The gate attendant smiled as she looked up from the scanning machine.
She nodded and handed back my passport and boarding pass.
"Have a nice trip."
I smiled and thanked her. The secret to her clairvoyance was the place of birth listed on my passport: Alaska, U.S.A.—my ancestral homeland; more specifically Juneau, the state capital, where I was born in 1957.
A few weeks prior, I had pitched a story and landed an assignment to review a play by Tlingit writer Frank Katasse opening in Juneau in late January. They Don't Talk Back tells the story of a young Tlingit man from the city who moves in with his Tlingit grandparents in a remote Alaskan village. Like him, my trip to see the play would also mark a return. Although I, too, am Tlingit and was born in Juneau, my family moved to Seattle in 1960 when I was just 3 years old. I meant to blend the experience of the play with my own exploration of my Tlingit family's past. At least that was my intent.
As the plane pushed back from the gate, I thought about my Tlingit mom and my Caucasian dad. I’ve always carried the feeling that I never belonged anywhere. Native boys at my junior high called me White Boy because I was a wimp and my features were not as Native as theirs. Other kids called me Jap or Chink because of my vaguely Asian appearance.
I'd say, "No! I'm a Tlingit!"
"What? You're a clinker?"
"No. Tlingit! That's my tribe!"
"Ha-Ha! Hopper's a Clinker Indian!"
As the plane pulled up into the clouds, I had no idea of what was in store.
They Don't Talk Back
Frank Katasse, with a silent 'e', author of They Don't Talk Back, is a city Indian like me. Raised in Juneau, a big city compared to most Alaskan villages, and educated at the University of Hawaii where he earned a degree in Theatre Arts, Katasse spent summers in Alaska working with relatives at places like Elfin Cove, which has a population of about 50. His play, like his own experience, is a collision of two worlds: the city Tlingit and the more traditional village Tlingit.
"They Don't Talk Back actually started as a bunch of little stories I would write everyday when I was waiting to pick my wife up from work,” says Katasse. “I had a half hour between when I got off and when she got off, so I'd sit in my car and tap out little ideas into mvvy phone. They were all things I'd heard and things people told me about themselves and things I just made up."
Katasse plays with his coffee cup. A gentle bear of a guy in a gray fleece jacket, he wears a Tináa around his neck, a Tlingit copper shield, and seems a bit embarrassed about the attention he's receiving from the success of this play, his first.
I sit across from him having seen the opening night performance two nights before. I'm struck by the difference between the jovial man in shoulder-length, black hair before me who seems to know everyone who passes by ("I don't even know who that was," he confides to me after one encounter) and the artist, poet and shaman who wrote the play I'd seen.
"So really it's kind of a combination of a lot of different things tied together by this story of a boy returning,” he says. “There's Tlingit storytelling, there's Nineties hip-hop spoken word, there's professional wrestling..."
He seems embarrassed that I know his secret, that he's a huge talent, a gifted artist, who can create an experience like a waking dream that opens rooms in the human heart previously locked and forgotten.
The play opens with an old man reciting a poem in Tlingit, a love poem to his wife. Although I didn't understand the words, I sensed the meaning. To me Tlingit is a magical language, the language of my mother. She would only say a word or two at a time when I was a kid, usually when she was talking to one of my aunts and didn't want me to understand something.
If I were crying she might softly comfort me with a Tlingit word that went right from her lips to my heart, bypassing my ear and soothing me directly like some mysterious beam of energy. I never asked her what it meant. Some words have power beyond their meaning.
So when I heard the poem in Tlingit, I knew it was about love and loss and a love that can never be lost. As Paul, the grandfather, played by Tlingit actor Jake Waid, spoke the language of my mother, I felt the longing, I felt the words like a lifeline tossed across time, across worlds, rhythmic, bouncing like a rope holding a boat during a storm.
"Yei ikkwasatéen, ax ya.aak kuxsatí.
Tsu agaxtool' eix."
"I will see you, make a place for me.
We will dance again."
Before the story even started, I was crying, and I didn't even know what was being said.
A Child of the Lost Generation Returns
Nick, a young Tlingit man about 17 or 18, arrives at his grandparents house in an undisclosed remote Alaskan fishing village. He wears baggy jeans and suede hip-hop boots. All his belongings barely cover the bottom of a gym bag dangling from his fingers.
Played by Skyler Ray-Benson Davis, another Tlingit actor, Nick looks all-too familiar with unpleasant receptions. He looks at everything with a crinkled brow, the way a new prison arrival looks over his cell and cellmate.
His grandmother Linda, played by Tlingit actress Diane E. Benson, is a small woman with a big heart who welcomes Nick with a surge of affection. Her joy at the return of a family member is the glue that has bound Native people together in clans and tribes since the beginning of time.
