Passing Down Ancestral Knowledge Through Theater

By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015

Kenny Ramos (Barona Band of Mission Indians) is a theater artist and storyteller. His artistic experience covers acting in American Indian-written theater productions at professional regional theater companies including Cornerstone Theater Company, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The Rose Theater, Native Voices at the Autry, and the Kennedy Center.

Kenny has facilitated theater workshops with urban Native youth at the Annual American Indian Youth Conference at UCLA and with urban Native youth at the San Diego American Indian Health Center. 

He is a 2019 First Peoples Fund Cultural Capital Fellow and resides in Lakeside, California.

Applause resounded as Kenny walked on stage in his role as an all-star Pueblo basketball player. In the audience, he saw the faces of his elders there, beaming with pride. The Barona Circle of Elders had traveled to Los Angeles to watch Kenny’s performance in “Bingo Hall,” written by Dillon Chitto (Mississippi Choctaw/Laguna & Isleta Pueblos).

“I felt extremely honored to share my art and perform for them,” he says. “The memory of that performance will always remain near and dear to my heart.”

In 2017, after moving back home to the Barona Indian Reservation, Kenny started regularly volunteering with elders. Reconnecting with them, hearing their stories, and learning his Native language through classes helped Kenny understand the responsibilities of being a culture bearer for his people. 

“As a culture bearer, my development is centered on my lived experiences as a Diuegueño Iipay/Kumeyaay ‘iikwich (man) and on my growing understanding of my culture and language,” he says. “My experiences growing up on the reservation and being raised among my tribal community have instilled in me a deep sense of self and a strong connection to my people. I know who I am and where I come from.”

As he travels to communities across the country — Arizona, South Dakota, Nebraska, Alaska, and more — Kenny holds workshops where he instructs young Native performing artists in telling their stories through theater. 

He is also encouraging other performing artists he knows or meets along his travels to apply for First Peoples Fund Fellowships or attend one of our Native Artist Professional Development Trainings. Often he finds that these Native artists are deeply connected to their communities and work from their heart, taking the intentions of their work beyond the accolades of the stage.

“That’s what my mission is about — to use theater to have a positive impact for Native communities internally, but also externally,” he says. “How do we use theater to empower and heal communities?”

This is Kenny’s heart in whatever community he brings his work to, with the teaching of his elders keeping him grounded wherever he goes.