Liz Boubion isn’t interested in taking credit for 2021’s historic deluge, but she’s being very careful about how she words her weather-related invocation this year.
The founder and artistic director of the Festival of Latin American Contemporary Choreographers (FLACC), she and her team had spent months working on water-centric “sii agua sí,” a site-specific performance designed for the 18th Street/Mission Creek Corridor’s American Indian Cultural District. But when an atmospheric river forced the event inside at the last minute, they crammed as many of the activities as possible into Dance Mission Theater, where water also flowed, at least symbolically.
“We hosted three Ohlone muralists painting images of the water on paper on the wall,” Boubion said, while noting that, for this year’s event, “We’re praying for no rain on that day, and rain the day before and after.”
According to Saturday’s weather forecast, the prayers have been answered, as “sii agua sí” seems likely to unfold as originally intended. Presented by FLAAC, Dance Mission Theater, and the recently created American Indian Cultural District, the free outdoor festival starts at 2 p.m. on Oct. 1 with a prayer walk led by Gregg Castro from Mission Dolores to 18th Street, followed by a day-long event on 18th Street between Mission and Dolores Streets. The festival seeks to reveal what is hiding in plain sight, with a Latine and Indigenous dance festival celebrating long-buried pre-colonial waterways. The event also commemorates the thousands of unmarked graves where Native Americans were laid to rest during the Mission’s active period (1776 through the mid 1830s).
“Sii agua sí” translates into “water water yes,” as “sii” is the Ramaytush Ohlone word for water. During the day, a temporary sidewalk art installation by Adrian Arias and Pancho Pescador guides the audience and dancers, while the nighttime will be lit up by Ben Wood’s large-scale video projections of water. Water blessings, land acknowledgments, traditional and contemporary dances, ofrendas (ancestor altars) and DJ Ras K’Dee’s creek-water audio installation “will decolonize the area” along the car-free stretch of 18th Street, Boubion said.
“Part of my research was into the waterways,” she said. “There was a river that ran down 18th Street. As I dug deeper into the history, I found how the ecocide and genocide were connected. When you wipe out an indigenous population, who steward the land, you’re erasing very important parts of humanity and nature.”
Every Saturday for the past month, FLAAC has invited “sii agua sí” dancers, artists and culture bearers to a “Pouring Water” ritual to get acquainted with the space before the Oct. 1 festival. It might seem strange that people need to familiarize themselves with one of the city’s busier intersections, but even many of the Indigenous “sii agua sí” participants didn’t know that Dolores Park includes a marker designating the area as a Native American heritage site.
Still, many don’t know that the old Mission Dolores grounds contain “a desecrated burial site,” Boubion said. “There are no marked graves. Diving into the role of the church in colonization is painful. Andrew Galvan, who’s part Miwok, gave tours at the Mission and his great grandparents are buried there. We’ll be projecting the names of all the tribes and peoples who are buried to memorialize them and bring awareness.”
At the advent of the pandemic in March, 2020, the City established an American Indian Cultural District, the first of several initiatives that Native activists are seeking in their decades-old struggle for visibility (a cultural center is high on the list). Like many California tribes, the Ohlone aren’t recognized by the federal government, one of many barriers that have kept the Bay Area’s large Native American population under wraps.
Gregg Castro, a member of the Ramaytush Ohlone, sees “sii agua sí” as a small step in a long journey necessary for both Native Americans and more recent arrivals. “Most people grew up in our educational system, which still reflects the old thinking, that the Native people are gone,” Castro said.
“What we’re trying to do, as we slowly become more public, to overcome that belief. The Ohlone people aren’t gone. They’re hidden, hiding, asleep. But we’re back and wanting to engage. But culture isn’t something you can download into your brain. It’s an ongoing process. Opening that door is our initial goal in most cases. From our point of view, we’ve been here. These 250 years are only a pause, a relatively short period of time. We went away and now we came back, and we intend to stay.”