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.
Hanley met Huntington after her draft of the play, “The Winter Bear,” was written. In that conversation, Huntington revealed that he had lost three sons to suicide and that the issue was one of great importance to him.
“I think he decided, ‘Well, it was time to talk about it,’ as many people are doing now. I happened to be the one who was there and decided I would adapt the story to be a little more hard-hitting on the issue of the causes of suicide,” Hanley said.
The play isn’t about suicide, exactly, more like highlighting some of the factors that can cause it.
“The decisions that especially young teenagers make with regard to some of the things that can cause suicide, I think, are what we need to be looking at,” Hanley said.
Nor does the play prescribe any set approach to solving the problem. In the story, the elder helps the boy turn his life around by connecting him with traditional ways — he ends up having to face a winter bear with just a traditional spear. Rather, Hanley’s goal for the play is to spark discussion wherever it is performed.
“Every community really has their own solutions that I think are unique to that place,” she said. “I think what we want to do is kind of be a catalyst to maybe bring up the discussions. That’s the only way you’re going to get it to change. We need to change the climate that now breeds suicide by sweeping a lot of shame and things that people are not proud of under the rug. Maybe it’s time to bring them up and talk about them, and realize that as human beings we all share those feelings and problems.”
Hanley, director Rebecca George and the play’s performers are taking the show on a tour of the Kenai Peninsula this week, through suicide-prevention funding from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. “The Winter Bear” will be performed at 7 p.m. April 23 at Seward High School, 7:30 p.m. April 25 at the Carol Bock Hall at the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds in Ninilchik, 7:30 p.m. April 26 at Ionia (5493 Burdock Road in Kasilof), 7 p.m. April 28 at Nanwalek School and 7 p.m. April 30 at Port Graham School.
And each community is organizing other activities around the play, such as community potlucks and discussions, and workshops with youth on theater games, dance and storytelling.
“We believe that creativity is itself a protective mechanism, and so we’re trying to turn kids on to their own creativity,” Hanley said. “We also like to be able to highlight the behavioral health specialists in the communities and applaud them for the work that they do. We have arranged to have behavioral health people at every show so people can talk to them if they’d like to.”
The play has already toured along the road system in the Interior and been performed in Fairbanks. Hanley said she’s looking forward to bringing the show to the peninsula.
“We’re really, really excited about coming down to Kenai. The communities have been just really welcoming. … We just love to come together with communities at this level because it’s a real sharing. It’s not like just showing a DVD, we can really talk to people. We’re just thrilled at the level of interest and participation.”
For more information on the show, visit www.winterbearproject.com.