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Ishmael Hope: Alaska Native Art & Culture Educator

Call him Ishmael, but this storyteller, actor, playwright and poet is no sailor wandering across the foamy brine. Ishmael Hope journeys through the intriguing language, landscapes and history of his Iñupiaq and Tlingit heritages. Hope, 29, calls himself “an enthusiastic learner and educator of Alaska Native art and culture,” and for the past 10 years he has immersed himself in Tlingit history and culture, preserving and revitalizing the myths and legends that he has been learning from elders he honors at every opportunity.

Culture-bearers Cyril George, Richard and Nora Dauenhauer, and the late Robert Zuboff, a commercial fisherman and Tlingit elder steeped in the history of his people, are among his most revered teachers. But his love of storytelling began when he was a small child and his mother, the late Sister Goodwin, told him Iñupiaq stories. He also learned from his late father, Andrew Hope III.

“My father was a Tlingit educator and leader. At a memorial for my great Uncle Herb Hope, my dad said he’d like all Native men to look at the example of the life of Herb Hope and what he did for his people. And then he said, ‘We should appreciate good people when they walk among us.’”

Those words resonated for Hope, who was 17 at the time. “What he meant was that we often remember and appreciate people when they’re gone, but what about when they’re with us, when they walk among us?”

Among the most valued human resources walking among the Tlingit people today are between 150 and 200 or so remaining fluent Tlingit speakers. Colonialism and assimilation have done their work in southwestern Alaska, as they have across the globe: Around half of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages are in danger of being overwhelmed or made extinct by the dominant culture, mass media and the marketplace. And each time a language dies out, a part of history and a way of thinking also cease to exist. “And with that goes an entire intellectual heritage,” said Hope, who began studying Tlingit seriously three years ago.

“Another language is not just a different way to communicate the same thing. It’s a whole other thing. It’s an intricate web of meanings and relationships and thoughts, and that’s why it’s important to keep a language going. So that’s what I’m trying to do.”

It’s also a way of honoring his parents and continuing the work of George, 88, a Tlingit elder, and Gilbert Lucero, who in 1972 began a place for Alaska Native teens called the “Totem Center,” where he coordinated events relating to the arts and cultural lifeways of the Tlingit at a time when many young people had little awareness about the meaning of being Native. “Cyril has taken a lot of people under his wing and I’ve been soaking up as much knowledge as I can,” Hope said. “I visit him regularly, and it’s a powerful thing, because he embodies those layers of meanings that happen when someone speaks his indigenous language—not only speaks it, but can tell the stories in that language. Someone who knows not just how to say something in Tlingit, but who has the knowledge of that intellectual heritage.”

The late Russian linguist Vladislav Markovich Illich-Svitych could have been describing Hope’s quest when he wrote:

Language is a ford across the river of Time
It leads us to the dwelling place of those who are gone;
But he will not be able to come to this place
Who fears deep water

Cyril George’s stories were dramatized in Hope’s play, Cedar House, commissioned and staged last summer by the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, and directed by Flordelino Lagundino.

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The name “Cedar House” evokes the place where the stories were originally told, Hope said. “It underscores that the distance between inside the comforts of home and outside were much smaller than the way we’ve built our lives in the modern world. We walked by the cedar trees. We made beautiful, big cedar clan houses.”

Using just a few props on the nearly bare stage, Hope and his fellow actor Frank Katasse captivated audiences with ancient stories culled from George’s and Zuboff’s repertoire, drawing the people into the mythic age when supernatural beings intervened in human affairs, animals transformed into people, people into animals, and epic trials took place.

Then the actors brought the audience back to the here and now by telling goofy jokes between stories or making references to current events. “We were just ourselves. The contemporary was in the relaxed style we did it,” Hope said.

These enduring stories present the Tlingits’ own historical record of creations, migrations and the victories and defeats that befell the ancestors. “The Origin of Mosquitoes,” for example, tells how a young man overcame an evil—a giant who loved to kill humans, drink their blood and eat their flesh. He was particularly fond of eating human hearts. In that mythic world where the dead can remain alive and transform, even as the man slays the giant, chops him to pieces, burns each piece in a fire and scatters the ashes in the wind, the giant still threatens to continue eating humans forever. And as the giant speaks, the man feels a sting and finds a mosquito sucking his blood while each fleck of ash transforms into a flurry of mosquitoes.

Cedar House also included several stories about the Raven, the Tlingits’ major culture hero, a benevolent transformer figure with magical powers who is revered because he helps people and teaches them all sorts of skills. But, like Coyote in the Southwest, he’s also a trickster character who cheats and teases and sometimes makes ignorant decisions.

In “The Salmon Box,” Hope and Katasse tell the story of how the Raven, in his benevolent incarnation, pulled the salmon box ashore in order to give the people the salmon—their primary food.

The Tlingit language and the wisdom it entails are the driving force behind those stories, Hope said. He believes the traditional stories are restorative: “All the suffering and trouble that may have been happening to the people recently can be healed by going back to the traditions.”

Although Hope’s stories can and should be told in English, he believes strongly that people should know them in the Tlingit language, which has been almost extinguished by colonialism. “The colonial history is built on eradicating other people’s histories. In just a few generations you have a loss in the collective memory and what that collective memory contains is what holds people together.”

Despite the fact that Tlingit is endangered, there are still indigenous storytellers like Cyril George to pass on traditional knowledge. “While these guys are still around, I want to hang out with them. I want to spend time with them and listen,” Hope said. “It moves me away from the colonial thinking—that I’m the center of the universe or I’m going to be famous or I want people’s attention—and more into knowing what real community is, what true thinking means. When you learn to value that, it’s like doing meditation or seeing a great work of art. You just really have to change your life.”

Ishmael Hope is developing The Reincarnation of Stories with Generator Theater Company, which he hopes to perform this spring. He has a small, but significant role in Universal Studios’ Everybody Loves Whales, to be released in 2012. He is also developing with Perseverance Theatre The Defenders of Alaska Native Country, about the pursuit of the Tlingit and Haida land claims by William Paul and his contemporaries.