She introduces Nick to his cousin Edward, played by Cherokee actor Kholan Studi, who is about the same age as Nick and also living with his grandparents. Nick immediately pegs Edward as someone he must challenge to establish himself as the alpha male. But Edward, more a monk greeting a new initiate, is much calmer than Nick. He has no interest in fighting, while Nick comes across like a raw recruit entering a gladiator school.
I know Nick's crinkled brow and air of distain. It’s the anger that comes from losing your culture due to no fault of your own.
"Back in the sixties there was this big wave of assimilation," Katasse tells me later in the coffee shop. "What with the Cold War and the space race, everyone in Alaska got real loyal to America. Alaska became a state in 1959 after decades of fighting for it. There was a rush of patriotism. Young people coming of age during that time ached for the personal freedom promised by capitalism. Many just let their culture slide. I call it 'The Lost Generation.' Nick is a child of that generation."
Man, could I relate. In 1960 my Caucasian dad moved our family from Juneau to Seattle. A few years later, he converted us to the predominantly white Mormon church, where we were taught that Indian people were the descendants of one of the lost ten tribes of Israel called the Lamanites, who came to this continent in about 600 BC.
In one fell swoop my dad invalidated my mother's culture. The waters of Mormon baptism washed away not only my supposed sins, but also my heritage.
The One-Dollar Paycheck
Grandfather Paul immediately puts Nick to work on his fishing boat. Nick and Edward return each day as beat-up as the spawning salmon they've been trying to catch. Nick complains to Edward about how hard it is and how slowly he's catching on. Edward reassures him it'll get easier.
One night, Nick asks his grandfather for an advance so he can go to the store with Edward. He wants to rent a video. There is no video store in the village, just a guy who makes VHS copies of tapes he gets from Juneau and then rents out of his home. That's okay with Nick. He's sick of watching the Wrestlemania tape they have, the one featuring the Native American wrestler known as the "Ultimate Warrior", which they've watched many times.
Urged on by his wife Linda, Paul gives in and makes out a check for Nick. When Nick looks at the check, he thinks there must be a mistake. It's only made out for one dollar. Paul says that's all he needs if he's going to rent a video.
"Get that one, Little Big Man, that's a good one. And if they don't have that, get Wrestlemania, the one with the Ultimate Warrior. I like that one," Paul says.
Nick caves. Later they all sit watching the Ultimate Warrior and his pal Hulk Hogan fight bad guys. Nick was beginning to learn you don't work for money in this beautiful, remote land. You work for your tribe, for your clan, and for your family. Work is community. It's how you feed and strengthen the ties that keep you alive.
Edward and the Ultimate Warrior
In soliloquy, Edward explains to the audience why the Ultimate Warrior is so important to him. He relives the joy of watching the Ultimate Warrior destroy his enemies.
Oppressed people need heroes. We need them in the face of destruction and genocide that come toward us as unrelenting and unstoppable as a glacier.
"The Ultimate Warrior was an Indian like us," Katasse explains, "a symbol of hope, a prayer to our ancestors for strength."
And when he and the Hulkster demolished their enemies, the glacier of oppression receded, if only for a moment.
My Aunt Judy, my mom's twin sister, loved to watch professional wrestling. She and my Uncle Rick would go to the Seattle Arena and watch wrestlers like Jake the Snake slam their opponents to the ground or leap from the corner ropes down on top of them. Aunt Judy would stand and scream at the ref or the bad guy, calling them names she would never use in real life.
Aunt Judy had come to Seattle before my family did. In 1950 she lost two young sons in a fire in Juneau. Not long after that she and her boyfriend, whom she later married, moved to Seattle and started over.
As I listened to Edward talk about the Ultimate Warrior, I thought about Aunt Judy. I remembered sitting in her living room watching wrestling with her and Uncle Rick, Aunt Judy's second husband, who was wheelchair-bound due to muscular dystrophy.
She often made special dinners for the pay-per-view wrestling events she and Rick loved so much. My favorite was Chicken Adobo, a Filipino dish her first husband taught her to make. She would fuss in the kitchen as the show started and Rick would always call out to her.
"Ju-dee! Get in here! The whoopin's about to start!"
"You be quiet!"
Rick would laugh and wink at me.
The memories pushed at the door of my mind, threatening to burst through and overwhelm me. I could feel myself trembling, holding the door closed, leaning on it, fearing that if I didn't hold tight, I'd be bawling out loud right there in the theatre. Maybe if I just let one memory in, that would relieve some of the pressure. Perhaps I could handle just one.
My Own Return
I sit at a pay phone in a hallway at Pioneer Work Release in Seattle. It is 1993 and I'm just finishing 16 months on a 22-month sentence for forgery and drug possession. I fold and unfold at a piece of paper with my Aunt Judy's phone number on it, listening to the phone ring, not sure what I'll say if she answers.
