Acting for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Today

By Mariana Leal Ferreira and Dominique Devine (SFSU)


The spread of Augusto Boal's Theater of the Oppressed across the Americas and the
rest of the world can be understood in terms of Deleuze and Guattari's metaphor of the
rhizome, whose nomadic habit of growth and propagation mirrors the power of Theater
of the Oppressed to reproduce itself in more than 70 countries worldwide. The Theater
of the Oppressed rhizome is now deeply rooted in academia and has sprouted in
classrooms and in the streets, bringing together students, scholars, administrators,
policy makers, and community activists in the pursuit of social justice and human
rights. An examination of its use as a pedagogical tool calls attention to its potential for
creating a world in which human rights are appreciated and protected. Its use is
particularly timely today given the worldwide attention to the rights of the indigenous
peoples represented by the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples in 2007.



IronHawk on Death Row

IronHawk, an Apache warrior now on death row for 33 years, embarks on a spiritual journey at the moment of his botched execution at a maximum security prison in Oklahoma, in the Summer of 2008. The play examines the continuing Genocide of American Indians on death row in the U.S, highlighting the Geneva Convention's ban on the execution of Prisoners of War or P.O.Ws. The play is based on my experience teaching anthropology to American Indians on death row at a maximum security institution in Nashville, Tennessee, through the Long-Distance Education Program at the University of Tennessee (1999-2002).



May Your Body Lay Naked on Mother Earth

For almost 50 years, Pekwan and Wotek have been in love. Their deep, spiritual affection spans cultural and geographic borders, and the physical and political confinement of their dark, cold, and polluted 12 by 35-inch prison cells. Pekwan’s and Wotek’s bodies are crammed into cardboard boxes in a bio-archaeology lab, stacked up amongst thousands of brothers and sisters dug up from mass graves in northern California. The couple first met in 1959, when their spirits touched base in a damp, murky basement of a major U.S. University. “For all our relations!” screams Pekwan, as scientists pour her remains from a cotton bag onto an icy steel table, poking at bullet holes in her skull. “For the seven generations!” shouts Wotek, as researchers drill a hole through his left thigh in search of  fresh DNA.  Since their Indian marriage in the 1960s, Pekwan and Wotek have worked day and night to protect the human and animal rights of their two and four-legged relatives. “Sing me the Song of the Stars!” cries Pekwan, protesting her ancestors’ recent transformation into research data. “Weave me a garment of brightness!” replies Wotek, when the United Nations finally ratifies the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September, 2007. “We have made a footprint, we live in the light of day!” sing Pekwan, Wotek, and thousands of American Indian community members, commemorating their final repatriation and due respect for the right to proper burial of victims of Genocide in the United States.



Diabetes Jackpot

Yurok fisherwoman Mollie Ruud envisions her body as a slot machine that pops pills like coins in order to regain control of her social and emotional health. Born in the 1920s on the Yurok Indian Reservation in northern California, Mollie’s dilemma is whether to allow the billionaire casino and pharmaceutical industries to conspire and take control of American Indians’ soul and conduct in the 21st century. From behind a redwood tree where she was conceived, Mollie emerges in her traditional Yurok regalia singing shell songs of political liberation and emotional freedom, spitting out pills and coins originally used to devastate indigenous genotypes. Radical Theater is used as a powerful practice to change perceptions and actions of broad audiences and communities who still view American Indians as inherently at risk for diabetes, drug, and gambling addictions.



The Madness of Hunger

Antonio da Silva, a seven-year-old smart little nordestino, offers his body in sacrifice to forestall once and for all the madness of hunger in Alto do Cruzeiro, northeastern Brazil. Antonio considers himself “a lucky boy” and says he is “glad to be alive,” despite his bare-bone and ill health. He fears, however, for the fate of his younger twin sisters, on the brink of starvation, and for the sanity of mother Madalena, who suffers from chronic nervos. There is never enough food in the house for the children, who are constantly crying, driving Madalena crazy. One day Maria shares her last two Valium pills with her sister Madalena so that the woman can make the decision no mother can dream of: Which one of her three kids should she let go of this time? Should it be Maria Antonia or cross-eyed Carolina? Antonio, she ponders, is already too old to be an angel. When Antonio overhears the conversation between his mother and aunt Sofia, the boy decides to carry out his plan: to offer his own body, like Jesus did, to end the sacrifice of others. What ensues is a battle between life and death, between love and desire, and between justice and fate.


