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The Kennedy Center: Rulan Tangen of Dancing Earth
On colonization, racial supremacy and playing Indian
A response to ‘Statement of Global Indigenous Identity and Solidarity’
Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The following was written by Rhiana Yazzie (Navajo). It was originally posted on Facebook and is republished here with permission.

I’m responding to the “Statement of Global Indigenous Identity and Solidarity” that Rulan Tangen, the founder and artistic director of Dancing Earth Indigenous Contemporary Dance Creations published online on October 12, 2020.

I urge you all to read this masterpiece justifying theft: the stealing of Native American identity, fellowships, grants, leadership, thought leadership, movie roles, and countless other robberies big and small, personal and public. Her letter makes up the three legged dog of recent self-revelatory letters by women claiming to be an ethnicity that they aren’t, ask Jessica Krug and CV Vitolo-Haddad.

But I want to point out how this letter is more deeply disturbing and damaging than those. Rulan and Dancing Earth’s letter never once take active responsibility for stealing Native identity. Cloaked in Las Vegas proportions of smoke and mirrors, the letter actually makes a detailed case for why it is OK for Rulan to be a Filipino woman playing “Indian.” The letter even blames everyone else for assuming her Filipino features were Native American while she dressed up in Plains Indian traditional clothing, Southwestern style jewelry, and modeled Native American designer’s work.

What we should see as we read this list of excuses is how Rulan has masterfully delivered the idea of being “Indian” without actually being “Indian” and wants to get your permission to keep doing it.

Join us Sunday , to embody knowledge in empathy with the organic patterns of life on earth with Rulan Tangen's Zoom…

Posted by Dancing Earth on Saturday, May 23, 2020
Rulan Tangen is seen in a post on social media advertising a recent virtual class titled “Movement As Medicine: Walking In Balance.”

The bulk of this letter is intentionally misleading. It’s expecting a mostly non-Native audience to be paralyzed by the mysterious rules of Native American spirituality and kinship customs. The letter disrespects, obfuscates, and equates Native kinship customs with permission to take Native grants and fellowships that were created to address the historical deficits American Indians face. Receiving a grant meant for a historically disenfranchised community has absolutely NOTHING to do with kinship.

The letter even details how she and Dancing Earth applied for and received funding by playing by the rules of those grants including ones by The Native Arts and Culture Foundation and The New England Foundation for the Arts (both of whom had been made aware of the artist’s uncertain heritage three years ago). Because there have been so many atrocities against American Indians, the word “Indigenous” has become easier to use in many funding and organizing circles for Native people that are not enrolled tribal members due to U.S. governmental policies, and unfortunately it creates ambiguity.

It’s in this word, “Indigenous” that the letter shows skill in knowing how to manipulate the status of disenfranchised Native Americans.

The Kennedy Center: Rulan Tangen – Millennium Stage – April 26, 2019

The letter details how over 30 years Rulan’s identity has evolved, and has allowed people, Native and non-Native to believe she was Native American. She now says, “I am often mistaken for or mislabelled as Native American, and my community kinship ties have possibly added to this mis-association.”

I met her at a radio station in Minneapolis and she allowed me to believe that she was Native American because of how she greeted me by recognizing my own Native heritage. I also believed she was Native because she was hosted by a local Native dance artist and was about to be interviewed on a Native radio program that I’d only known to have Native guests –because that is the radio show’s mission, to spotlight what is happening in Indian Country and the people in it.

Not once did she clarify any of our assumptions that she was not Native American, or that she was, as she states in her letter now, that she is Kapampanangan Filipino Indigenous. But again, this is meant to be paralyzing information that sounds like a legitimate cultural tie to the layperson.

Those familiar with this diaspora can and should speak about this. But I still recognize the pattern designed to freeze your nervous system rather than to offend and ask more questions as most kind people do not wish to replicate harmful practices done to them by white supremacy.

In this case, with this history, I would investigate more. And if this is true, that this is a legitimate indigenous cultural group that she claims and it claims her, then why did she not lead with this information from day one? Why was her company Dancing Earth built on a foundation of Turtle Island indigeneity while she appeared on Native Peoples Magazine cover dressed like a Native American, while has she taken roles in films for Native American women, while she has modeled in Native American clothing?

It’s because to the white gaze, her Filipino features read more authentic as Native American than the average real Native American. Disney’s Pocahontas character’s face was based on a Vietnamese model after all. Being Filipino and dressing up as a Native American taking spaces meant for Native people has perpetuated a harmful and unrealistic stereotype of the American Indian that wants to live on in the American wet dream.

There is so much wrong with this statement including the fact that it was released on Indigenous Peoples Day — formerly Columbus Day in many cities — taking up space meant for the real survivors of Columbus’ genocide. The title of the confession letter makes it sound like one of the many proclamations made by mayors around the country giving a nod to Indigenous People’s Day, including the one made by our very own President yesterday.

It also was quietly published on the company’s Facebook page; by the way, it got five likes. It was not on the front page of their website, instead it was the only post without a photo in their “News” section.

I think if the artistic director of an organization that serves Native people is coming out as not being Native American, it should be on the front page of the website. And lastly the most sad and problematic issue with this letter is how over and over again it brings the names of Native artists into a conversation that, for once, should only be about the artistic director. No one is contesting that this organization serves Native people, what we need to redirect the issue back to is the fact that the artistic director has used Native American identity to build power that should belong to real Native artists.

This letter says it was published with the help of a team of people, indigenous and non-indigenous, who themselves must believe stealing Native American indigenous identity is acceptable. If those who helped Rulan and Dancing Earth put this letter together do not either publicly disavow this egregious behavior, they must publicly announce their complicit role in this and tell us exactly why they think it’s OK that Rulan took on Native identity for 30 years and give the rest of Indian Country and BIPOC community an opportunity to respond.

To be clear, this letter doesn’t challenge pre-colonial perspectives on kinship, or that she has made deep friendships within indigenous communities, this letter challenges a person who monetized those relationships and lied about being Native American.