My friend Sheryl and I enjoyed brunch and a show in downtown Houston last Sunday.
What used to be a fairly ordinary event before the pandemic seemed extra special by virtue of its being spring and on the verge of post-pandemic life.
Our first stop was Bravery Chef Hall, a high-end food hall on the ground floor of a Houston high-rise.
We ate at chef Christine Ha’s restaurant, The Blind Goat. You might know her as the blind chef who won Master Chef in 2012. I recommend the fried apple pie made with star anise, ginger, lemongrass, and fish sauce caramel. Definitely calorie-worthy.
It wasn’t pre-pandemic crowded, but it was pleasantly peopled. And the people were dressed for socializing: fashion masks, bright church clothes, and frilly, flowery brunch outfits. It was a welcome display of color and fashion after a long year of yoga pants and sweatshirts.
This performance takes place outdoors in small groups. The audience is guided to four different stations where actors portray key suspects in the case. The actors share facts, embellish their stories, and answer our questions, all while remaining in character.
At the end of the performance, the group votes on who we think the guilty suspect is. We all made a guess, but of course, no one knows who did it. After 30 years, no arrests have been made in the Gardner Museum case.
I always get a bit of a buzz going to see live theater. But there was one aspect of this show that was particularly surprising to me.
At the start of the show, the emcee made a land acknowledgment.
He announced, “Today’s performance of The Art Heist is taking place on land that was home to the Karankawa.”
I might have missed it if I wasn’t tuning in carefully for clues to the crime. But there it was, plain as day, as though this was a normal occurrence in the Theater District of downtown Houston, Texas.
A land acknowledgment is a statement that acknowledges and respects indigenous people who called the land home before European settlers arrived.
In Australia, New Zealand, and Canada…school days and meetings — and even hockey games — often begin with a “land acknowledgment,” a formal statement that pays tribute to the original inhabitants of the land.Teen Vogue
I first noticed the practice while listening to Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast.
Then I started seeing it observed on the virtual webinars and presentations I’ve been attending during the pandemic.
This was the first time I heard a land acknowledgment at an event I was attending in person.
All kinds of blurts and questions came to my head.
“Wow! Texas is doing land acknowledgments now?”
“Are all the theaters doing this?”
“Has this practice been around for a while and I’m just now noticing?”
“How did they decide to acknowledge the Karankawa instead of the Coahuiltecans?”
After the show, I chased down one of the theater staff to see what I could find out.
She explained that “The Art Heist Experience” was written by some Canadians, and when they license the show to theaters like The Society of Performing Arts in Houston, part of the agreement is that there will be a verbal acknowledgment of First Nations (what Canadians call Native Americans) before every show.
So when The Art Heist Experience is put on in Austin, there is a land acknowledgment of the Tonkawa. In Dallas, the Caddo. In Seattle, Minneapolis, Boston—each location acknowledges their respective indigenous peoples.
I’m learning a bit about the Karankawa and other Texas Indians. The thing about the Karankawa is that they disappeared from the face of the earth by the early 1900s, annihilated by disease, European explorers, and Texas settlers.
It makes me wonder, if there are no Karankawa left to hear the land acknowledgment, are the Karankawa still honored by the land acknowledgment?
As I drafted this article, I tried to make a clever connection between the vanished tribes of Texas and the missing art from the Gardner Museum heist.
All I could come up with was the word “heist.”
Heist: noun: robbery. Heist: verb: to steal. Heist: verb: to take unlawfully.
The Gardner Museum heist is still an open case. There are suspects who have never been charged. There remains a $10 million reward for any information leading to the recovery of the art.
The Karankawa are a vanished tribe. Nothing exists of them anymore: no tribe, no language, no place names. The only reward is the simple respect of a land acknowledgment.
I hope land acknowledgments become a regular thing in the events I go to post-pandemic.