'Winter Bear' takes message of self-worth on the road

Fairbanks Daily News-MinerMay 4, 2013 

FAIRBANKS -- A winter bear has awakened, and it's bringing more than fear for Bush villagers -- it's also bringing a lesson in self-worth.

That's the basic premise behind "The Winter Bear," a play in which an Alaska Native teenager rises above his traumatic past and finds his own place in the world with the help of fictionalized mentor Sydney Huntington, who is based on the real-life noted elder from Galena by the same name.

The play opened Thursday at the Empress Theatre in Fairbanks before starting on a two-week tour of smaller communities along the Alaska road system. Outreach programs will combine arts workshops and frank discussions about the future of life for Alaska Native youth.

"We all have circumstances that we can't control, but your life is about what you do with it, not what it does to you," said Carey Seward, who is directing the revival of "The Winter Bear." "What the play addresses is not just a Native problem or an Alaskan problem. It's a story about everybody -- everybody who feels not worthy enough."

Former State Writer Laureate Anne Hanley wrote the play in 2007. The first performance was staged in 2008. It was produced in Anchorage in 2010 and has toured the state since.

"The Winter Bear" grew out of an effort in which a group of young men in Fairbanks, disheartened by the suicides of many peers, formed a men's group, Diigi Nai, that held alcohol and drug-free dances and concerts in Interior Alaska.

Mark Frank came up with the idea of producing a play based on the life of Huntington, author of "Shadows on the Koyukuk."

The group hired Hanley, who also was a fan of Huntington's book, with the help of a grant from the First Alaskans Institute to write the play. It was first performed in May 2008, with 26-year-old Frank Yaska, Huntington's great-grand nephew, playing the role of Huntington.

With this production, Hanley was able to rewrite some parts and fine-tune some of her original script before it hits the road.

"It's always been my hope that we could bring it to Alaska Native villages where we can talk to Alaska Native males," Hanley said. "One of the reasons I wanted to write it is how often does an Athabascan male see himself as the hero of the movie?"

The plays follows Duane, a young man who runs into some trouble at school and is sentenced to live with Huntington for the winter and cut wood for him, with neither man thrilled with the arrangement.

Duane's hunting experience is limited to video games and iPods, so Huntington decides to teach Duane about the old ways, beginning with teaching Duane how to make a spear.

Duane is an apathetic pupil, but Huntington keeps at him until Duane finally confides to the elder that he's thinking about committing suicide.

Huntington is determined to stop him, since he knows firsthand about the pain suicide inflicts on survivors. Soon after, Duane and Huntington are forced to confront a winter bear that leaves Huntington injured, forcing Duane to kill the bear with the primitive weapon.

With Huntington recovering in the hospital, the elder sends the youth to the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Huntington's place. Here Duane summons the courage from the bear attack to speak from his heart about issues facing Alaska Natives.

Despite the dark themes, the play has lighter moments and also incorporates mythological elements pertinent to Athabascan culture; a raven, lynx and other animals are used prominently in the play to help convey message, setting and tone.

"We're really excited and gratified at the response from the communities we're going to visit," Hanley said.

"We're going into the schools, and the actors are doing workshops as well. Our philosophy is positive self-esteem can be taught with the arts."

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