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Richard Perry
Special to Indian Country Today

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — It's “A Christmas Carol” as only an Alaska Native could see it.

Instead of Victorian-era England, it’s set in COVID-era Alaska. Ebenezer Scrooge and his niece — not nephew — are presidents of Native corporations. And the values of giving and community are pure Tlingit.

That’s the message in “A Tlingit Christmas Carol,” written by Vera Starbard, the playwright-in-residence at Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska.

Starbard, Tlingit and Dena’ina, is also a writer for the PBS Kids animated children’s program, “Molly of Denali,” and happens to be a fan of the Charles Dickens novella, “A Christmas Carol.”

She sees Tlingit philosophy in the Dickens tale.

“Growing up, I was always so captivated by the use of wealth and community in the story,” Starbard told Indian Country Today. “Tlingit culture has a very strong value of sharing wealth amongst the clan. Scrooge hoarding his wealth for himself — not even using it — was always such an imagination point for me. How he eventually does start sharing his wealth amongst his ‘clan’ always read to me a bit like a Tlingit story might go, learning the lesson of sharing.”

Playwright Vera Starbard's "A Tlingit Christmas Carol," an Alaska Native version of Charles Dickens' classic, is being livestreamed starting Dec. 20, 2021 from the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska. Shown here are, left to right starting at the top, director Madeline Sayet, Mohegan; Kenny Ramos, Barona Band of Mission Indians/Kumeyaay Nation, the Spirit of Christmas Present; Erin Tripp, Tlingit, as Roberta and Justice; Edward Littlefield, Tlingit, as E.B. Scrooge. Second row, from left: Frank Henry Kaash Katasse, Tlingit, as Marley and Fezziwig, with Shaawat Tlein Rose Autumn Katasse, Tlingit, as Tiny Tina, and Stacy Katasse as Hollis Cratchit; Isabella Star Lablanc, Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota, as Freda and Fanny; and Jolie Cloutier, Onondaga Nation, as Grace. Third row: Nathan Starbard, Tlingit, as Young Scrooge; stage manager Jennifer Bobiwash, Mississauga; Candice Byrd, Cherokee/Quapaw/Osage, as Lily; playwright Vera Starbard, Tlingit/Dena'ina'; and artistic director Leslie Ishii. Fourth row, from left: Producer Joseph Biagini; Joshua Lowman, who handled online presentation and editing; and Irene Bedard, Inupiag/Yup'ik/Cree, as the Ancestor of Christmas Past. (Photo courtesy of Vera Starbard)

The play originally debuted in 2020 as a live-streamed event from Perseverance Theatre, directed by Madeline Sayet and featuring music composed by Ed Littlefield. This year, Beginning Dec. 20, “A Tlingit Christmas Carol” is once again being live-streamed and will be available for a limited time.

Starbard said one of her favorite accomplishments during her residency has been in sharing Tlingit traditions and watching their impact on American theater.

“I want Native people to watch my work and be incredibly proud to be who they are,” Starbard said. “I want non-Natives to watch my work and learn and celebrate these sophisticated, complex cultures.”

Storytelling traditions

Starbard has brought a Tlingit storytelling tradition to the residency.

The Tlingit people have been in southeast Alaska for thousands and thousands of years, and are among at least five Indigenous cultures in Alaska: Aleuts, Inupiat, Yup’ik, Athabascan and Tlingit/Haida.

Their elaborate productions have not always been accepted, however.

“Tlingits have millennia-old performing arts traditions with high production value,” she said. “But so much of that, like nearly all Native performing arts practices in the U.S. and Canada, were not only actively stigmatized, but made illegal for decades.”

Starbard was born in 1981 in Craig, Alaska, and she has had a passion for reading and writing since elementary school. She later transitioned her interests into professional writing, editing, and communications strategy.

Writer Vera Starbard's play, "A Tlingit Christmas Carol," is being livestreamed by the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska, starting Dec. 20, 2021.  (Photo courtesy of Vera Starbard)

In 2012, she took part in a program through the Alaska Native Heritage Center called the Alaska Native Playwright Project, which included several established Alaska Native writers. The project included workshops and a mentorship component that provided practical methods to turn story ideas into plays.

In 2016, Starbard was awarded a three-year residency at Perseverance Theatre as part of the National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by HowlRound. Her grant was renewed in 2019 and her residency continues through June 2022

Her first play premiered in 2016, “Our Voices Will Be Heard,” a semi-autobiographical piece that deals with childhood sexual abuse. Her next play, “Devilfish Sleeps,” which premiered in 2019, was inspired in part by her novel of the same name.

Then came “A Tlingit Christmas Carol.” Like many people, Indigenous or not, her family and other Indigenous Alaskans enjoyed family gatherings — feasts, holiday beverages, dancing, movies, and gift-giving during the holidays.

In addition to her theater and television productions, she has won numerous writing and editing awards, including the 2018 Alaska Literary Aware and the Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award. She is also currently working as editor of First Alaskans Magazine, and lives in Anchorage with her husband, Joe, and their two cats.

Changing times

The Christmas traditions celebrated today in the United States began sometime in the mid-1800s, about the time Dickens was writing his novella in England.

Dickens is credited with acknowledging the emergence in his day of a Western observance of Christmas, moving to a more secular and children-centered holiday. The novella’s message is centered on the importance of charity and goodwill toward all humankind.

Familiar threads run between Starbard’s, “A Tlingit Christmas Carol,” and Dickens’ novella. Her play is closer to the Dickens’ readings, however — when he toured and read his novella aloud to live audiences.

Instead of being an industrial mogul like the original Scrooge, however, the Tlingit Scrooge runs a Native corporation, as does his niece.

“I dig into a bit of the contrast of a terrible Native leader and a great Native leader in these times,” Starbard said.

The play is one of five full-length plays she has written during her residency. She has had two productions, one for stage and one online. She has one more due before her residency ends next summer.

“My work has been less about [the plays] coming out and more about the impact of Tlingit tradition on American theatre,” Starbard said.

Looking ahead

Starbard is among a growing list of Indigenous voices reaching mainstream audiences, from “Reservation Dogs” to “Molly of Denali.”

“Indigenous storytelling through media is having a moment,” she said. “I hope that the wider worldwide audience can get that this has never been a fad for us. These stories, this humor, this tragedy, this beauty — we have been living this for thousands of years. Since our stories and performing arts were illegal for so long, some very brave Native storytellers had to carry these things through for us.”

Thankfully, she said, many Indigenous parents and grandparents have taught stories and traditions to the current generation, which has opened new doors.

“I see the current generation in this renaissance of the moment, [offering] steadier artistic feet than our parents and grandparents had,” Starbard said. “But we still need to build a strong foundation for the next generations. From what I’ve seen and some projects I know are coming soon, I’m pretty excited about how strong and creative that foundation is being laid.”

She said she is aware of the importance of support from family and community, and enjoyed strong support from teachers and mentors.

“Lately, I’ve really been contemplating that,” Starbard said. “I’m in a place now where I need to really put some focus on not only holding those doors open for the next generation of Native artists but encouraging them to knock down the walls.”

For more info
For more information about live-streaming of  “A Tlingit Christmas Carol,” visit the Perseverance Theatre’s website. Learn more about Vera Starbard’s publications at her website. Download “A Tlingit Christmas Carol” lyrics and songs by Edward Littlefield.

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