Living Voices is a performing arts troupe that, according to its website, “brings life to history,” by putting on one man/woman presentations about specific historical events of cultural significance. “It’s historical fiction, basically, is what it is,” explained Living Voices member Lily Gladstone,“but it uses archival footage, photographs, videos from the time and place where it’s set. It’s always told from the perspective of a young person who is living through the history and is involved in it themselves.” added Gladstone.
“Native Vision” is the tale of Alice Benally, a young Navajo girl who is forced by the U.S. governement to attend a boarding school alongside other young natives.
The presentation was performed by Gladstone and was introduced by Kevin Henry, program coordinator for the City of Bellevue’s Cultural Diversity Program.
“About ten, fifteen years ago I was on the board of living voices,” said Henry. “It’s a Seattle-based theatrical company or organization that puts on presentations about history, historical moments in history through living breathing characters.”
The presentation began with an introduction by Gladstone, who is herself a Native American of Blackfoot and Nez Perce descent. She explained that although she would be representing a Navajo girl, in the presentation she would refer to the Navajo people as Diné, the Navajo word for people as well as their way of referring to themselves. According to Gladstone, “Navajo” is actually an anglicized spelling of a Pueblo word that roughly translates to “crop burners.”
Gladstone provided a historical backdrop by explaining the assimilation policy adopted by the U.S. government in 1879, which was carried out in part by sending Native children, often against their family’s will, to boarding schools where they were educated in a Western style. The schools were run under the slogan, “Kill the Indian, save the man,” and all forms of the children’s native identity, including language, dress and customs, were suppressed.
Gladstone then began her solo performance against the backdrop of a slideshow featuring period photographs and with music accompaniment. The story follows Alice, a composite character, as she grows up in the Navajo community in the 1920’s. She and her brother (first cousin, in western terminology) Carl are sent to the boarding schools at a young age. Alice is the descendant of medicine-men, and her skill with helping other sick students lands her a job in the school’s infirmary. At the outbreak of World War II, Alice joins the Navy as a nurse and Carl enlists in the Marine Corps. Carl is based on a real man, Carl Gorman, who served as a Navajo Code Talker in the South Pacific. The Code Talkers were Navajo men who, under orders from the government, developed a code in their language in order to relay radio communiqués between American soldiers during battle with the Japanese.
After the war ends, Alice and Carl are reunited in a Navy hospital in California. Carl tells Alice about some of his experiences as a Code Talker, how they used Navajo words like “birds” and “eggs” to refer to planes and bombs. He explained how Navajo soldiers who weren’t Code-Talkers were tortured by the Japanese who captured them, since, although they spoke Navajo, they couldn’t understand the references being made by the code-talkers when forced to listen to the Japanese radio interceptions.
The presentation was followed by a brief Q & A session where attendees were encouraged to engage in a dialogue with Gladstone. Students looking for more information should visit the Living Voices website: http://www.livingvoices.org/