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Hibulb Cultural Center hosts ‘The Rememberer’
TULALIP — Visitors to the Hibulb Cultural Center on Friday, June 22, were transported back in time by more than a century through the storytelling skills of the Red Eagle Soaring Native Youth Theatre group.
“The Rememberer” is a play based on the life of Joyce Simmons Cheeka, a young Squaxin Indian girl forcibly taken from her home in 1911 and placed in the government-run Tulalip Indian Training School.
While a few of the close to two dozen cast members were in their 20s or 30s, most of the actors were in their teens, carrying on the legacy of a theater group that had started in Seattle before they were born.
“This is about remembering our heritage and our connection to the land,” said Curtis Ahenakew, an adult actor with the group, before the multi-tribal company of performers depicted how the government-run schools had sought to strip the Native American students of their culture, by forbidding them to speak their own language and pass own their traditional tales. “I was worried how well these kids would pull this off, because it’s a big task, but I almost cried at their last show.”
“The Rememberer” chronicles how Joyce not only kept the memories of the stories and customs that her elders had passed onto her, but also how she survived the influenza epidemic that claimed so many other Native American students and their teachers during the early 20th century. Like her grandfather Mud Bay Sam, Joyce became “the rememberer” for her people, even in the face of government educators who believed they needed to “kill the Indian to save the man.”
Cecil Cheeka, Joyce’s son, sat in on the evening performance of “The Rememberer” at the Hibulb Cultural Center, and praised both the young actors and the families who had supported their endeavors.
“Parents, with as many young people as are part of this, just getting them to their practices is a task of no small magnitude,” Cecil Cheeka said. “When Red Eagle Soaring started performing this play 18 years ago, the 24 kids in its cast was the largest group of young Native American actors in Seattle. This play showed me a slice of my mother’s life that I never knew about, and 18 years later, it’s still very special to see play out. I’m especially impressed that such young actors can memorize 88 pages of dialogue.”
Fern Naomi Renville, one of the adult actors, explained that the students had started rehearsing in the last week of January, and made their theatrical debut at “Folk Life” on Memorial Day.
Tulalip Tribal Vice Chair Deborah Parker first encountered the Red Eagle Soaring Native Youth Theatre in 1989, when she was still a student at the University of Washington, and she passed around the drum to collect $279 in donations for the company from the audience, who gave even though it was a free show.
“I love to see our young people continuing to tell our stories,” Parker said. “I only hope we’ll see more youth here in the years to come. It’s good to learn your identity.”