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Urban Rez: Native American Actor Kenneth Ramos on Representing Indigenous Communities

Kenneth Ramos, "Urban Rez" actor
Kenneth Ramos.

In partnership with Cornerstone Theater Company​: Cornerstone Theater Company makes new plays with and about communities.​

This article is part of an exclusive series about Cornerstone Theater Company​’s upcoming Hunger Cycle play, "Urban Rez," a community­-engaged production created in collaboration with members of the Native American community in Los  Angeles. "Urban Rez," written by Larissa FastHorse, an award­-winning playwright and choreographer from the Sicangu Lakota Nation, reflects  a contemporary story of urban Indians in Los Angeles through performances that examine the hunger that persists when culture, language, land and identity are denied.

Playwright Larissa FastHorse has worked to develop "Urban Rez" in response to her community's specific challenges. Her desire is to provide an experience that blurs the lines between theater, culture, and education and to present the play at outdoor venues, connecting audiences with the lands of the Native people of the Los Angeles Basin. The artistic process began by interacting with indigenous peoples of Southern California and learning about their culture, issues, needs, and aspirations. The end result will be an immersive theater experience that unfolds as part of an interactive cultural fair, held outdoors this spring at the Los Angeles State Historic Park and Kuruvungna Springs.

This series explores the play’s development process from the perspective of community members and artists involved in the project.

In this article, Kenneth Ramos shares his experience as a community actor in “Urban Rez.”

"Urban Rez" play rehearsal
"Urban Rez" rehearsal. | Photo: James Cheeks III.

Where I Come From 

Haawka! (“Hello” in ‘Iipay Aa, my Native language). My name is Kenneth Ramos and I am Iipay from the Barona Band of Mission Indians. I was raised on the Barona Indian Reservation in East San Diego County and moved to Los Angeles after graduating high school in 2008 to attend the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where I was one of eleven incoming American Indian freshmen. At that time, the overall American Indian student population made up 0.39 percent of the entire undergraduate student body. During that first year, I experienced numerous instances of ignorance and racism in and out of the classroom, and these experiences helped open my eyes to the systematic injustices and inequities, both historical and contemporary, which affect American Indian communities today.

Through my American Indian studies classes, I gained a more critical understanding of the history of my tribal nation, my family, and myself, as well as of the overall history of American Indians in the United States. My growing tribal consciousness isolated me from the 99.608 percent of the student population whose vague understanding of American Indian communities and issues was poorly cultivated by the media through films that perpetuated harmful stereotypes, like Disney’s "Pocahontas," and by our own state education system, where fourth graders are encouraged to build replicas of California missions out of popsicle sticks while ignoring the role the Spanish mission system played in the attempted extermination of California Indian language, culture, and people. This realization caused me to seek refuge with the American Indian Student Association (AISA) at UCLA, where I met other like-minded Native students and staff and began to connect with the Native community on-campus. My involvement in AISA deepened my understanding of the abundant and complex issues that American Indian nations face, while also exposing me to the diversity represented in the American Indian community in regards to identity, culture, and experience. The more I learned from my peers, the more I learned about myself, and through AISA, we worked together and organized around issues pertaining to American Indians in higher education, mostly outreach and retention. These experiences perfectly complemented my education in American Indian studies, and laid the foundation for my continued community involvement. The community I found in AISA became my chosen family and those individuals supported my growth and development as a young Native scholar and leader throughout my time at UCLA. It was my experiences in AISA that influenced me to be involved with the community and kept me grounded as a young Native man, living away from my own tribal community and family, in Los Angeles.

"Urban Rez" play rehearsal
"Urban Rez" rehearsal. | Photo: James Cheeks III.

Connection to the Community

In 2013, I graduated with a bachelor's degree in American Indian studies and a ton of passion for the Native community, but not a lot of ideas of what to do with it. I attended a Torres Martinez Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) job fair and heard about a potential employment opportunity with the Red Circle Project (RCP) at AIDS Project Los Angeles Health and Wellness (APLAHW). RCP is Los Angeles County’s only HIV/AIDS Prevention and Education program targeting American Indian Gay/Two Spirit men and transgender individuals. One job application, two interviews, and six weeks later, I had my first full time job as the RCP prevention training specialist. 

Los Angeles County has the largest population of American Indians in the country, and this is the only sexual health program designed to serve that specific population. The RCP staff, which only included my supervisor and myself, were responsible for serving the Native community throughout the county and we would do programming all over, from Long Beach to Palmdale. This job allowed me to use and further develop the leadership and organizational skills I learned in AISA, as well as my education in American Indian studies, to help improve RCP’s services and scope of outreach. Working with RCP also allowed me the opportunity to become more involved with the local American Indian community.

