Native American Playwright Festival makes connection with public
By B.L. Azure
Linda Grinde introduces the cast of the reading of the Jennifer Greene play based on the 1855 Treaty of Hell Gate. (B.L. Azure photo)
ARLEE — They say a little bit of sugar makes the medicine go down. That adage could also apply to five-day long “Old Stories — New Voices” the Native American Playwright Festival held in the Hanging Art Gallery from Monday, July 23 through Friday, July 27.
“This is a great way to tell stories, to push forward the historical narrative of Indian people,” said educator Julie Cajune. This is the second year Cajune has been involved in bringing the American Indian theater effort to local audiences. “People won’t always be inclined to read the history books but they may be inclined to view a play. It is a different approach to getting our message out there.”
Cajune said the end product of the effort is to guide and nurture a long lasting American Indian theater festival on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
A play written by Salish author Jennifer Greene based on the 1855 Treaty of Hellgate was performed before local folks Friday as well as a group of Middle East and North Africa Muslim students attending the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) at Montana State University.
“This is some very important history of our people,” Cajune said. It is a history that the vast majority of Montanans, Americans and the world know little if anything about it. “We need to hold the Hellgate Treaty in our hearts and we need to hold our country accountable for its tenets. There is no higher law than treaty law in the American Constitution. But the Indian treaties were just about getting the land and its resources from the Indians. That’s still going on today.”
Julie Cajune and Jennifer Greene answer audience questions following the reading of Greene’s play Friday at the Hanging Art Gallery in Arlee. (B.L. Azure photo)
Kevin Brustuen of the MSU Office of International Programs said there were 19 Muslim students from 15 countries involved in the month long summer educational endeavor. The focus of the MEPI is to foster better relationships with future leaders of the Middle East countries. It focuses on leadership, human rights, democracy and cultural awareness. All the students have never been to America before. The MEPI is in its fifth year and is funded by a U.S. State Department program grant that has to be renewed every two years.
“We try to give them a real picture of America,” Brustuen said, adding that many of the Muslim students didn’t realize that American Indians still existed as a sovereign entity within the borders of America. “They only knew what they saw on television, the old Western movies. The sovereignty of Indians in America is completely new to them. We want to expose them to the vibrant American Indian cultures that have a lot of similarities with their cultures. We made a connection with Julie and it has been an excellent experience. It opened the students eyes and they made connections with the similar issues that American Indians and Middle East Muslims are facing.”
Poet and author Vic Charlo was recognized Friday at the Native American Playwright Festive in Arlee. (B.L. Azure photo)
Brustuen said that one of the Middle East students is going to write a play based on her experience garnered on the tour of Montana Indian reservations this summer.
“It’s always a great idea to share our historic and modern experience in America with people from other countries,” Cajune said. “We want to give them a realistic view of the image of American Indians. We have to take advantage of opportunities like this because they can make differences in perceptions.”
Cajune said the folks involved in “Old Stories — New Voices” want to create a structure to financially support an ongoing effort to promote American Indian theater that promotes plays written by American Indian authors.
Seattle-based flute player Gary Stroutsos plays an introductory piece for the play reading based on the 1855 Treaty of Hell Gate. (B.L. Azure photo)
“Theater moves people. It speaks to them in a different way,” Cajune said. “We want to connect with people who may not seek it out because American Indian theater is not part of mainstream theater. It is one way to chip away at the incorrect stories about our people and promote their experiences correctly by promoting our self image in this world that is different from others.”
Greene said she had a bit of stage fright with the Hellgate Treaty play. She has authored several poems, stories and screen plays but not a play per se. She was worried about creating the dialogue but pumped up about the possibilities of pulling it off.
“This was the first time I did anything like this and it has been one of the most invigorating weeks I have ever had,” Greene said. “The most difficult part was my own self-doubt. Writing for me is never without self-doubt. This was a huge project to take on but I think it turned out great and I think it will happen again. I know we’ll do more of this. I am thankful for all those who showed up. It was an honor to do this. I am proud it turned out so well. I didn’t know what to expect going into this. But now I am excited to do more.”
Cajune said the weeklong effort was a positive experience for the authors, performers and the public attendees.
Wadii Boughedir, a Middle East student attending the summer Mid-East Partnership Initiative at Montana State University, reads the part of Chief Michelle at the Native American Playwright Festival. (B.L. Azure photo)
“I was worried about how people would respond to this, if they would understand this,” Cajune said. “I think they did because the human condition is a shared one that knows no borders.”
The “Old Stories — New Voices” event was sponsored by Npustin and the Arlee Community Development Corporation. The festival brought together American Indian playwrights Myrton Running Wolf, Vic Charlo, Jennifer Greene and Julie Cajune as well as Zan Agzigian.
A different American Indian authored play was performed each night.