‘Assimilation’ teaches historic lesson
Josh Hartman / Sun Star
“No Dogs or whites allowed,” read a sign separating softer cushioned chairs from metal fold-up chairs. The sign, while not enforced, reflected the atmosphere of the play “Assimilation” by playwright Jack Dalton. The play mirrors the oppression Native Alaskans faced in boarding schools by twisting the narrative—in “Assimilation,” the oppressors who ran the school were Yup’ik, and the victimized students were white.
“Our job is to make these Whites as little a problem as possible,” Elder, played by Louise Leonard, said. “They must become assimilated; it is for their own good.”
“Assimilation” was preformed on Nov. 20, 21 and 22 at UAF. Dalton and five actors, Leonard, Marian Wassillie, Travis Draper, Tendal Mann, and Jacob Holley-Kline, are showing the play in developed and rural areas of Alaska alike. Their goal is to heal the entire state of a painful history, according to a description of the play.
The practice of taking Alaska Natives from their communities and sending them to boarding schools started in the early 1900s and continued until the 1970s. In 1976 the State of Alaska started building schools in communities with at least eight school-age children in them, effectively making boarding schools no longer necessary. Dalton says “Assimilation” is meant to help white people, historically the oppressors, understand what Alaska Natives in boarding schools experienced.
“That’s why I turned it, so that white people can understand,” Dalton said. “I’ve had white people say ‘I’ve never been anything but privileged in my life and this play is the first time I’ve felt oppressed. Now I can see the world through different eyes.’”
Before the play started, Dalton showed the audience a small box of “stinkweed” using its Yup’ik name, Caiggluk. Describing it as the Yup’ik people’s most powerful medicine, Dalton suggested thinking about the stinkweed for strength while watching the play.
“Assimilation” is set in an alternate timeline where western civilization has collapsed and the native peoples of the Americas have become the controlling majority. Most of the play takes place at the Paimiut Boarding School for Wayward White Boys in an Inuit village on the west coast of Alaska, where the white students are assimilated into the indigenous culture by native teachers.
Throughout the play, Elder referred to the Yup’ik people as the “real humans beings.” While the white students would never really become “real,” according to Elder, they could still learn the ways of the Yup’ik people.
“Maybe they could live among us… or near us,” Elder said. “When [the student] is ready he can go live in the white section of the village.”
Teaching Yup’ik language to the students is a recurring theme of the play. The language of the white students is considered associated with laziness and vice. The Yup’ik language is forced upon the students, who have difficulty learning it.
The character Michael, played by Draper, had a particularly difficult time learning the language, but he excelled at Yup’ik skills like hunting. In one scene Michael presented a song and dance he wrote about his hunt for a seal to Elder. Despite Michael’s attempts to assimilate, Elder rejected his efforts to please her and scolded him for trying to be Yup’ik.
This scene is the most important one of the play for Dalton.
“It shows in the one scene how badly Michael wanted to be Yup’ik, how he thrived at being Yup’ik and how Elder had the power to keep him down,” Dalton said. “I think that was the cruelest part of the real boarding schools, even the young native people who wanted to be accepted were never accepted.”
The play also serves as a history lesson and a reminder to what occurred in boarding schools, according to Christine John, one of the attendees at the play.
“No one really knows what happened, people look back and mostly can’t tell you how bad it was just because they’re unaware,” John said. “It’s not taught in schools, the hardship that our parents and grandparents went through in the assimilation process.”
Dalton made a similar suggestion, to know the history of where you live and how you as an individual are part of that history.
“Accept the history and when you realize what side you’re on, act accordingly,” Dalton said. “Whether you had nothing to do with it or not, that’s the most I can ask for.”
After the play is shown, a Healing Circle session is held so attendees can discuss the play and their own experience with boarding schools. This session is held after all showings of the play.
“There’s always someone there to hear your story, you only have to be brave enough to speak it,” Dalton said.
The play was originally written by Dalton in 2010 and it premiered in Anchorage in November of the same year.
Dalton raised $15,535 with 78 backers on Kickstarter to fund this project.
Dalton and his play are on tour around the state. The play was shown at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Anchorage and will continue to be shown at other towns in Alaska. Their tour will continue to Homer, Seldovia or Nanwalek, Soldotna, and it will end on Dec. 5 in Unalakleet.
Dalton plans for “Assimilation” to be the first entry in a trilogy.