Susana Di Palma explores her Native roots in new Zorongo Flamenco production at the Cowles Center


Though Susana Di Palma’s great-grandmother was Anishinaabe, it was never something her family talked about very much.

That’s not to say she didn’t hear stories of her grandmother, who it was said, married a Scot, with whom she had children. He, however, wanted the children to be baptized and educated in a boarding school and took them away from her. There, like many American Indian children, their hair was cut, and they were indoctrinated into the church, and lost their heritage.

Di Palma’s great grandmother was “always an impassioned woman,” Di Palma says. The story goes that she walked all the way from Hayward (Wisconsin) to Bayfield to retrieve her children, but they wouldn’t leave with her. “Nobody knows why the girls wouldn’t go with her,” Di Palma recalls. “Was it the law? Was it the school? Was it their decision?”

Di Palma heard other things about her great grandmother, who eventually re-united with her family. “She lived with them,” Di Palma says. “They kept her in the cellar. She drank. She would drink and curse everybody.” Once, during a fourth of July parade, as her prim daughters were dressed in their Sunday best, their mother followed them, cursing, with a whiskey bottle. Humiliated, they didn’t return to town for some time.

There were other stories too—that she always carried a pouch of herbs with her, that women from all around came to her to solve their ailments, including abortions. 

Though Di Palma did hear these stories about her great-grandmother, the family’s Anishinaabe roots weren’t discussed often. “It was something to be embarrassed about,” Di Palma recalls. “They concentrated more on our European heritage.” 

Di Palma, too, was intrigued by her European roots. She moved to Spain as a young woman, and learned Flamenco. She eventually returned to the States and has made Minnesota her home, becoming renowned as an acclaimed dancer, choreographer, and artistic director of her own company, Zorongo Flamenco Theatre and School. 

In recent years, though, Di Palma has been thinking more and more about her great grandmother that she never knew, and that part of her story.

Then, a deciding point for her was in the wake of the Hurricane in Haiti, when Di Palma read about Christian groups wanting to go and adopt children who had been victims during the disaster. The only problem was that those children already had families. 

Reading about what was happening in Haiti made Di Palma want to revisit her own family’s history. She was already familiar with Diane Wilson, who has written about her own mother going to boarding school. Di Palma began to do more research—eventually meeting Martin Zanger, a historian (whom she later married) and who introduced her to Brenda Childs—another Anishinaabe writer—and other research sources. 

There was something, though, even from the beginning of this project, that Di Palma felt was trying to stop her. For example, there’s an old cedar chest in the basement of her mother’s house that Di Palma wanted to look inside to see some of her great grandmother’s things. But when she and her mother tried to open it, such a force came out that it knocked them both over, then the lid came down and slammed shut.

She called her sister, who told DiPalma that the chest never locks. But sure enough, they had to saw it open. “There’s a spirit that doesn’t want this story told,” Di Palma says.

There’s been some challenges along the way, certainly. The production was originally set to be performed at the Ritz, but got cancelled. Then, it was to be performed at The Southern, and that didn’t work out either. Finally, this weekend, the show will finally have its opening, with a huge list of collaborators from both sides of the Atlantic ocean.

For this project, Di Palma wanted to have as many American Indian collaborators as possible, to make sure to be respectful and refrain from stereotypes. Heid Erdrich has written the poetry for the show, and Jonathan Thunder has designed animations. Erdrich also suggested Marissa Carr, a Native singer, for the project. 

Erdrich says that she and Di Palma talked about the story of Di Palma’s great grandmother, and Erdrich helped providing some of the imagery in the show. For example, the image of the moon, representing the Grandmother Nakomi, carries through the piece. Other images include that of the woodpecker, and the raven.

Early on, Erdrich said she was skeptical of using the notion of the trickster from American Indian traditions. Part of Di Palma’s concept was that she wanted to have a hero accompany her great grandmother on her long journey, and thought of the Spanish trickster character Zorro as the perfect companion.

Initially, the idea was to incorporate other Native “tricksters,” but Erdrich advised her against it. “I always feel like I don’t want to represent the trickster,” Erdrich says. “It gets… tricky. It didn’t feel right to represent those spirits.”

The Zorro trickster, remains, however, as a key part of the show. “At first I thought it was goofy,” Erdrich said of the idea. “But it’s compelling because it is her story. There’s an operatic quality to flamenco.” The form of dance works in much the same way as a poem or play works, she says, where the poetry becomes “triggering devices for the rest of the work.”

In the end, Erdrich feels really excited about the project. “It was one of the most fun things I’ve done,” she says. [Susana]’s a total inspiration.”

Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Collaborative.