‘Assimilation’ playwright flips the script on Native history

“Assimilation” playwright Jack Dalton and actor Tendal Mann. (Photo by Annie Bartholomew/KTOO)
“Assimilation” playwright Jack Dalton and actor Tendal Mann. (Photo by Annie Bartholomew/KTOO)

In a dystopian future, Western civilization has crumbled and indigenous people are in control. That’s the premise of Jack Dalton’s play “Assimilation,” now touring Alaska. It flips the history of boarding schools with whites violently assimilated into Native culture.

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A tyrannical character know as Elder pinches a student by the ear and leads him to his desk.

“With each time that you choose to speak your dirty language, your punishment will increase,” she tells him.

In the course of the play, the boys are beaten, verbally abused and stripped of their identity.

Whites are forced to assimilate into Yup’ik culture. It’s horrific treatment but it also really happened, which playwright Jack Dalton says is the point.

“Being Yu’pik myself, I have had a lot of conversations with people who ask ‘Why are Native people still having problems?’” Dalton said. “And my answer is usually well, when you look at all the traumas that’s happened over several generations, you can imagine it’s really hard to heal from those traumas.”

Assimilation premiered in Anchorage in 2010 with 12 sold-out performances. And this past spring, it was selected for a staged readings at Emory University.

Dalton said he didn’t do any historical research on Alaska Native boarding schools. He drew inspiration from the stories his family told him about their own experiences.

“So I was actually worried that maybe I was too close to the subject and I might be making it harsher than it really was but my dramaturge, Michael Evenden from Emory University, went and did the research and said you only cover about 25 percent of what happened. There’s so much more,” Dalton said.

In the play, a boys screams out in pain as Elder strikes him with a stick.

“I do not care how good your Yup’ik is!” she lectures.

Louise Leonard, the actress who plays Elder, attended one of the boarding schools when she was kid and remembers being punished for speaking her Native language of Cup’ik.

“I am so glad that this is going to be on because we never really talked about those days,” Leonard said.

Dalton cast Leonard after meeting her at a state fair.

He says, traditionally, not talking about the “bad things” was a survival mechanism.

But it’s one that can be dangerous. Each performance of Assimilation is followed by a community discussion.

However, Dalton said he has wondered if some of the material could be offensive–particularly the racial slurs targeted toward whites.

“Every single person I talked to said, ‘How could I possibly be offended by what’s in the play when you realize that every one of those things and every one of those slurs is something that’s happened to Native people and other minorities?’”

By flipping the roles, Dalton says he hopes Natives won’t feel triggered by the violence. And non-Natives can empathize with what happened.

Assimilation’s Kickstarter recently raised over $15,000 to pay the actors and cover touring costs.