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.”
The play’s director, Flordelino Lagundino, is also the producing artistic director of the Generator Theatre Company, which is co-producing the play with Perseverance Theatre.
Lagundino has collaborated with Hope before, and has also directed several plays for Perseverance Theatre and directed and acted in works performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Yale Repertory Theatre and The Kennedy Center.
He says that an English adaptation will be performed alongside the Tlingit version.
“I wanted to have Tlingit as the primary language,” Lagundino said. “I wanted the play performed as an Elder, a Native storyteller, would perform it, so that the audience can actually see a storyteller tell a story in Tlingit.”
“In theater, people often want to make things more mainstream, to ‘aw, shucks,’ it up,” he said. “We want to keep it authentic.”
Hope agreed, but added that perhaps a more apt description of a performance of “The Reincarnation of Stories” would be, “not quite authentic.”
Or even, Hope said, “wonderfully impure.”
“It isn’t pure, because English is our main language… we come from a different world than Willie Marks did,” said Hope. “But we have reverence for that world, we learn from that and we honor that.”
Hope credits Richard Dauenhauer and Nora Marks Dauenhauer, editors of the Sealaska Heritage Foundation’s Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature series, as being inspirations, as people who are striving to preserve and present the Tlingit language.
But even as these linguists and scholars strive to document Tlingit stories, they acknowledge that simply writing these tales down isn’t enough.
In her article “Native Tongues,” published 15 years ago in Sierra Magazine, Nancy Lord wrote, “Preservation, Tlingit oral historians Richard and Nora Marks Dauenhauer remind us, is what we do to berries in jam jars and salmon in cans.
“Preserved foods are different from thriving berry patches and surging runs of salmon, and dictionaries are not the same as speech. Books and recordings can preserve languages, but only people and communities can keep them alive.”
One of the goals of those involved with “The Reincarnation of Stories” is to revitalize not just Tlingit stories, but Tlingit cultural traditions.
So in this play, stories will be not only told with the Tlingit language, but also with Tlingit songs.
Ed Littlefield composed the music for the play, crafting a new take on classical Tlingit tunes.
“The goal here is to create contemporary traditional music,” said Littlefield, a Seattle musician who grew up in Sitka.
Everyone in the cast will be singing and dancing, said Littlefield, who will also be performing in the show; he and his fellow cast member, Erin Tripp, will be drumming throughout much of the play.
“The beauty of Tlingit music, of Native music, is that everyone is involved,” Littlefield said. “What Ishmael is talking about — the language as the culture — well, the music is also a huge aspect of that.”
And that, said Hope, is all that they are trying to do: Create a connection.
Forging that bridge between the past and the present can be challenging, notes Littlefield.
“I have heard Native storytellers speak Tlingit, but I haven’t heard a lot of original compositions,” he said. “They’re very rare.”
Littlefield’s mother, Roberta Littlefield, has taught Tlingit language classes for University of Alaska Southeast, and conducted oral history interviews.
“My mom was an archivist for a Sitka tribe, and discovered these cylinder tapes,” Littlefield said. “On them were crying songs, just amazingly raw singing, from the 1900s. That has been an adventure for me, taking in all of that.”
Lagundino is encouraging cast members to let these kinds of inspirations influence their performances
“The lens they are creating is different from the lens created by Elders, who had the Tlingit language and culture with them all the time,” he said. “But to have the words live through these actors, stirs up something they didn’t know was there before, that they can pass on to other people. Through their apprenticeship, the future has been enriched—and they are getting closer to being Elders themselves.”
Hope says that learning the Tlingit language is one of the biggest goals of his life, and he wishes that he could fully immerse himself with the language by spending more time with Elders.
“I’m serious about it, because as (Canadian poet) Robert Bringhurst says, to give up your language in order to get along in the modern world, is like giving away your grandparents.”
And this isn’t about race, says Hope.
“It’s about culture, and it’s about love,” he said. “To me, when I say language is about love, it’s about a true commitment to ancestors.”
Hope believes that learning more about his Native culture enhances his perspective on the world.
“This doesn’t mean I’m saying ‘no’ to modern America,” he said. “This makes me a better American.”
“The Reincarnation of Stories” will be performed at Perseverance Theatre at 7.30 p.m. tonight, Friday and Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are available on a pay-as-you-can basis. All performances are being dedicated to Sakara (Sky) Kachina Yepa Dunlap, a Juneau-Douglas High School graduate and a gifted young actress, and one of playwright Ishmael Hope’s best friends. Sky Dunlap passed away last week.