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Play tackles fears of young Native Americans after woodcarver killed

Charla Bear
Young Native American actors portray prisoners in the Red Eagle Soaring production, A Right To Justice. The play aims to help youth work out their feelings about police since Ian Birk, a former Seattle officer, shot woodcarver John T. Williams.

It’s been more than nine months since a Seattle police officer killed First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams, and tensions are still running high among Native Americans. They say the shooting brings up the long history of brutality Native people have faced.

The anxiety has also affected children, who’ve had a tough time putting Williams’ death in perspective.

This coming weekend, a local theater group will debut a performance to help young Native Americans move forward, starting with a look at the past.

In the play, A Right To Justice, 17-year-old Dylan Elwood plays Chief Leschi, who led the Nisqually tribe until he was put on trial for killing a white soldier in the mid 1800s.

Leshi was hanged to death and labeled a war criminal in history books. That’s until 2004, when a historical court unanimously ruled it was wrong to try him for murdering an enemy soldier during wartime.

Connecting Past and Present

Elwood says the Chief Leschi story parallels what happened to John T. Williams: 

“They both, in essence, were murdered for no reason,” he says. “And it sort of gives hope that maybe someday, probably not soon, but sometime in the future, the John T. Williams, we could feel some kind of closure with it.”

That’s exactly what adults behind Red Eagle Soaring, a theater group for young Native Americans, want the young actors to walk away with. It just wasn’t their original intent.  

They had wanted to do a play about basketball. Until the kids couldn’t get their heads in the game.

Fern Renville, executive director of Red Eagle Soaring, says when a Native American is killed, it pushes a big button for the rest of the community:

“I think one of the things people in general don’t understand is that the shooting of Mr. Williams does happen in the context of a lot of genocide having gone down,” she says. “That shooting of Mr. Williams cannot be removed from that context for Native folks."

She says that’s why it was too early to do a play specifically about Williams. Instead, they decided on the theme of justice, or what appears to be a lack of it.

Justice Through Their Eyes

When the young actors enter the stage, their heads are down, hands clasped. Black signs stenciled with prison numbers hang from their necks.

As the story unfolds, so does the breadth of the struggle for justice. It’s part of the past and the present. Experienced by kids with strong Native features and those of mixed heritage. And it extends far beyond Seattle to other cities and states. 

Everyone involved with the play says they’re tired of the whole cops versus Native showdown. They want the situation to get better, and they know they have a role in that. So instead of just venting, they express how they’d like things to be.

No one really expects police relations, or the Williams story, to come to a neat and tidy ending like this play. They do say putting recent events in context helps, though.

“The play just makes me realize I’m not the only person,” says 13-year-old Mia Jamison. “There’s certain people that have the same thing going on, or something similar, so I’m not by myself."

Performance Details:

Date: Sunday, June 12th, 2011

Location: Rainier Valley Cultural Center, 3515 S. Alaska St., Seattle, WA

Time: 4:00 p.m.

Cost: Free (donations will be requested)


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