By Jenny Neyman
In Athabascan culture, a winter bear is a powerful figure deserving of caution and respect, both in physical and spiritual form. A brown bear interrupted in its hibernation, rousing too early from its den, is dangerous, grumpy, hungry and more likely to fight than flee. In traditional times, it was a heroic right of passage for a young man to face the bear with just a traditional spear. In modern times, hunting is not as necessary to survival as it once was, but new challenges facing youth these days have every bit the power to destroy lives as the claws and jaws of the winter bear.
A play by Anne Hanley, to be performed this week on the Kenai Peninsula, uses the allegory of the winter bear as a way to explore one of today’s threats — that of suicide. Though particularly affecting Native youth in Alaska, suicide is unfortunately a widespread phenomenon.
“I think the issues are pretty universal,” Hanley said. “Most of us have had some kind of a brush with a suicide incident, whether it was a relative or ourselves or whatever. We’re all human beings sort of going through this together.”
The play is about a young Alaska Native man who is having a rough time in his life, so bad that he’s considering suicide. He gets sentenced to spend time with an elder, Sidney Huntington, but the sentence turns out to be a blessing.
“The elder turns him around using traditional culture. I think it’s a message of hope that the boy is able to turn things around, able to kind of individuate and become himself, and even in the end become a leader,” Hanley said.
The plot and the boy are fiction, though the elder is based on the real, now 99-year-old Sidney Huntington, of Galena. Huntington has had quite the storied life — father of 20, himself the son of an Athabascan mother and gold-miner father, serving on the Alaska Board of Game, helping found the school in Galena, starting a fish processing plant and running dogs with his brother, Jimmy, who served in the Legislature. Hanley, a former Alaska Writer Laureate, was commissioned in 2008 to write a play about Huntington, and chose to focus on his heart for mentoring youth.
“He’s just an incredible man, and in his life Sidney himself has mentored many young people, especially young men, because he’s gone through the same cycle of drinking and all that that it seems like too many people go through. He picked himself up and changed his life and has always taken it upon himself as a duty to be interested in young people and try to help them so that they can turn their life around if they need to and make good decisions,” Hanley said.