In addition to outreaching at essentially every local pow wow in L.A., I started to regularly attend monthly American Indian community meetings and other events (most of which are potlucks) to represent RCP and to better understand the local community (and to eat). As I became more acclimated to the local community, I was encouraged to take on leadership in some spaces; I was appointed to secretary for the UCLA American Indian Alumni Association and was elected to the general council of the American Indian Community Council (AICC) of Los Angeles. Eventually, I was hired at UCLA to be the new project director for the Retention of American Indians Now! (RAIN!) program, where I currently work. Since leaving RCP, I was asked to be on their community advisory board, and I have also worked to maintain my relationships with the other American Indian community organizations and agencies.

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In September 2014, I was attending the regular monthly AICC meeting and saw a presentation from Cornerstone Theater Company staff member Sage Clemenco and playwright Larissa FastHorse. Having a background in theatre from my upbringing in San Diego, I was instantaneously drawn to their project and eager to participate in one of the story circles they mentioned. Two weekends later, I made my first trip to the Cornerstone space in the Arts District and participated in my first story circle for the project. Aside from Sage and Larissa and myself, there were only two other participants and I was not sure what to expect. Luckily there were snacks, which quickly aided in alleviating some of my nerves, and we began the story circle. Sage and Larissa guided us through an activity where we drew our home, or the area we come from.

I remember drawing my entire reservation on both sides of the piece of construction paper: the main road, my mom’s house, my grandma’s house, the community center, the church, the cemetery, the casino, everything. I think we were there for an hour or so, sharing stories about our experiences as Native people, who we are, where we come from, and what it’s like to be Native in Los Angeles. The whole experience was interesting and even emotional. After that, I helped Sage and Larissa plan two more story circle events: one with Native students at UCLA that fall, and one with LGBT/Two Spirit Native individuals with RCP in August of 2015. We also held two readings of early versions of the script at UCLA in spring and fall of 2015. It has been an exciting experience to be a part of this process and watch the "Urban Rez" script grow and develop over the last year and a half and also see my story and the stories of my friends incorporated into the piece.

Kenneth Ramos, actor 2
"Urban Rez" reading. | Photo: James Cheeks III.​

Becoming part of "Urban Rez"

Theatre has always been a huge outlet for me, starting when I did my first play in the third grade. Through my life’s many ups and downs: the loss of loved ones, my parents’ divorce, my mother’s struggle with alcoholism, moving off the reservation, attending UCLA -- theatre remained a driving constant that helped me balance myself emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

I have been in roughly 45 theatrical productions and I have played an “Indian” in four of them. These [four] shows also happen to be the only productions where American Indians were actually present in the plot. Of these four portrayals where I was cast as an “Indian,” none of them were realistic, truthful, or contemporary. Each character was a racist stereotype of what the creators of these productions think an “Indian” is. In hindsight, these experiences had an adverse affect on the way I thought about myself as a Native person and about my community in general. These portrayals forced me to bury my Indian-ness deep inside myself and hide who I am and where I come from. It wasn’t until I was in college, when my critical tribal consciousness began to develop, that I reflected on my experiences in theatre through a more critical lens and ultimately denounced the art form for its inherent racism and lack of space for Native people.

"Urban Rez," play rehearsal
"Urban Rez" reading. | Photo: James Cheeks III.

Larissa FastHorse’s "Urban Rez" is the first production I have been a part of in six years. It is also the first production I have ever been a part of that discusses relevant American Indian issues while employing truthful and contemporary portrayals of Native peoples and our stories. Being in the cast of this piece has been more healing and emotional than I could have ever anticipated. There have been rehearsals when I could not help but cry because the material is so reminiscent of the issues my tribal community, my family, and I face as Southern California Indians. This experience has been a personal renaissance of sorts, bringing me back to my artistic roots with material that is meaningful and personal. "Urban Rez" is completely decolonial in its structure and content, and I cannot wait for everyone to see it, especially my family. It can be such a powerful thing when you see yourself and your struggles played out on stage, but those instances are extremely rare when you are only 2 percent of the entire country’s population. "Urban Rez" is that opportunity for my family, my tribe, and for other Native people to see themselves and their stories on stage, maybe even for the first time. Even more, I cannot wait for non-Natives to see the show as well. It will surely push them out of their comfort zone and force them to think about American Indian issues, quite possibly for the first time. Non-natives who see the show will actually have to consider Native people, our history, and our issues, which is something we, as Native people, are forced to consider every single day. Ultimately, we are indigenizing theatre. We are reclaiming space for Native peoples on the stages that sit on our tribal homelands and that is an act of artistic revolution, which is exactly what "Urban Rez" means to me.

 

"Urban Rez," Cornerstone Theater Company’s collaboration with the Native American community in Los Angeles, will perform April 7 ­- May 1.

Top image by Pamela J. Peters.

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