One-Act TO Plays, ANTH 300 Fall 2010–M. Ferreira

For the past four years, anthropology students in the Foundations of Anthropological History Class (ANTH 300), under the leadership of Prof. Mariana Ferreira and Theater of the Oppressed Director Jiwon Chung, have presented one-act plays as their final projects, using various social and anthropological theories to address contemporary social issues. In Fall 2010, nine groups of students wrote and performed their ten-minute plays on December 14, 2010.

Jiwon Chung
Jiwon Chung, Theater of the Oppressed Director

At the end of all nine presentations, the students voted to forum one of the plays, "Surrogacy: That's So Gay." Forum Theater is a part of the Theater of the Oppressed arsenal of techniques invented by Augusto Boal "to transform the spectator into the protagonist of the theatrical action and by this transformation, try to change society rather than contenting ourselves with merely interpreting it" (Boal 1992, p. 253, Games for Actors and Non-Actors). While the student-actors were performing "Surrogacy…" again, student spect-actors in the audience shouted STOP, stepped into the scene and replaced one of the characters in the play (in this case the surrogate mother-to-be or one of the gay fathers) in order to change the course of action and suggest a different outcome for the oppressive situation being represented.

Theater of the Oppressed as a movement is a powerful form of popular education that can be easily adapted to any classroom situation or topic to enhance student learning and engage them into social action. Here are the titles, brief descriptions and photos of the plays written and performed by Anthropology 300 students in December 2010:


Misinterpreting Humanity
Misinterpreting Humanity
This play explores the bullying of youth based on visual cues and two-dimensional stereotypes that violate their rights as human beings. By Cameron Wride, Dominic Rascon, Jessica Kahlich, Jessica Beltman, Erin Hoover. (Theory: Symbolic/Interpretive Anthropology)  


Surrogacy: That's So Gay

A gay couple announces its plans for surrogacy to their friends, who in turn attempt to talk them out of it misinterpreting Darwin's arguments. By Max Dibble, Rebeka Curioni, Todd Valentine, Erdem Durgunoglu, Mary Froeba. (Darwinism)


Diabetes: Diabolic: Dialectic

A French structuralist takes on the challenge of understanding diabetes based on its cause and treatment, focusing on the human mind's ability to understand the world in terms of binary opposites. (French Structuralism) By Kenya Harris, Chelsea Roudebush, Isaac Burdick, Kaitlin Miller.


Coffee, Tea, or Me?
A day in the life of a flight attendant who faces issues of gender inequality at every turn of her high-demanding job. (Feminist Theory) By Susan O'Sullivan, Megan Grabowski, Cassandra Peppard, Tatiana Zabala, Megan Schiller.


A Question of Wellness
This play explores the over-medication of children with behavioral challenges, from the perspective of critical medical anthropology. (Social Theory) By Hanzuwan El-Kindiy, Kadachi Clark, Ryder Darcy, Sarah Montoya, Ken Johnson.


War at Home
Upon his return home, a soldier develops PTSD because of the challenges he faces adapting to a new environment after his traumatic experience in Afghanistan. (Medical Anthropology). By Jessica Porter, Silvie Heiman, Christina Dubois, Laura Pontious, Rhianon Gutierrez.


Dying for Bananas
This play is about the labor rights of Guatemalan women and men, looking at the exploitation of labor in central Guatemala at the turn of the 21st century. (Marxism) By Adrienne Acosta, Courtnee Rizzo, Elyse Singleton, Caitlin Reardon, Courtnee Rizzo, Katelyn Cano.


Two senators, an anthropologist, a lobbyist, and an ambassador's assistant for the self-rule of Afghanistan have a debate about The War. (Historical Particularism) By Angelo Bullo, Matt Gzowski, Brea Violette, Khanh Cao, Steve Tow.


The Ultimate Citizen
Amy's parents think that there is only one way for her to become the ultimate citizen like her sister –go to College, get married, have kids, buy a house etc. -- but she has a very different plan in mind. (Cultural Evolutionism) By Jessica Meyers, Nicholas Kinsey, Laurel Somers, Melissa Martel.