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Theater, ritual meet in 'Raven' stories

By Mike Dunham, Anchorage Daily News Arts Editor

Storyteller Jack Dalton doesn't just put words together. He strives to rejoin giant cosmic entities seen as long-separated twins. Past and present. Body and soul. Theater and ritual. He's done it repeatedly in his monologue "Why I'm Sitting on This Mountain," which drew a standing ovation at last year's International Storytellers Festival in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory; in his one-man play "ImaginOcean," presented last spring in Anchorage and Calgary, Alberta; in the program "Stories of Our People" on KNBA radio and in performances for tourists at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Over the next two weekends at the center, Dalton will present his latest and most ambitious performance piece, "Raven Returns: The Story of the Human Beings."

The play -- or ceremony -- retains much of the material from "ImaginOcean." The earlier piece rolled ancient myth, new-age philosophy and contemporary humor into a loosely related series of stories, most of which featured Raven, the creator of the world in Alaska Native legend. Dalton's Raven "got the God complex," confronted the periodic table of elements and, after encountering a skeptic, retreated to a Buddhist monastery to get in touch with himself through meditation.

The new incarnation adds some fresh stories, drops others and connects into a cycle split in two. Part one, "Savage," includes Dalton's version of familiar Native yarns but concludes by recounting the epidemics that wiped out entire villages shortly after the turn of the century.

"My uncle, (sobriety leader) Harold Napolean, wrote about it," Dalton said. "He described the impact it had on the Yup'ik people but said that even today people aren't talking about it. Well, I fugure if I can get 100 people crammed into a room, why not talk about it?"

Dalton said the epidemics led to the rapid Christianization of the area.

"The traditional Yup'ik belief was that if the body was sick, it was because there was evil in it. Never before had so many people died. To be told by missionaries the the reason was because they didn't believe in God, because they were savages -- whole villages converted immediately."

But watching what happened to Native culture after that "hasn't been easy for the missionaries, either," he added. In the intermission, "Victory Is as Difficult as Defeat," Raven is metaphorically crucified to polyphonic church music.

The second part, "Civilized," introduces Joseph, a young village man of today. In a suicide note, he vents his anger over events of the past 90 years "in a quick and brutal fashion," Dalton said. "I wanted to have a character who was going to bring to light and frankly confront the major issues that the Yup'ik people have in the villages."

Joseph's frustration leads to the story "The Mixing of The Souls," an idea shared by many world cultures. It tells of a time when human beings, fearing that they would forget where they came from, cleaved into two groups. One group would be reborn into different cultures with the result that "they never felt like they fit into their new environment."

Dalton found a personal resonance in that concept. Halk Yup'ik and half German, he was raised by a non-Native family in Anchorage but always told of his Yup'ik heritage. As a child, he looked forward to the time when he could be reunited with his native relatives -- and he began to win prizes for his storytelling abilities. Training and professional experience as a designer gave him a feel for ways to put an artistic shape to his yearnings and talents, leading to his unique and ever-evolving performances.

Even though the plight of mixed souls "seems uncomfortable, it mixed knowledge from other parts of the world, and this is where we had our technological revolution and progress," he said.

The outline of "Raven Returns" expresses the theme that a great cycle is rolling toward completion. Entities once separate will be reunited. The purpose of longs years of affliction will be justified. The silence of the past will become the stories of the future.

"We have gone through a time of forgetting," he said. "Now is the time of remembering."

All information, programs, titles, images and design are Copyright 1999 by Jack Dalton