West County woman brings Miwok story to stage

David Briggs
Gina Cloud, a Bloomfield resident and the playwright of the upcoming production, “Tamal Ko: a California Story” provides on-hand direction to her actors during a rehearsal last weekend. The play follows the history of West Marin’s original inhabitants.  
09/14/2017

The scene begins with a casual conversation between grandfather and grandson. They talk about high school football practice and an upcoming dance, but they soon drift into the past and the boy’s indifference toward their Coast Miwok heritage. 

“When it comes to the past, it’s hard for me to believe things were really that great before Europeans showed up,” Levi, played by 17-year-old Sam Gleason, says. 

His grandfather, performed by Ramiro Ramirez, offers another perspective. “The past is the soil the present grows from,” he explains. “When things go haywire, it makes sense to look back and figure out the what, why and when of the problem… It’s all cause and effect, after all.”

Wearing three hats—playwright, director and producer—Gina Cloud warmly guides the two actors, along with nine others, through a story she’s spent the last four years researching and crafting to reflect the brutal and mangled history of West Marin and Sonoma Counties.  

“Tamal Ko: A California Story” debuts on the Tomales Town Hall stage in November, and today the actors are nailing down their blocking and direction from the petite woman who circles the Bloomfield Town Hall with a crumpled script in hand. 

After a couple of theater productions in Bloomfield—a three-block town east of Valley Ford and her home of 38 years—including “Fertile Fields: The Story of Old Bloomfield” in 2015, Ms. Cloud returns with her most ambitious project yet. 

Even though the play takes place entirely in Western Marin and Sonoma, Ms. Cloud said she chose the subtitle because “the story of what happened to the Coast Miwok is very representative of what happened to many of the tribes of California.”

The seven-act play chronicles the beginnings of the Coast Miwok people who lived virtually harmoniously in the region for thousands of years before the arrival of colonialists, missionaries and other settlers. The narrative follows two modern-day descendants discovering their past, interweaving scenes of colonial encounters, missionary indoctrinations and ruthless bounty hunts. 

“It’s clear to me now: I’m not telling the history of Miwok people,” Ms. Cloud said. “I’m not qualified to do that. But I am telling a story about them, and it’s a story about us—all the people living in this area. Many of the people in this area are descendents of the settlers. It’s a story about the consequences of Manifest Destiny, colonization and discovery: things that really fueled the Westward Expansion. And what that brought to us and where are we now. How has our thinking evolved?”

Ms. Cloud, a retired English teacher who directed after-school drama programs, spent most of her 23 years teaching at middle schools in Rohnert Park. In recent years, Ms. Cloud produced plays to raise funds for Bloomfield’s town park. After the success of “Fertile Field,” she set out to develop a story focused on indigenous people, a subject she said has always piqued her interest. But information was scattered and difficult to locate.

“The history of the native people was not written down and it was mostly lost, either through the missions, the Gold Rush or Indian boarding schools. It was pretty much stamped out,” she said.

At the Tomales Regional History Center, a collection of obsidian tools, beaded clamshells and baskets inspired her to start writing. She expanded her research to the Marin Museum of the American Indian in Novato, the Miwok Cemetery in Marshall and the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah. She also talked with historians like Dewey Livingston. 

Aware that she’s a white woman telling another culture’s sensitive story, she sought feedback from Coast Miwok descendent Sky Road Webb and met with several members of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.

“Honestly, sometimes native people are suspicious when I talk about this,” she said. “I understand that. And I’m not offended. Here you have somebody telling the native people’s story and who are you to do that? My response is I need to be really open, clear and willing to hear and change something.” 

When it came time to cast the parts, Ms. Cloud visited the Tomales High School’s drama department and picked up two budding thespians. Juniors Wyatt Vieira and Mollie Donaldson play multiple characters. 

“I’ve never been in a play with adults before,” Ms. Donaldson, a Tomales resident, said. “They push me and it’s been really fun to be more mature while still having fun. And with the pressure of college coming in, I have a place where I know what I’m doing.”

“Tamal Ko” doesn’t dance lightly on the more horrendous aspects of local history. One scene involves two friars separating a young mother from her child; another depicts bounty hunters kidnapping two native women. Ms. Cloud said she made points of not underplaying the ugliness of the past and accentuating the often-unsung role of women.

“So much of history has been written by the male perspective and I really wanted to honor the women who carried it forward,” she said. “The day-to-day of carrying culture forward was the responsibility of the women, and they don’t get credit for it.”

Tomales was once a hub for Coast Miwok, and the playwright and actors hope the audience will leave with a greater sense of the land and the lessons of a bygone culture.

“Perhaps the irony, I think, that is reflected in our situation today is that we’ve rejected things that are simple and opted for things we think are progress,” Ms. Cloud said. “Progress doesn’t always mean leaving the past behind; just because the future is out there doesn’t mean it’s progress. By losing contact with the earth and no longer understanding that we are depending upon the earth, we’re so many steps removed. A lot of people never walk barefoot on the ground.” But we can learn, she said.

 

“Tamal Ko: A California Story” will be performed at the Tomales Town Hall at 3 p.m. on Nov. 11, 12, 18 and 19. Ticket prices to be announced.