I was sitting in my home on the former military base of Adak, depressed after my mother hadÂ passed on, when my colleague Shelley Niro, an artist and filmmaker, emailed me the Alaska Native Playwrights Project call for applications.
She reminded me I’d once told her I wanted to try my hand at drama. So I felt obliged and challenged, but not enthused. I sent in a second-rate application proposing to write about therapy sessions between a woman and her therapist, along with some of my lesser poems, and I was soundly rejected. I got in only because one of the chosen 10 declined to attend.
Already a known visual artist in Native America, I felt pressured to perform, now that I was in. My first play was loosely structured around my family’s move to Chicago in 1959, under the U.S. Government’s Indian Relocation Program, an assimilation endeavor. I know of their one-month stay only through family lore, for I hadn’t yet been born.
Although it was deemed a good play by my excellent mentor, the playwright Terry Gomez, I just didn’t feel it, not in the way a good sculpture makes me feel kind of high. My friend and private mentor Ron Spatz, editor of the Alaska Quarterly Review, suggested I write my memoirs, familiar as he was with my story.
I thought, well, I was in the Army, I was in a Walt Disney movie, and I am an artist; perhaps I could find something interesting for storytelling. Little did I know the various, insidious forms of trauma I would find down nearly every path I tapped into my laptop.
It was tricky, constructing a dramatic work around such material, but the hours flew by and I got that high, even as my heart was breaking. I then fell into the pits of my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, something I’d been diagnosed with after a violent rape in 1999. I’d never accepted this diagnosis until I wrote this Pandora’s Box of a play and nearly fell apart.
So I flew into Anchorage for therapy, and I learned some new ways to cope other than talk therapy, which hadn’t ever worked for me. This, of course, spurred another play, about the healing process, since that hadn’t happened satisfactorily until I was telling the story of my life. Since my therapist Micki, a character in the second play, employed methods that fired up my imagination, the play has a dreamlike quality.
Because the Native Voices of the Autry selected my first play for development, I faced the dilemma of choosing one play over the other. The first play probably is better, theatrically, and has a better chance of production. But the second play has the real sense of healing, which I want to share. So many women sit alone on their islands with these traumas circulating in their brains, without access to therapy, along with many women in prison, or out on the streets, alcoholic, like I was.
Yupik rules dictate I follow what is better for the tribe, not my ego. After a battle waged within, the Yupik in me won, and I chose the second dramatic memoir. After all, this is Native Voices, I decided, and in Alaska, our tribes are very strong, our ties to our ancestral lands largely unbroken.
I am faced with the very real possibility that this will not be accepted as beneficial to the tribe, since I break the silences around certain issues. I accept that; certain things must end.
Jean Bruce Scott, co-founder/producing executive director of Native Voices at the Autry, is an incredibly warm person, and my tea –Â director Stephan Wolfert, dramaturg Robert Caisley and his assistant Lauren Simon — have been invaluable mentors in this playwriting process I know very little about. I am eternally grateful to them and for this opportunity, which has taken me down a path I love, a creative life.
My hope is that this play will help other trauma survivors as it has helped me, with a few laughs thrown in for good measure. And may it open a community dialogue of healing.
Native Voices at the Autry’sÂ 13th Festival of New Plays presents staged readings by four Native female playwrights, June 16-18 at Wells Fargo Theater, The Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, LA. TICKETS: $10/play or $25/ four-play festival pass; half price for students, senior and military; free for Autry members. 323-667-2000, ext. 354 , www.NativeVoicesattheAutry.org.
Ungipamsuuka (My Story) by Susie Silook (Siberian Yupik/Inupiaq*) features the creative team of Stephan Wolfert, director, Robert Caisley, dramaturg and Lauren Simon, assistant dramaturg. The play chronicles an Alaskan Native sculptor who boldly confronts familial, cultural, and sexual trauma with the healing power of art. Friday, June 17 at 7:30 pm.
Susie Silook (Siberian Yupik*/Inupiaq*) is a contemporary Inuit sculptor and published writer, originally from Gambell, Alaska, who currently lives on Adak Island, on the Aleutian chain. Her sculptures are included in many private collections and museums, including the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, the Eiteljorg, the De Young, and the Pratt museums. Her themes are taken from her Yupik culture, life experiences, and women’s issues, and incorporate ancestral design in the mediums of walrus ivory, whalebone, and wood. She is the recipient of the Eiteljorg and United States Artists awards, the Governor’s Individual Artist award, and a civil rights award from the Alaska Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
*refers to the artist’s tribal affiliation