A unique partnership between a professor, director and playwright from the Department of the Theater Arts and an elder and actor from the Grand Ronde tribe has given Indigenous theater a voice and presence on campus.
Their collaboration resulted in a new play that brought a tribal perspective to one of the Northwest’s most significant environmental disasters, and a second play is currently in the works. The partnership also gave students the opportunity to see theater through Indigenous eyes and showcased the work of Indigenous playwrights.
In 2011, Theresa May, drama teacher at UO, directed “Salmon Is Everything” – the story of the death of 60,000 Klamath River spawning salmon in 2002, which harmed the tribes of the river. Lower Klamath whose culture and livelihood depended on it – at OU’s Robinson Theater. . She wrote the play in collaboration with indigenous citizens of the Klamath River watershed, including members of the Karuk, Yurok, Hoopa Valley and Klamath tribes. It has since been published by Oregon State University Press.
The production marked the start of a long-standing collaboration between May and Marta Clifford, who played Grandma Karuk in the play and is a Grand Ronde elder with Chinook and Scream heritage. Since then, they have taught contemporary Indigenous theater and presented public programs focused on plays and performances by Indigenous and First Nations playwrights.
Clifford’s role as the Elder in Residence in May’s Classes is supported by the Office of the Provost and a Tom and Carol Williams grant to the Department of Native, Racial and Ethnic Studies.
May appreciates Clifford’s presence in the classroom because she is able “with authority and compassion to help non-native students understand the history of the native people of Oregon and overcome their emotions to become a proactive alliance.”
âI’m here to answer questions that can’t be answered in a book or by someone who isn’t native,â said Clifford. The couple also co-wrote articles on their productive relationship.
Their current project, “BlueJay’s Canoe,” began with a particular iteration of their Indigenous theater class in which students studied script development, researched Oregon tribal stories, and environmental restoration. , and listened to elders and other guest speakers from the nine federally recognized tribes of Oregon. . The continued development of the play was supported by the Center for Environmental Futures and the Center for the Study of Women in Society.
The play is a coming-of-age story about a high school student doing an internship at a Willamut Valley radio station for a DJ with a mysterious past. The play uses Willamette’s Kalapuya spelling. Clifford will play Goldie, an Indigenous Elder and a role she created out of her own childhood memories.
Indigenous history, culture and activism are intertwined with the character’s plot and stories as Indigenous stories collide with a pandemic in a year brimming with challenges and tragedy.
âIt’s a way to give an Aboriginal perspective,â said Clifford. âMany people still see Aboriginal people as a culture ‘of the past.’ The play shows them that, yes, natives lived here in the past, but look, this is a local native who runs a radio station. He and his Aunt Goldie tell stories that teach viewers about local Indigenous history and culture, such as the importance of canoes and how camas were a major food source for the natives of the Willamut Valley.
While still only a work in progress, May and Clifford are hopeful that âBlueJay’s Canoeâ will be staged by University Theater or a local theater next year. Along with Lori Tapahonso, steward of the Longhouse at Lane Community College, they started a company called illioo Native Theater to produce work by Indigenous playwrights and to model Indigenous / non-Indigenous partnerships.
âThe theater is both alive and community; there, before our eyes, we see stories embodied, and we do it together, âsaid May. âSo, as First Nations playwright Monique Mojica writes, theater has the power to ‘bring new worlds to life’. This is how theater can help generate a just, compassionate and sustainable future. “
âBy Sharleen Nelson, University Communications