deer and the antelope played.
“I had heard stories about the famous cowboy childhood of my grandfather, but I had never really talked to him as an adult and gone into the deeper dynamics,” Luckey says.
Delving into how the family got the land for the ranch in the first place, Luckey learned that his great-grandfather had homesteaded the land, which essentially means the government had handed over land to the family. So Luckey asked his grandfather who had been on the land before their family had it.
“He said it had been empty,” Luckey recalls.
That sparked a whole lot of questions for Luckey, who was then 23. He returned home to Oakland and began researching intensely, and he found out that within 10 miles of his family’s ranch in 1876, there was a major battle between the U.S. Army and the Northern Cheyenne, who were in their winter camp. This was just after the Battle of the Little Big Horn (aka Custer’s Last Stand), where the Army had suffered a brutal defeat. Federal policy dictated that soldiers hunt down resistant tribes and kill them or send them to a reservation.
The Army attacked at dawn, killed a number of the tribe, burned the village and sent the rest off into the snow with no supplies. Though many members of the tribe died in the harsh winter, the survivors turned themselves in to a reservation in the spring.
“A major turning point for the Northern Cheyenne had come, essentially, on land given to my family 45 years later,” Luckey says. “It was heavy when I found that out, and it makes this direct link between me and my grandfather and our family’s experience to a much broader, bigger experience of genocide of Native Americans. That was kind of a hard thing to sit with.”
Being an activist, a teacher, a poet and a performer, Luckey, now 29 (photo at right by Maryam Roberts), processed all this new information through art.
“It occurred to me that this is really a much bigger story than my family’s story,” he says. “Most white people have some version of this as part of their history. Studies say one out of three white Americans have at least one ancestor who homesteaded. This is really part of the nation’s legacy that is not talked about or acknowledged.”
A couple years ago, Luckey had taken part in Intersection for the Arts’ Alternative Theatre Institute, where he worked with noted Bay Area actor/director Margo Hall. When he started to create a show based on his family’s history, Luckey approached Hall about directing.
“What impressed me about Ariel is that this isn’t just a job. It’s his life,” Hall says. “He’s an activist, and I thought to myself, `Wow, look at this young hip-hop artist practicing what he preaches.’ The piece itself deals with white privilege, and I hadn’t really heard a lot about that. There was so much history in the piece I didn’t remember from high school. And he’s such a go-getter and such a hard worker, I knew we would be able to make a beautiful piece.”
After a number of workshops and test runs, Luckey’s solo show Free Land has its world premiere this weekend at Berkeley’s La Pena Cultural Center.
The 90-minute show, which features a score and sound design by Luckey’s brother, Ryan, that is scratched in onstage by DJ Sake1, begins with Luckey’s own story—a kid falling in love with hip-hop and learning about cowboys and Indians, learning about the Homestead Act in high school history and thinking it was boring as hell. He progresses through his experience of learning about his family’s ranch and the battle that took place nearby.
The battle itself is depicted in a rap song based on first-person narratives of people who were there, soldiers and natives.
“My intention with the piece is to critique the way history is taught in this country,” Luckey says. “I have to say that my wife is a history teacher at Berkeley High School, and I know there are some amazing teachers out there. But I think, systematically in this country, history is taught from a very European perspective and is pedagogically very boring and not for the iPod generation. I want to take history I think is important and fascinating and make it accessible to young people today.”
To that end, Luckey has developed an interactive workshop for schools or other groups that present Free Land in which he asks people to share information from their backgrounds, like where their great-grandparents were born.
“I’m amazed how many people don’t know the answer to that, let alone what native people lived on the land,” Luckey says. “People don’t know the names of their great-grandparents, let alone what their lives were like. It’s a broad generalization, but people around the world tend to have more connection to their histories, more honor for their ancestors than we do in our fast-paced, materialistic consumer society.”
Ariel Luckey’s Free Land is at 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday (May 1-3) at La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $7-$12. Call 510-849-2568 or visit www.lapena.org for information. Visit Luckey’s Web site: www.freelandproject.com
Here’s a sample of Free Land: