Ariel Luckey Performs "Free Land" at Saint Mary's College

"Digging Down" Into Our Land, Our History

Luckey onstageAriel Luckey stands with his back to the audience, his head held low under a newsboy cap. With a sudden movement, he turns and begins to rap with a fever, a vehemence that you won't often hear on the radio, stunning the audience into reverent silence. He sings about hungering for spirituality, for roots, for a culture his family sold in return for white privilege.

I can't see my own reflection. … Who am I?"

"Free Land," Luckey's one-man play, which synthesizes poetry, dance, theatre and hip hop music, had its roots in Luckey's desire to answer this question. At the Soda Center on January 24, Luckey shared with a Saint Mary's audience how this initial impulse grew into a greater call to action for social justice.

He'd always known that his grandfather had grown up on a ranch in Wyoming. What he didn't know was that the ranch was a homestead, a "free" land grant from the government in the 1860s, land that was torn from Native American hands, that his grandfather claimed was "empty." Upon discovering the truth, Luckey was haunted by a need to know.

Who took the land away?...Who lived on that land?...Ignorance holds me, no one ever told me...."

Research revealed that the land his grandfather had grown up on had been the site of a brutal battle, the Battle of Chief Dullknife. In a poignant moment, Luckey broke into frenetic song, listing names of northern Cheyenne people who had been slaughtered – Walking Whirlwind, Four Spirits, Tall Bull – and details of the atrocities, the suffering: 11 babies who froze to death in their mother's arms overnight. His grandfather had hunted birds and rabbits on the same land where soldiers murdered Native American men, women and children. His family, and he himself, were "benefactors of monumental genocide," he said.

"The Story No One Ever Told Me"

Yet, he had learned none of this in his 16 years of schooling. One in five white Americans living today have at least one ancestor who homesteaded, he said, but this was not a statistic he had learned in class. For the longest time, the word "homestead" was not mentioned in his family, and his teachers never encouraged him to ask about his own connection to the events in textbooks.

"Our stories should be used as an entry into history."

The "specificity of 11 babies" is what transformed the vague, distant relationship he had with American history and encouraged him to take responsibility for his own education. Luckey shared some of what he'd discovered, what all of us should know: 98% of Native American land stolen; 98% of the Native American population killed; 10% of all U.S. land given to white people for free via the Homestead Act, land upon which black people were later enslaved. Luckey segued into a discussion of the “40 acres and a mule” that freed slaves were promised, and denied, another story of oppression.

"Why does this matter? Who cares? Ancient history. Dinosaurs!"

It matters because the ownership of land today, which continues to favor white people over minorities, is the direct result of 1860s federal politics, he explained.

"My Heart Is Broken, Open"

Luckey onstage closeupAfter visiting Wyoming with his mother and grandfather, he felt compelled to learn about the history of his own land, Oakland, where he'd lived all of his life. With a repeated cry of "digging down!", Luckey traveled back in time, back into Oakland's past, beginning in 1991, when mall construction disturbed hundreds of Ohlone graves.

"City council calls desecrated cemetery 'progress.' "

Increasingly animated, he continued to dig further back, to 1850, when money was offered for the heads of Native Americans, and to 1769, when a Spanish flagpole was thrust into the earth. At this moment, Luckey fell to his knees, overwhelmed, as the screen behind him turned red as if with the blood shed over centuries. "Ignorance is prison," he said, but this new knowledge was pain.

My heart is broken, open. That's why this poem's read."

Luckey paused in his story to engage the audience in a discussion of why this history is relevant today. Native Americans still struggle with racism and poverty. Even the way we celebrate Thanksgiving, without a discussion of the real history behind it, is oppressive, he said. Luckey stressed that no one alive today is responsible for what has occurred, but we are all responsible for what is to come.

"I don't have the answers, probably not even you.
But if we look at it together, we'll get a better view."

And then maybe we'll be able to call it "free land" because it belongs to people who are free.

By Indrani Sengupta '12

Photo by Jaycee Casalnuovo '12