Devilfish - Natives for Sobriety

Emily Sera (left) and Erin Tripp in ‘Devilfish’ (Photo by Brian Wallace)

by Hank Wentz

Being Native, and of the matrimonial tradition, I follow my mother’s side. I am my mother’s son, and her Inupiaq name is Buneeq. With this said, my mom told me a story of grandma being “possessed” by the Northern Lights, taking her spirit, and leaving her behind not in her right mind.

Much like when the Catholic priest tried to do an exorcism on me, I was ambushed by the superstition of those I trusted, and it was not like a substance abuse intervention. It was done with malice, and no sympathy — kind of like entities not defending you, or withholding evidence, or services. This is not my natural world, and it is hard for Natives to assimilate, unless they worship the almighty dollar.

Incidentally, mom was “informally” adopted by Stella Martin and Flora Huntington, sisters originally from Kake, Alaska. They were Alaska Native Sisterhood members for 30 years, as well as going to the Salvation Army for the same length of time. They called her their “Native clan sister,” taking her as an Eagle/Killer Whale. That was my mom’s blessing and honor, and since it was informal, I cannot address myself as Eagle/Killer Whale. My dad’s Tlingit name was Klauque, and he told me of the Kushtaka, an otter coming out during the foggy weather and taking over your spirit, as though we were possessed. I call this, like some call liquor, “evil spirits.” This is heaven on earth, and we are living in the Garden of Eden, with Natives seeming to be the Stewards. My dad was Tlingit Raven/Kiksade (Frog) who did four tours of war — two in Korea, and two in World War II — but he also was German/Norwegian. He would tell me of his monsters.

Devilfish is a play currently being put on in Anchorage by Juneau-based Perseverance Theater, which is renowned in its own right. Written by Vera Starbard, directed by Leslie Ishii, choreography by DaxKilatch ka’ Xeetli.eeshit, the Devilfish cast in alphabetical order is Rio Alberto-Yinaahaat/Kashagoon, Jennifer Bobiwash-Kunagoo, Skylar Ray Benson Davis-Wakeesh, Allison Hicks-Fog Woman/Mother, Kenny Ramos-Tundataan, Erin Tripp-Aaneteinatu, Emily Sera-Koontz.

“Opening this new chapter at Perseverance Theater with ‘Devilfish,’ where we pay homage to the Tlingit, is wholly fitting as it features a young woman coming of age in prehistory Southeast Alaska, who profoundly awakens the sacred moral center in all of us,” Perseverance writes in its play notes.

In the playbill, Ishii also “Wishes everyone to acknowledge that we are on the sacred lands of the Dena’ina and honor them since time immemorial. We are grateful to the community to honor the culture, traditions, and resilience of Alaska Native Elders and Ancestors. Chin’an gheli.”

Long before colonization, Alaskan Natives lived a complex world off the land, surviving for thousands of years to what European settlers deemed to be barbaric, or savage, but it was complex and one with nature. Surviving in harsh elements people take for granted, knowing when to hunt, gather, fish, and store food caches before European influence. Trading amongst themselves was sophisticated in its own right. Winter often meant long, cold, dark nights in which they taught how to make totems, masks, regalia, hunting tools, cooking utensils, clothing, shelter, or visit other villages, such as in Southeast Alaska, for potlatches, or a feast. One was not considered wealthy by hoarding, but by how much one gave away.

During potlatches, often there was competition such as dancing, and singing. You had to have permission to sing or dance another clan’s song or dance. To not do so was disrespectful, kind of like borrowing something without permission, or stealing. Honor meant a lot. Territories was respected, even hunting grounds. Dad told me of Tlingits going far away to trade, and at times coming back with slaves. The Russians did this with the Alaskan Yupiks, often taking women, just because men often outnumber women in this part of the world. Natives did not live by the “time-clock,” as that was a European invention to control you, like the days of the week, or months, or “taxes.” We were free, and something else that was competitive was storytelling. Storytelling often had symbolic meanings behind it, much like knowing when you let a territory repopulate a certain species so you do not hunt it out. It would not directly tell you, or ‘boss you around,’ as respect was given, and this allowed your mind to grow, much like your Bible leaving a message, or “riddle” you have to figure out. Once you find the truth, you own it, because you earned it — no one gave it to you. Too often in society today, we take things for granted. Everything is thrown away today, especially people, as nothing is sacred.

In the Tlingit tradition, my mother’s brother would raise me, so I was not spoiled. There was a reason for everything there, such as an Eagle not marrying another Eagle, as that was a form of incest and marrying your sister. So, my dad, being a Raven, would have had married an Eagle, and I would be raised an Eagle, learning their ways. This was our spirituality, and culture.

So many people today are so lost, because they have lost their traditions and culture, becoming ‘Americanized.’

I walk of three cultures, yet I have no tribe, or clan. Along that path I’ve found that others try to put a boot on my voice and throat. The dragons I battle in the world, and the demons in my head are my experience, but I fight for everyone, planting seeds for shade I never sit in. Like a storyteller, I hope this planted a seed for you to see ‘Devilfish’ in its final weekend.

You don’t want to miss it.

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