AURORA | Sarah Ortegon learned about the calorie-laden tradition of Thanksgiving like most school-aged kids who grew up in Denver in the 1990s.
There were hand-traced turkeys, top hats made of construction paper and plenty of flowery prose regarding the benevolent relationship between a group of English ex-patriots and the American Indians who helped them navigate the thorny New England landscape. The rich traditions tied to Native American cultures were nebulous facts listed in textbooks and on worksheets, thousands of miles and several centuries removed from her life in Colorado.
“Growing up I didn’t know what Native American was,” said Ortegon, who is now an office manager for a law firm that specializes in Native American and tribal law in Westminster. “The only part I ever learned about being Native American at school was Thanksgiving, and that was totally misconstrued. I didn’t understand what it meant.”
It wasn’t until she enrolled as a student at Metropolitan State University of Denver that Ortegon began to learn, in earnest, about her Eastern Shohone and Northern Arapaho roots.
“I had to go to college and I had to do research to find my history,” Ortegon said.
Shortly after graduating from Metro State University of Denver with a degree in fine arts in 2013, Ortegon’s continued fascination with her ancestral traditions resulted in her being named Miss Native American USA, which allowed her to spend a year traveling to American Indian reservations around the country giving speeches and leading programs on alcohol abuse awareness.
Now, nearly two years removed from her time as a full-time Native American cultural ambassador, Ortegon is taking to the stage to help spread the brutal, yet necessary lessons she worked to unearth through her university research. In her first-ever onstage performance, Ortegon is playing three different roles in “Black Elk Speaks,” which debuts Friday at the Aurora Fox Arts Center.
“This way, people don’t have to go to college to learn about some of the things that we went through,” said Ortegon, who is portraying Lucy, Crossover Spirit and Eagle Guide in the show. “They can actually feel what we’ve been through and the history of what the people went through. I feel that…I’m portraying the real history of what happened instead of the imagined history.”
Based on the 1932 book by John G. Neihardt, “Black Elk Speaks” relays the story and vision of Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota healer who witnessed much of the U.S. government takeover of tribal lands in the late 19th century. The story was adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel in the early 1990s and shortly thereafter made its worldwide debut at the Denver Center for Performing Arts.
Though the cast of The Fox production features actors of myriad ethnicities, many of the actors have American Indian roots, and several are members of the Lakota tribe, including Doug Good Feather, who portrays the eponymous lead.
Like Ortegon, Good Feather, who is a Hunkpapa Lakota from the band of Sitting Bull, said that the production offers a rare opportunity to paint an accurate portrait of a tragically vital chapter in Native American history.
“I want all people to understand that we have to know the truth of our history…so that we can start to heal all together as a people,” said Good Feather, who founded the Lakota Way Healing Center in the Four Winds Church in Denver. “Because if we try to sweep it under the rug, it will never stay under there. It will always surface.”
But just because the show is steeped in Native American tradition, doesn’t mean that it’s exclusive to a singular slice of society. It’s intended to act as a mirror for audience members of all backgrounds, according to Rodrigo Tactaquin, who has roots in the Cherokee Nation and is portraying Little Crow and several other roles in the production at The Fox.
“This show in particular should speak to a lot of people — not only American Indians, but anybody who (attends) should be reflecting on their ancestors, the struggles it took to get here, to settle and to exist,” Tactaquin said. “It’s a very moving tale with a very universal appeal. It is about inclusivity and I really enjoy that.”
Director, donne l. betts echoed Tactaquin’s sentiments on the show’s wide-ranging appeal.
“I think the lens of art can make it more palatable for some in the audience,” he said. “Some people may not come because they may feel guilty, but please don’t stay away because of that. It’s education, and not just that, but entertainment as well.”
Black Elk Speaks
Playing March 18 through April 10.
Curtains Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
The Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 E. Colfax Ave.
Adult tickets start at $28.