Navigating Western Theatre And Ancient Inupiaq Responsibilities

Let us introduce you to Alaska. It’s maybe not the Alaska you’re used to seeing portrayed. The first Alaskans have been telling the real story of the land for thousands of years. Yet so often, these are not the stories the rest of the world, or often even the rest of Alaska, knows outside of our communities. This week, we have curated a series that will introduce you to Alaska through a small group of Alaska Native theatre professionals. Through their own journeys in Alaskan theatre, we hope you’ll begin to see Alaska in a different way. Through the stories of those whose people have been here since Raven brought the light, we hope you will not only see Alaska in a different way, but theatre itself. Gunalcheesh! Quyana!—Vera Starbard, series curator.

I always make sure I am out in the mountains when caribou season opens up—10 August! On that day, I practice what thousands of years of my ancestors have done on this beautiful Alaskan land. I hike out on my own two legs into the wilderness. I connect with a land that has given my people sustenance for millennia. I lose myself in this deep connection to the land, and I gather food for my family. A tradition as old as the mountains dictates I share what I hunt and fish with extended family, community, Elders. I never miss it.

Last year, something different entered my life. Theatre. Specifically, I had my first professional production about to premiere in a few months, and one of the final workshops just had to be on 10 August. It was the only time key players such as the director and dramaturg could make it. I begrudgingly gave in.

Maybe this sounds odd to “sports hunters” in the lower forty-eight. But to an Alaska Native person living in rural Alaska, this situation could potentially be devastating. It’s not a want—it’s absolute need. Hopping over to the grocery store to grab some milk and eggs is not an easy option for most of the state. In small villages, if fresh groceries arrive at all, a quart of milk can go for over 10 dollars, and fresh fruit may as well be caviar for its price. And even if Western food was more accessible, the connection with culture is priceless. In a land that can be as harsh as it is beautiful, and winters that last from September to May, the hunter has always held the position of most honor, because it is the position of most necessity.

But why does the date matter? The timing of these hunts is key. After the initial opening weekend, the caribou become increasingly difficult to hunt, as the large masses of hunters with ATV vehicles scare the animals back into the mountains, scattering them. When I’ve made sure to get out there when the season opens, however, I have never failed to get my animal.

Fortunately, I was able to still get my caribou for the season after the workshop was over. But it was the most painful issue that came out of the process. How do I choose between such a core part of my identity as an Inupiaq man, and the art I’ve grown to love? It was also not a problem I found much sympathy for outside of the Alaska Native community.

I want to write for small, rural communities. Tribal communities. Alaskan communities. If that means it won’t be produced elsewhere, that’s okay.

two performers in Native American costumes
Joker (Alec Shamas) and Traditional Woman (Erin Tripp). Photo by Perseverance Theatre.

The stress of the rest of the production most theatre professionals could understand, especially those not working in theatre full time. It was difficult to take time off from my full-time job for the workshops, especially as that also took away from time allowed for hunting. The only time I could do re-writes was in the evening, which cut into the only time I have for self-care. Negotiating the choice of actors, many of whom were friends, was stressful. The theatre world may be small, but the Alaska Native theatre world is a tiny family in comparison.

In some ways, though, the process was easier than I was warned about. Some people talk about the difficulty of integrating Native storytelling into Western theatre, because the circular nature of traditional stories is so different than “classical” story arc. I disagree. All of the traditional Alaska Native stories I have heard most definitely had a beginning, middle, and end. Many of the ancient Inupiaq stories my grandmother helped translate could easily be fit into the cookie cutter frame of a classic Hollywood tale.

What I really struggled with was the feedback I got that my play would need to be changed if it was to be shown to a large audience in New York or Los Angeles, California. People wouldn’t understand the references, landmarks, and culture I painted. The jokes about Native corporations would go right over their heads.

But in all the compromises I made bringing my Alaska Native story together with a non-Native theatre, I simply decided not to compromise on this one. I want to write for small, rural communities. Tribal communities. Alaskan communities. If that means it won’t be produced elsewhere, that’s okay.

In the end, the struggles were worth it. I got my message out on the stage. My play, William, Inc., a story of a man’s healing through traditional culture (including hunting!) made me cry every time I saw it. I never got tired of watching it. It played in Juneau for almost a month, and in Anchorage for less than two weeks. It’s hard to get people to watch theatre in Alaska in general, and my heart goes out to the theatre companies who struggle to stay afloat. The work they do is so important.

When it was over, I went through a grieving process. The shock hit me. But I’m pleased to say that my wish for my play and art—going out to those small Alaskan communities—is coming true.

And I went caribou hunting this year on 10 August.

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Thoughts from the curator

The first Alaskans have been telling the real story of the land for thousands of years. Yet so often, these are not the stories the rest of the world, or often even the rest of Alaska, knows outside of our communities.

Alaska Native Theatre

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As a non native actor/producer concerned with cultural appropriation, how would one present these stories in other parts of the country?

I would talk to the Playwrights themselves. They’ve usually had to work this out before. Both Lucas and I started a local group dedicated to building up Native Playwrights and actors. There are often connections Playwrights make because they need Native actors!

But a great step you can do first is to get in contact with your local tribe or tribes. Native communities are really well connected, and there are generally many more Native people in any given community than non-Native people think.

There are organizations and businesses, like Indigenous Direction and Native Voices, who specialize in helping produce, promote, and create Native theatre, who would be great for any theater considering producing Native works to connect with.

I would definitely just say don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Most Native people I know enjoy genuine interest in our culture, art, and work.

Are there chapters in Boston? I've seen listing for shows looking for actors to play Native characters a lot lately, but I don't even know how hard these companies are trying to find such actors. I'd be interested in helping that community at least get those parts, if not building a presence in the Boston theatre world.

I’m not familiar with the Boston Native community, but there are reservations in Massachusetts and many universities have American Indian communities, so those are good places to start. The organizations I listed are good for a phone call and first discussion if you look them up. They can often point you in the right direction.

Thanks. I've contacted a few Native organizations, but I have no idea what the acting community is like in the area. I may try some of those. My short-term goal is to prevent whitewashing and the long-term goal would be to encourage that community to tell their own stories, if they'd like.