Mother Earth blessed the opening of Borderlands Theater’s “Shooting Columbus."

The play takes over the small La Pilita Cultural Center, but the bulk of the performance is on the outside patio.

A gentle breeze blew for the March 30 opening, giving motion to the large cloth that covered the south wall of the center. One image would fade away and another would appear in this multimedia piece: of the land stripped by coal mining, a fence ripping a culture in two, Indian children solemn, short-haired and staring blankly at a camera.

The heartbreaking images seemed to dance with the breeze, making moving pictures of these scenes from the past.

“Shooting Columbus,” a collaborative piece by the Fifth World Collective, made up almost entirely of indigenous people, is a time-traveling piece that wants us to see what possibilities existed if Christopher Columbus had never brought his ships to these shores.

The land along Arizona’s Southern border would not be divided by a wall that prevents the Tohono O’Odham from traveling to important spiritual ceremonies. The Black Mesa plateau that runs across Navajo and Hopi lands in the Four Corners area would still be sacred burial grounds and be lush and livable with clean water because the Peabody Coal Mine would never have come in to destroy the land and break promises.

And languages and customs would thrive because generations of indigenous children would never have been forced to go to Indian boarding schools where they were not allowed to speak their language, dance their dances or wear their hair in the customary braids. That cutting of the braids, one man says in a recording, “was like an invisible pain.”

The actors have dialogue, much pulled from interviews the collaborative conducted over two years, and often recordings of the people interviewed are interspersed.

Dance is integrated throughout. And music, often jarring and filled with tension, fills the air surrounding the dirt patio.

There are elements of this production that haunt long after it’s over:

  • Images projected onto a backdrop for the outdoor stage are lit so that silhouettes of the actors appear, making it look as though they are ghosts walking through the land.
  • Before the play even “officially” begins, audience members are encouraged to wander through the rooms of La Pilita. One is a multi-media room with banks of televisions playing scenes from Indian protests. Audience members can put on headphones and hear what’s being said in each, or stand back and watch a visual cacophony of injustice. Meanwhile, two children sit at desks and draw, being forced to bear witness to their people’s ongoing humiliation and injustice.
  • In another room a woman slowly dances to “When the Next Teardrop falls,” one moment in English, the next in Spanish. Suddenly, the music screeches off and the radio blares an ad for Peabody, touting what great things the mining company will do for the environment, for energy, and, especially, for the people of the land. Her movements become faster, more desperate.
  • And one of the most disturbing images is of a young indigenous man dancing (Ryan Pinto, who choreographed much of the play and who moves like liquid) before he is yanked up by obvious Christian missionaries, baptized, stripped of his clothes and forced to don the uniform of a boarding school student.

There is much to drink in with this piece, which is packed with passion. And much to confuse.

Perhaps this was intentional, but just as the white man has fractured indigenous cultures with its diseases and thievery and injustices, this play, too, is fractured. It jumps from scene to scene with more thought to movement than clarity. It was hard to decipher the message.

But then, maybe the message is horrors have been committed against America's first people, horrors that began with the landing of Christopher Columbus’ ships. The beauty and harmony and respect for Mother Earth that was once a way a of life has been, and continues to be, viciously disrupted. In that case, the message is loud and clear and often eloquent.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@tucson.com or 573-4128. On Twitter: @kallenStar