"Hello, Aunt Judy? It's Frank, um, Frankie."
"Oh! Frank! How are you?"
"I'm fine. I'm still in work release."
"The reason I'm calling is, well, you know, since my dad died last month, I don't have anyplace to go after I get out. They won't release me unless I can give them an address to where I'll be going. They need to approve it. No one else in the family will talk to me. I know I haven't been in contact with you in a long time, but I'm desperate. So I just thought, you know, I'd ask you, um..."
"You want to move in with me?"
"I know this is kinda sudden."
"Well it's okay with me, but I'll have to check with Rick."
"What? I can? I mean, of course, check with Rick. That's fine."
I had never once watched professional wrestling until I moved in with Aunt Judy, but sitting in her living room eating Adobo while watching 'rassling, was so much better than the crowded, stinky work release that it wasn't long before I became a fan, too.
The Sins of the Father
Nick, who's probably been smarting off to authority figures his whole life, pushes things too far with his grandfather Paul one night, speaking in a disrespectful way about their ancestors. Paul slaps Nick and time stops.
Nick falls unconscious, perhaps only for an instant, into a chair in the living room. In that instant, his grandfather tells a story about when he himself was a young boy and went walking on the beach with his grandfather.
He says, "I remember being just little. I was walking along a beach digging for clams. My Grampa and me. He was just old at the time, and he sat down to rest on every log he could find. I remember he told me that I was being too loud splashing around, and that the clams could hear me.
"I said, 'Clams don’t have no ears anyway, Grampa!'
"He grabbed me by my scrawny arm and looked me dead in the eye. Right then I could hear the tides recede back in fear.
“'Ech! Dey dunt tawk back,' he finally said."
As Paul talks, the story is enacted by two figures in wooden masks, hand-carved in northwest coast style for the show and donated by Nisga'a/Tlingit/Tsetsaut/Tsimshian artist Mike Dangeli. One is the old grandfather and the other the young boy.
The masked figures, brought to life by Athabascan/Yup'ik actor Brian Pagaq Wescott and Kholan Studi, are draped in white cloth and move like ghosts, phantoms of the grandfather's memory. By using the form of the two masked figures, the story passes from the personal into the mythic, part of the tribe's shared experience.
In this case, the shared experience is the conflict between generations. Paul's grandfather can barely speak English. How can he make his grandson understand what it means to be Tlingit, to see the world as a Tlingit? This way of seeing cannot be explained. It doesn't teach itself to you. It doesn't talk back. It is how you experience the world, connected like a vast web, woven, like a Chilkat Blanket, each fiber important, but only when viewed within the whole. How do you explain something like that to a young boy?
The Lost Generation
Nick's father Tim (Brian Pagaq Wescott), shows up in the middle of the night and makes himself something to eat as everyone sleeps. He is scruffy with bedraggled hair and dirty clothes. He's come to pick up some money from his father, Paul.
Tim and his father are on stage together for almost a minute before they acknowledge each other. It felt like hours to me. Tim wanted to talk with his dad, I could feel it, and Paul wanted to talk with his son, but a wall had grown between them, built brick by brick of all the fights over the years, the yelling and the slaps that Paul as a younger man inflicted on his son. We learn Tim later joined the military and served in the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, returning a broken man with PTSD.
My own belly quivered as I watched Paul and Tim wrestle with the muteness of resentment and the paralysis of guilt. When my dad was alive I was always "borrowing" money from him, allowing my life to degenerate into a crisis and then asking him for a bailout. Lots of times I'd just blow the money I'd borrowed as soon as he gave it to me. It wasn't about money. I felt he owed me something: a father. And since I couldn't get that, I got money from him instead.
The wall between me and my dad was at least as big as the one between Tim and his father, Paul. The difference was my father never hit me, never mistreated or abused me in any way. He was an introverted, quiet man, who didn't drink or fool around, who never missed work and took us to church every Sunday.
But I hated him. I tried to deny it, even to myself, but I did. I have a vivid memory of when my mom was in the hospital having a hysterectomy. My dad took care of me and made a stew that looked like no stew I'd ever seen before in my life. I remember there were bacon pieces in it and onions. When my dad lifted the lid to the pot, I recoiled. I refused to eat it or even to try it.
The stew bubbled and the steam bit my nose. The vile mist was filling the room. I wanted to shove the pot off the stove and kick it out the back door.
“Bacon! Onions! Who do you think you are? My father? You can't make up for years of not being my father by pretending for one day! It's too late! It's too late!”
How I wish I'd really said those words back then.
Acculturation, Not Assimilation
Several days after seeing the play, I spoke with Alaska historian Peter Metcalfe, author of A Dangerous Idea, a book about the Alaska Native people's fight for rights. I asked him about assimilation. Isn't that the fate of all Native people?
