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KNBA News - Juneau filmmaker's last film to be on historical trauma and Alaska Natives

Joaqlin Estus

  Nov. 12, 2015

A Juneau man making a film about historical trauma and Alaska Natives faces two challenges. First, he is terminally ill with A-L-S, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Second, he’s getting criticism that because he’s White, he can’t do justice to the topic. 

Lisle Hebert said after he was diagnosed last year with ALS, he decided to make his last film one based on a 1996 book by Yup’ik Harold Napoleon: “Yuuyaruq: The Way of the Human Being.” Among other traumatic events, the book describes the effects of the worldwide Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, which killed thousands of Alaska Natives, laying waste to entire villages.

Inupiaq Joe Senungetuk, originally from Wales, who has a role in the film, feels close to the subject. Both his parents were raised in foster homes after the epidemic left them orphaned.

Credit Joaqlin Estus / KNBA
Joe Senungetuk, dressed for his part in the film, is an Anchorage artist originally from Wales, in Northwest Alaska. He says his parents were both raised in foster homes after their parents died in the Influenza epidemic.

“In fact my mother was found lying on her dead mother in a Inupiaq sod house. It was dark, and dreary and cold there,” said Senungutuk. “She doesn’t remember that part. Everyone in our family knows that’s what happened. She hardly spoke about it.”

Siberian YupikYaari Walker, originally from Savoonga, plays the parts of a mother and of a shaman in the film. She said she only recently learned that her father, now in his 70s, spent years as a child at Wrangell Institute, a boarding school notorious for physical and sexual abuse. Walker said it was painful to watch one of the scenes being filmed at the Alaska Native Heritage Center last month [September 2015].

“The scene was when the Native children were sitting on the bench and one of the Native boys began to speak Yup'ik and the teacher yelled at him and grabbed him and walked off with him.”

Credit Joaqlin Estus / KNBA
Yaari Walker, is the author of "Behind Dark Walls," a book about her life experiences ranging from alcoholism and homelessness to wellness. Here, she reads one of her writings to other actors on a break.

Lisle Hebert, the filmmaker, said a few people have questioned whether he fully understands and can appropriately handle the subject of the film. He said he invites advice from the Yup’ik actors and from Harold Napoleon. Plus, he said, he’s sticking close to Napoleon’s views.

“Basically, his writing is the main part of the narration,” said Hebert. “So I’m just trying to illustrate what he wrote, y’know.”

Hebert said the film acknowledges wrongs done to Natives.

“Some people will like the film and some won't. It's like that with everything, right? But I respect Native Americans a lot,” said Hebert. “I know they've been mistreated, and insulted, and ignored, and I hope that this might help.”

And he believes it will bring greater awareness to people, sharing insights he gained as a social worker working with the mentally ill.

“I do think it's the kind of film that will open people's eyes. People don't realize what other people have been through. A lot of people base their judgments on their own past, their own experiences. Most people do,” said Hebert. “My experience changed when I started doing social work and I realized how fortunate I have been all my life and how unfortunate so many other people have been.”

As for his understanding of multi-generational historical trauma, Hebert said his sense is that when people face devastating losses, such as the flu epidemic, or the wholesale removal of children to boarding schools, they miss out on a happy childhood; a stable, loving family; and knowledge of life-sustaining traditions – leaving them unable or hard pressed to create and pass those on to their own children.

“In order for you to pass something on, you have to have been given it to begin with. You can't just make it up,” said Hebert. “If you want to give love, you have to be given love, y’know. That's my experience. And it seems like most of the people I know who are kind and generous have been given love by their parents, raised in a good situation.”

Joe Senungetuk said he understands the challenges Hebert may face in interpreting and explaining another culture, but he said it’s an important story.

“I'm glad this director is open enough to see that there are things that need to be mentioned and talked about and evaluated.  And then to go there towards the future,” said Senungutuk. “I think that if it weren't mentioned, it would be like one or a dozen pages lost within our history.”

Yup’ikOssieKairaiuak, with the musical group Pamyua, was raised in Chefornak. He plays the parts of a dancer and of a shaman in the film. He said he thinks the film is important because, like Napoleon’s book, it encourages people to talk about historical trauma and to re-adopt their traditional culture and way of life as a way of healing.

“Those unhealthy trauma that we carry unfortunately have carried on to our children,” said Kairaiuak. “As the book points out, if we are more aware of our own doings, we can end it. We can stop it."

Credit Joaqlin Estus / KNBA
Ossie Kairaiuak says he supports the film's main message that practicing their cultural traditions will help Alaska Natives heal from the multi-generational historical trauma caused by epidemics and non-Native suppression of those traditions.

Hebert has a budget of 40-thousand dollars, which includes a $15-thousand dollar Rasmuson grant and $25-thousand raised on-line. Hebert expects to finish the film by June 2016.

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NOTE: posted Feb. 22

Credit Joaqlin Estus / KNBA
Actors playing the part of corpses during the Influenza epidemic that devastated Alaska Natives in 1918.

  , 2016