In 2018, Heidi Duckler Dance began an initiative entitled Ramona: Reimagining, Unsettling, and Reckoning. The project was inspired by Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson, a novel released in 1884 that some consider the quintessential California story. The first performance in 2018 was at San Gabriel Mission Playhouse, and the second performance in 2021 will be at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles.

In preparation for the 2021 performance, HDD presented the Unsettling Ramona Salon Series. Recognizing our own positionality and complicity working and performing on land we are guests in, we worked collaboratively with Native perspectives to “unsettle” the Ramona story. The history of Ramona is both contested and complicated: while it created visibility for the issue of Native rights in America, it was problematic in the ways it romanticized California’s history and failed to create political change. Our company was honored to be joined by highly respected indigenous artists, activists, scholars, and thought leaders from Southern California. Our collaborators shared their work, lived experiences, and expertise on Native American history while examining the story of Ramona. Building towards a holistic understanding of these histories and perspectives will inform HDD’s upcoming “Unsettling Ramona” performance in 2021.

Read more about the history of The Ramona Project below, and stay tuned for more information regarding the 2021 performance and release of The Ramona Project composite book!


RAMONA at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse

RAMONA was inspired by the quintessential California story of the same name, written in 1884 by Helen Hunt Jackson. A west-coast coming-of-age story, Ramona was wildly popular across the country during a time when pageants were all the rage at the turn of the 19th century. Amplifying the golden romantic myth of California, Ramona became used as a branding tool for the state, and was a leading driver for people to migrate there from all across the country. Prophetically, the novel articulates themes of female empowerment; themes that are still relevant today. Now, more than ever, it is essential that people in our communities – especially young women – be exposed to stories that celebrate strong female role-models who have played a major part in shaping the history of California, like Ramona. Setting the production at the historic Mission Playhouse, which is said to be the birthplace of Ramona, provided the perfect opportunity for audiences to discover the cultural significance of the story through dance and contemporary American music.

Choreographed & Directed by Heidi Duckler, this work featured Heidi Duckler Dance’s company dancers, Lenin Fernandez, Roberto Lambaren, Ryan Walker Page, Rafael Quintas, Rosanna Tavarez and Himerria Wortham accompanied by live indigenous instrumentation by Chris Garcia and live violin by Israel Heller.


Unsettling Ramona Salon Series

In August of 2020 we had a 3-part salon series titled Unsettling Ramona with Indigenous artists, activists, scholars, and thought leaders amplifying the histories and contemporary experiences of Native Americans in California through art, music, conversation and a deep dive into the story of Ramona.

Unsettling Story

We kicked off the salon series with “Unsettling Story” featuring Dine multimedia documentarian Pamela J. Peters who was born and raised on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and scholar Dr. Yve Chavez who was born and raised in Los Angeles, California as a member of the Tongva tribe. Dr. Chavez discussed the history of California’s missions and their role in shaping public perception of Spanish colonial legacies and Indigenous experiences in Southern California from the late nineteenth century through today. Pamela explored how Indian representation and removal policies are translated in Hollywood filmmaking and how visual sovereignty through a Native lens can promote the perseverance of Native American/American Indian community populations despite decades of colonial assimilationist policies.

Unsettling Self

HDD continued the salon series with “Unsettling Self” with actor, writer, artist, and photographer Robert I. Mesa (Navajo/Soboba), dancer, singer, and musician Duane Minard (Yurok/Piaute), and Artistic Director of Native Voices at the Autry DeLanna Studi (Cherokee). Mesa shared and discussed his film, Devon’s Forrest, a love story that portrays the unbelievable amount of Indigenous Women that go missing in the US and Canada. Minard discussed how his traditional acting career started with the Ramona Pageant in Hemet, California and shared his experiences acting for both Non-Native and Native playwrights and screenwriters, which lead to his own journey into playwriting. Studi talked about her work as a Native Woman, as an actor, playwright, advocate, and new Artistic Director of Native Voices.

Unsettling Sound

Our third and final installment of the salon series was “Unsettling Sound”, which featured CSULB Assistant Professor Dr. Theresa Gregor (Iipai/Yaqui), indiginous punk musician and Musicology Ph.D. student at UCLA Kristen Martinez, and intellectual scholar Esmerlenda Pum. Dr. Gregor discussed her reading of Ramona, and her insights about how we can decolonize the fabrication of California’s mythical past created by this novel, and shift the conversation to focus on the lived experiences of California Indian women, their struggles, resistance, and survival. Martinez presented on her archival work of Indigenous punk music and subcultures, as well as her experience in academia and studying punk music. She also shared her band and her song writing process explaining their aim of amplifying Indigenous communities, the land we reside on, and communities of color. Pum unpacked settler colonialism in regards to California settlement based on the settler colonial mentality of manifest destiny and the erasure (genocide) of Indigenous people through the California arch dream of fantasy escapism during which Ramona was written and the problems of romanticizing these settler-colonial fantasies.


Unsettling Ramona Filming

In April of 2021 we had an intimate experience filmed on site at Los Encinos State Historic Park. The film traveled across the site with live drumming, a land acknowledgment, eight original short projected films accompanied by Carla Lucero’s operatic score, and culminated with a live operatic experience at the pond. Extras gathered and engaged in a call and response with the artists, performing the final chant that transforms the story of Ramona into one that honors the Native voice.

Photos by Gary Leonard and Rush Varela.