"Assimilation is when two cultures meet and one culture absorbs the other culture, destroying the first one. But acculturation is when two cultures meet and each culture learns and adopts elements from the other,” Metcalfe explains. “William Paul, the first Native to practice law in Alaska, who also became president of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, is a perfect example of acculturation. He wore a suit. He sang opera. But at heart he was an Indian. He was acculturated, not assimilated."
I realized I was not assimilated. As long as I held onto a desire to practice my culture, in whatever way I chose, I would not be assimilated. Singing, dancing, carving, learning my Native language, these and many other cultural activities are channels through which a culture is kept alive. We need not practice all of them to say we are Native. Even practicing one, or even hoping someday to practice one, keeps you from becoming assimilated. Culture is a wish to endure, a wish to survive as a people, even though eventually we all must individually die.
The Grandmother Walks On
Linda, Paul and Nick’s grandmother, succumbs to a sickness she's been hiding from the family. She had been secretly treating herself with Native remedies that are no match for cancer. Finally, she is overcome and passes on. Paul is grief stricken and inconsolable. The Tlingit poem he recited at the beginning of the play was to her. To me, Paul and Linda had been lovers much longer than the span of their current life. Theirs was a love that crossed lifetimes.
I pretended nothing was wrong as tears streamed down my cheeks. My mother died in 1984 of an intracranial bleed. She just fell over one day and never regained consciousness.
I remember standing by her bedside when they shut off the respirator. They told my dad, my brothers and me we could say goodbye, but one at a time. My dad couldn't. He stayed in the waiting room of the ICU. My two older brothers went into her room first. I was the last.
As her respirator fell silent, I was numb. Inside me an ocean of emotions boiled, but I buried them under a mountain of repression. Within months after her death the volcano erupted. I became addicted to cocaine and slipped into a long, slow, downward spiral in which I lost my wife and kids and wound up in prison.
As I watched Paul grieve his wife's passing, I thought about my dad. How come he took us from Juneau? Why did he take Juneau away from me? Bastard!
The Next Day
The day after the play, I was a wreck. I stumbled into downtown Juneau to get something to eat. Turning a corner, I came upon my cousin Mel coming the other way. He is 76 years old, my oldest cousin, who was alive when my Aunt Judy's two boys died in a fire in Juneau in 1950.
I asked Mel if he knew where the fire happened. He took me down South Franklin Street near the water and pointed to a building.
"The Northern Hotel used to stand right here," he said. "Aunt Judy and her two boys stayed there. Me, my mom and dad, and the rest of my family stayed right next door. We used to call it the cement house, because it was made of cement. And your mom and dad lived right up there, on that hill just behind the hotel."
I had no idea my relatives all lived so close together the day of the fire. It started early the morning of November 9, 1950 and burned the wooden structure down quickly. The cause was never determined. A newspaper report at the time noted the insurance on the bar next door, which also burned down, had just been paid.
Aunt Judy and her boyfriend Archie awoke to the crackling sound of fire. When Archie opened the door, a blast of smoke filled the room. They tried to enter the hallway but flames pushed them back. Aunt Judy finally collapsed with serious burns on her back and hands. Archie draggerd her out a window. The boys, Phillip and Larry, were found in their beds, dead from smoke inhalation long before the fire reached them.
"Yeah, your dad fought to save those boys, too," Mel said.
"Oh, yeah. He felt real bad about not being able to save them. He was never quite the same after that."
I felt the air leave my lungs. I stumbled back to my hotel room and collapsed. My dad never told me he tried to save Aunt Judy's boys. He never spoke about the fire at all. I always assumed he moved us to Seattle so we could assimilate. But now I saw he brought our family to Seattle to escape prejudice. He loved Native people and saw how they were treated as expendable pawns by wealthy white businessmen. The death of Aunt Judy's two boys affected him so deeply he named me after one of them. My middle name is Phillip, after the oldest.
He didn't take Juneau away from me. He wasn’t trying to punish me. He didn't want me to become white. He tried to save Aunt Judy's boys and he brought my brothers and me to Seattle so we wouldn't suffer a similar fate.
He never told me. Damn him! He never told me.
They Don't Talk Back ends with Nick leaving to help his mother, who is in jail and about to be sentenced for an undisclosed crime. Edward urges him to stay, but Nick says he must show her his support. She's family.
I could sense Nick was free from the anger he once felt toward his parents. He had tuned in to the ancestors who are always there, looking down on us like the old spruce trees on Mt. Juneau. He was tuned in to the frequency that doesn't talk back, that instead silently guides us through life like a beacon.
And now, with the medicine of Katasse's play and the help of my friends and my cousin Mel, I was tuned in, too.