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Urban Lakota Native successfully tours one-man show

TALENT, Ore. - When Robert Owens was in high school in California, he loved nothing more than being on stage. Little did he know how long it would take for him to fulfill his dream of being a professional actor.

Like many young, urban Natives, Owens wandered off the path of his dreams onto the road of drugs and alcohol, got married young because of a teen pregnancy and, in general, did a great job of bogging up his life.

After years of making do, odd jobbing and going nowhere except to southern Oregon, Owens got sober. He turned to the ways of his people for guidance, engaging the Sun Dance and living his life following the Lakota traditions as best he could.

In 1990 he founded the American Indian Cultural Center in Talent. There he helped develop cultural classes and political outreach seminars for the schools and general public, trying to "break the stereotypes and raise the consciousness about Native people to the mainstream."

Then, 20 years after his first stage appearances in California, he auditioned for a role in a local community theater production of "Black Elk Speaks." Owens said the role of Crazy Horse rekindled his passion for theater. A second community production, "The Elephant Man," found him in the title role.

From there, he went straight to the top.

"Discovered" by scouts from the highly acclaimed Oregon Shakespeare Festival Players in Ashland, Owens spent two years working with the company. In 1996 he went on the road with the festival's traveling theater, performing for schools around the state. In between times he performed as a storyteller, singer and hand drummer at pow wows, festivals and shows.

"It's just been phenomenal, these last six years of my life," says Owens. "My life, oh, how it's changed."

He also wrote short stories and poetry, but it was his one-man show, "Walking on Turtle Island," that took him away from the festival players and set him on the theater circuit on his own.

The play includes two modern Lakota stories by Owens, a rewrite of "Night Flying Woman" and a historical vignette of the life of Tyhee John, a Klamath tribal warrior who traveled by horseback from Mount Shasta to Spokane in the 1850s trying to raise a united Native front against western settlement.

In all, Owens plays 21 characters in his show, including men, women, children, white agents and grandmothers.

"It is Native American reality seen through common people's eyes," Owens says. "Act one is really kind of sweet and family oriented. Sure, there are some sad and poignant moments, but it has a sweetness to it.

"Act two has more edge because Tyhee John was a warrior and a war leader and he and his son ended up in Alcatraz."

"Walking on Turtle Island" ends with the most autobiographical piece, a story of Owens' about Jesse White Toes. A modern-day Lakota mixed-blood trying to live on the Red Road, Jesse is a Sun Dancer, trying to live a clean and sober life. But he falls off the wagon and ends up in jail, which is where the story starts. A spirit, who has led the audience through all the other stories in the play, comes into jail with Jesse and they have a dialogue about life and family and "things that matter." The spirit nudges him back on the Red Road.

"It's pretty poignant," Owens admits. "It speaks to a lot of modern Native American dysfunctions. He has a line in there that says, 'You know it ain't my fault we're poor. It ain't my fault I got three ex-wives and seven kids spread out all over Turtle Island.'

"He's real sheepish when he says that. It's kind of a drunk-a-logue, but at the same time there's pretty good content in it."

For the last couple years, Owens has been touring the show around Seattle and Puget Sound area schools, detention centers and reservations. On the East Coast he toured it through Virginia, North and South Carolina, performing at conferences, workshops and festivals. He also toured the play in Australia. It was so successful he is returning to Melbourne with the show again this December.

Even though its message is not always pleasant, "Walking on Turtle Island" has broad appeal. But of all the stories within the play, Owens says the story of Jesse White Toes is the one people best relate to.

"I have Indian brothers come up afterwards saying, 'That's my story bro. Pretty good.' And white folks come up and say, 'Wow, I had no idea. I'll never see the world the same after this."

Pretty potent feedback.

Despite his success, Owens says he tries not to let the words of praise and the constant attention make him prideful. The fact he has lived the hard life of Jesse, wept over the injustices that kindled Tyhee John's journey, experienced the life of a little girl herded onto a reservation in "Night Flying Woman," keeps him level-headed.

"It's hard. People call you 'Mr. Owens' and 'Sir' and this and that and set you up in the fancy hotels. And that's great. I appreciate that. I love it. But I really try to stay real, especially with young people."

In addition to touring his show, writing stories and working on another play, Owens holds workshops with teen-agers on reservations, addressing issues about drugs and alcohol. Pulling from his own life experience, he coaches them on the ways of successful thinking and successful living.

Although he would like to work in television and films, he is not eager to run off to Hollywood. At this point in his life, Owens says he simply feels blessed to have healthy children and grandchildren and to be living the life he has created, doing what he can to help others.

The rest of the dream will just have to come to him.