SITKA — In the Tlingit story of Strong Man, the hero, Dukt’ootl’, grows up building his strength until one day he is ready to become a leader of his people.
The challenges that face teens today are a little different, but writer Ishmael Hope was able to relate the ancient Tlingit story to a modern-day story describing the evolution of a bullied teen into a confident young man, who is able to achieve his goals through hard work.
The stories are captured in a parallel storytelling style in Hope’s comic book, “Strong Man,” illustrated by Dimi Macheras.
“I was trying to find a way of providing traditional Tlingit knowledge to modern life, and with integrity,” Hope said. “How do you do it: to describe the tests of modern challenges with a traditional framework, and at the same time encourage people to go into the original source.”
Hope, who lives in Juneau but has deep roots in Sitka, is this year’s statewide featured writer in the Spirit of Reading program, funded by the Alaska Association of School Librarians, Alaska State Interlibrary Cooperation Grant, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Recently, Hope spent a few days in Sitka’s schools, telling Tlingit and Inupiaq stories and talking about his comic book. Hope will also travel to Prince of Wales Island and Kotzebue. He started his tour in Fairbanks, where he met with kids at the Fairbanks Youth Facility, and was the keynote speaker at the Alaska Library Association’s annual convention. The Spirit of Reading set up video and audio conferences with Denali Elementary, Nordale Elementary and Koliganek, and will appear on Alaska public radio network show Talk of Alaska (10 a.m. April 24, on KCAW-FM).
This year, statewide organizers Kari Sagel and Ginny Blackson wanted to feature an Alaskan writer, and one who wrote in a different style.
“We thought it would be a good change of pace,” Blackson said of the 20-page beautifully illustrated comic book.
Blackson, the Sitka High librarian, said she learned about the Strong Man comic through her husband Marty, who teaches at the high school and used the book in his classroom.
Sagel, the Blatchley Middle School librarian, said this is one of those books that can appeal to avid readers as well as “reluctant readers,” and put them on a path to reading.
“It’s one book, one series that can change their path,” Sagel said.
And for Alaska Native youths, there are not a lot of books that tell their stories.
“Kids need storytellers in literature,” Blackson said. “There’s not a lot of them. Getting books in their hands that reflect their experience is something we struggle to find. So much of young adult literature is urban and gritty. There’s really a place for books that kids can see themselves in.”
Hope, 30, was born in Sitka and moved to Juneau at age 5 or 6. His parents, both of whom were writers.
From around third-grade, Hope knew he wanted to be a writer — or “ritter” as he spelled it at the time — and an artist.
It wasn’t long after graduating from Juneau Douglas High School that he was working toward that goal. Before he was 21, he went to work for Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, as an actor and co-producer of the Tlingit verson of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which was also performed in Sitka. Since 2003, Hope has been the director of outreach for the theater company.
Hope grew up on the Tlingit and Inupiaq storytelling of his parents’ people. In the introduction to the book, Hope describes the substantial legwork involved to ensure the integrity of the story. He said he learned from and was inspired by Frank Johnson of the Sukhteeneidi clan. The story was published by Richard and Nora Dauenhauer in the book “Haa Shuka: Our Ancestors,” and takes place on the old island Henyaa.
“This is important — acknowledgement of place and origin is a part of the protocol of telling these stories,” Hope said. “Also, the place Henyaa was occupied by the ancient Gaaax.adi clan, which then went on to become other clans, including Mr. Johnson’s clan, the Sukteeneidi.”
Hope gives credit to Edward Thomas, Frank Johnson’s nephew, and the late Elizabeth Katasse (Kawch-kla-Hat), the matriarch of the Taakw.aneidi clan, with whom the Strong Man story belongs.
“We thank Elizabeth for giving us permission to use the Strong Man story,” Hope wrote.
After writing the story, and receiving feedback from numerous sources, Hope made thumbnail sketches of the panels, to be illustrated by Macheras.
Macheras is from the Anchorage and Mat Su areas, and was one of the first enrolled students at the Ya Ne Dah Ah tribal school, where he learned Ahtna Athabascan songs, dances and stories. He has illustrated three of the Ya Ne Dah Ah stories in graphic novel form, and today works fulltime for Chickaloon Village’s Education Department.
Hope said he and Macheras did their best to maintain the structure and integrity of the Strong Man story.
“Dimi and I have viewed this undertaking as a way of extending the history, of finding new genres to express ancient (and still relevant) traditions,” Hope wrote. “Yet as individual artists, we’ve strived to find our own voices and styles. I felt the best way to do that was to add a contemporary plot line, told along with the traditional story, of the struggles and triumphs of a young man in high school. In this way, the traditional and the contemporary intersect, making the past and present conversant with each other, and, hopefully, enhancing each other.”