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Playwright makes pitch for anti-suicide funding at the Capitol

Winter Bear Project subject of Mon. "Lunch and Learn"

Posted: February 26, 2013 - 1:08am
Former Alaska Writer Laureate Anne Hanley speaks at the Capitol on Monday about using dramatic arts and a new play she has written, "The Winter Bear," to combat Alaska's high suicide rate.   Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Former Alaska Writer Laureate Anne Hanley speaks at the Capitol on Monday about using dramatic arts and a new play she has written, "The Winter Bear," to combat Alaska's high suicide rate.

A former Alaska state writer laureate made an appeal at the Alaska State Capitol Monday for a legislative appropriation to help pay for performances of the suicide prevention play she wrote.

Anne Hanley’s “The Winter Bear” has been performed in a number of communities since 2008, the playwright said, and this year and next year, Winter Bear Project organizers hope to stage several more performances in Alaska Native villages throughout Northern and Interior Alaska.

Hanley, who is also the executive director of the Winter Bear Project, said the group has about $150,000 this year in federal grant funds via the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Tanana Chiefs Conference. She is seeking another $250,000 from the state to help pay for fly-in and riverboat visits to Interior villages not connected to the North American road system.

The play has not been performed in Southeast Alaska, Hanley said.

“We have a lot of interest from Southeast, and we’d love to get down, do sort of maybe a combination … fly-in, ferry tour,” said Hanley, who was writer laureate from 2002 to 2004, after her presentation.

“The Winter Bear” is a fictional story, although one of its main characters is a fictionalized version of an actual person, about a troubled young man who is sentenced to live with and work for an elder during the winter. When the elder is injured by the titular winter bear, he asks the young man to speak in his place at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, an experience that ultimately allows him to come into his own.

Hanley showed a video recording of one scene from the play, in which the elder — based on the real-life Koyukon Athabascan elder Sidney Huntington — confronts his ward, Duane “Shadow” David, about the latter contemplating suicide and reveals that he has lost several of his children to suicide.

“We’ve been blessed with really, really good actors for this show,” Hanley said.

Although she did not show it Monday, Hanley also described the scene later in the play in which “Shadow” speaks at the AFN.

“The boy gets up, we put a single spotlight on him, he speaks,” said Hanley. “And earlier, when he was talking to Sidney, he said, ‘Well, I don’t know how to speak. I wouldn’t know what to say.’ And Sidney says, ‘If you speak from your heart, the people will listen.’ And that’s what he does. He speaks from his heart. And in almost every show we’ve given, at the end of the boy’s speech, people just stand up and give that boy a standing ovation. It’s not the play, it’s not the words, it’s not anything. It’s that boy that they’re applauding. And that, to me, is just great.”

Hanley made her presentation at Monday’s “Lunch and Learn” program. While the event was organized by the House Health and Social Services Committee — often known as “HESS” — a lengthy floor session of the House of Representatives kept committee lawmakers one floor above the committee room where Lunch and Learn was held.

Rep. Pete Higgins, R-Fairbanks, chairman of the committee, said he has not spoken to Hanley about the Winter Bear Project, but his committee aide has.

“I’ve worked with Anne quite a bit,” said the aide, Paul Verhagen, who was at the presentation.

For himself and his fellow legislators, Higgins added, “We were in session, or else we would have been there.”

Verhagen said, “We’re the worst in the nation at suicide prevention … and I think HESS is certainly the area that has a responsibility for that, so that’s why we made the contact.”

Alaska has the highest per capita rate of suicide in the United States — an epidemic that is especially pronounced in rural areas and among young Alaska Native men.

Asked Monday afternoon whether he believes "The Winter Bear" is an effective tool for preventing suicide, Higgins replied, “I think anything is an effective tool. I think just being involved is effective. … Any tool that we can put in the toolbox, I’m for. And this is another tool, so I’m all for it. You know, the effective tools are sometimes the tools that you don’t even recognize as being the ones that are there. So you just never know.”

Higgins said he supports the requested $250,000 appropriation for the Winter Bear Project.

Also on Monday, the Alaska Senate passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River, extending the Alaska Suicide Prevention Council until 2019. Senate Bill 37 must now be approved by the House before it goes to Gov. Sean Parnell for his signature.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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