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Reincarnation of Stories: New play, to be performed in Tlingit

“In theater, people often want to make things more mainstream, to ‘aw, shucks,’ it up; we want to keep it authentic.”

This article first appeared in The Juneau Empire on April 14, 2011

Photo by Amy Condra, From left, playwright Ishmael Hope, director Flordelino Lagundino and composer Edward Littlefield have collaborated on The Reincarnation of Stories, which tells the story of the origin of the killer whale. “I want the play performed as an elder, a native storyteller, would perform it,” said Lagundino, “so that the audience can actually see a storyteller tell a story in Tlingit.”

by Amy Condra

When Ishmael Hope’s grandfather died, his family and friends gathered to pay tribute.

As they stood to share their stories, they spoke in a language that had, for thousands of years, served Alaska’s Native people: They spoke in Tlingit.

“My dad said, ‘Man, when an Elder gets up, and speaks from the heart, that is like soul food,’” said Hope.

When his own father, Andy Hope III, passed away in 2008, Ishmael Hope decided it was time to study Tlingit himself.

According to Sealaska Heritage Institute figures from 2007, Tlingit is spoken fluently in America by only 200 to 400 people, and is considered by many to be an endangered language.

For Hope, learning to speak it is a way to respect those who came before him.

“It truly does empower you to learn the language of your ancestors,” said Hope, who grew up speaking only English. “When you first learn a language, you think it’s just another way to say something. Then you realize that the way you put together thoughts and concepts is related to the language you are using.”

“Language is alive,” he added. “It’s an actual living thing.”

Hope’s previous plays include “Raven Odyssey,” “Cedar House” and “Gunakadeit,” which was performed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum for the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

His newest work, “The Reincarnation of Stories,” opens tonight, and features four actors — Frank Katasse, Edward Littlefield, Erin Tripp and Hope himself — who will perform the story of Naatsilanei, the birth of the killer whale.

They tell the tale in Tlingit, as it was once told by traditional Tlingit artist Willie Marks. While everyone in the cast was raised speaking English, they have also each studied Tlingit.

“It takes a long time to memorize Tlingit,” Hope said. “It can be like pushing a rock up a hill! But everyone in the cast has Tlingit lines.”

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