The evolving Shotgun Players temporary murals have been a fixture at the corner of Berkeley’s Ashby Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way since 2009, but the company’s newest addition to the outdoor space is a permanent work that it hopes to preserve.
“Welcome to Huichin, Lisjan Ohlone Land,” reads in bold letters surrounding the circular painting. A ring of amaranth, California poppies and acorns frames the image of an Ohlone woman standing on a river bank with Mount Diablo in the background, one hand on hip, gazing earnestly out over the viewers. She wears a tank top, skinny jeans, and a necklace of acorn and abalone beads; the tag to her shiny Dr. Martens boots flap in the air.
Painted by San Francisco-based artist Geralyn Montano with a lettering by Maybe Littlefield, the Shotgun’s land recognition mural was celebrated at an unveiling ceremony in front of the Ashby Stage on Saturday, July 23.
“Part of what we do is try to portray the widest possible range of perspectives and life experiences, and to examine the way we live our lives through the lens of theater,” said Liz Lisle, Shotgun’s executive director. “It seemed like including a land recognition statement in this work would be really helpful.”
The Shotgun Players first partnered in 2020 with the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, an indigenous women-led organization that works to restore indigenous land – a process known as remigration. His first action was to write a land acknowledgment statement to be read aloud before each performance, printed into programs, and posted in the lobby.
“We had this statement that everyone felt good about, but it was very inward for the building,” Lisle said. “If you were just passing by and not a ticket buyer and just walking loose in our neighborhood, you wouldn’t have access to any of this.”
Shotgun has used the outside walls of its theater as a screen to promote shows for years. Its Justice, Diversity, Inclusion and Belongings Committee decided that a permanent land recognition mural could be an effective way to create greater awareness of the Lisjan Ohlone people. The company hired Montano, who has Navajo, Comanche, French, and Puebloan ancestry, to create the play. In her work, the artist deals with women and themes related to their cultural heritage.
Montano’s depiction of a contemporary Ohlone woman came about after she and Shotgun consulted with women in the Confederate villages of Lisjan about the mural’s design.
“The Ohlone women didn’t want to see traditional regalia because that takes the indigenous people back in time and this is where we are today,” Montano said. “We wanted a contemporary look for the woman, so we thought of a young activist image.” The native plants depicted are among those used by Lisjan Ohlone for food and medicine.
Kanyon “Coyote Woman” Sayers-Roods of Kanyon Consulting LLC, a member of Indian Canyon Nation’s Mutsun-Ohlone congregation, encouraged Shotgun to infuse the mural with a connection to educational resources.
“If we can’t have a big essay poster next to it, what if we had a little QR code that goes to a website that updates as often as possible?” Sayers-Roods said.
A plaque with the QR code that leads to a web page will be installed next to the mural by next week, said Leigh Rondon-Davis, associate artistic director at Shotgun.
While this is seen as a step in the right direction, land recognition declarations alone are not enough, some say.
“Land recognition is a first step. They can’t be the last step,” said Jeanette Harrison, artistic director of San Rafael’s AlterTheater and descendant of the Onondaga Nation. “Too many long-established white institutions applaud themselves for making land recognitions while doing nothing for indigenous people.”
“I would give current organizations some advice and say, do some self-assessments,” said Terry Jones, cast member of AlterTheater’s “Pure Native,” which features a Native cast, playwright and director (Harrison). “Do your board and employees represent the community that surrounds them?”
Pure Native playwright Vickie Ramirez said there is a need for more programs that increase theatrical exposure for Native youth and provide resources and opportunities specifically for Indigenous performers. “We’re often so muted and obliterated in conversations that people don’t know we’re here and we’re unaware that we have these opportunities.” She said.
Sayers-Roods, Harrison, Ramirez, and Jones emphasized that individuals can actively support the local Indigenous community by supporting indigenous artists and theaters with indigenous leadership, learning about the story of Lisjan Ohlone, contributing to, and understanding of, naturalization efforts that land recognition alone is not enough.
“If you are not on the sacred land of your ancestors’ ancestors, then you are a visitor,” Sayers-Roods said. “How are you a good guest? We can learn about local knowledge, learn about the original indigenous stewards of these lands, and we could be in community in a good way.”