A Native Lad: Turning Words Into Pictures

My immersion in Alaska history began when I was hired in 2007 by Anchorage-based TV producer Larry Goldin to help him work on a two-hour documentary about Alaska statehood. That job involved frequent visits to the Alaska Collection at the Loussac Library and also enabled me to sit in on Larry’s lengthy interviews with Alaska icons like Ted Stevens, Wally Hickel, Mike Stepovich, Vic Fischer, Emil Notti and many others. I then had to spend hours transcribing the interviews from audio files, so I got to hear all their stories twice.

When I heard that the Alaska Humanities Forum was giving out $1 million in grants for creative projects associated with the 50th anniversary of statehood, I decided to apply for one to write a play, which was mainly intended for schools. I was awarded the grant in 2008. The play is narrated by Benny Benson, who magically meets a modern-day high school student called Abigail and shows her scenes from Alaska history.

I originally intended to call the play “Eight Stars of Gold”, but then I found out that the Alaska Humanities Forum had funded another person to write a play with the same title, so I changed it to “A Native Lad”, taking the title from the first line of the unadopted second verse of the Alaska Flag Song. When I finished the play I made it available free to the public, sending a link to the script and accompanying teachers’ and students’ guide to principals and teachers at nearly every middle school and high school in the state.

Click here to download the play. Or, here for the Teachers’ and Students’ Guide.

A few weeks later, in November 2009, I was amazed to read a letter from Debbe Lancaster, a teacher at the school in the village of Tatitlek, between Valdez and Cordova on Prince William Sound. The village has a population of about 50, with 16 students of all ages at the school. Debbe said that the kids in her class had been reading the play for several weeks and had insisted on performing it, even though each of them would have to play about 10 different characters.

In January 2010 I flew to Tatitlek to help with the final preparations for the world premiere of the play. The village is only accessible by air and doesn’t even have its own store. The kids had worked incredibly hard learning their lines and making costumes, including a fat suit (for Constitutional Convention delegate Mildred Hermann) and all kinds of facial hair. A few of the adults who were also playing parts were desperately learning lines, hoping not to let the kids down. The whole village watched the performance, and I shot hours of film footage during my visit, which was made into a mini-documentary by the Alaska Teen Media Institute.

The Cover of the "A Native Lad" graphic novel.

Inspired by an idea from my husband, I applied for and received another grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum to hire artists to illustrate a graphic novel version of the play. I started by calling Peter Dunlap-Shohl, the former editorial cartoonist for the Anchorage Daily News, and he immediately agreed to participate and recommended some other artists: Lee Post, Duke Russell, Lance Lekander and Dimi Macheras. Dimi is an Alaska Native now living in Seattle, who has already produced graphic novel versions of Alaska Native stories.

I also asked an art professor at UAA if he could suggest anyone, and through him I added the talented students Sean Jones and Gideon Gerlt to the team. I asked Ray Troll if he would like to do a scene: he said he was too busy, but put me in touch with Evon Zerbetz, who lives in Ketchikan and whose style is somewhat similar to Ray’s.

My husband Jon made another important contribution when he was talking to a young woman in a bar about the graphic novel and she told him that she knew an artist who could “do anything”. She wrote his name and number down on a piece of paper and Jon passed it on to me. I was skeptical, but it turned out that the artist, Shanley McCauley, really could do anything, not only illustrating two scenes but also doing a fantastic cover with Benny Benson holding the state flag, standing next to his younger brother, looking at modern-day Anchorage and a group of Native dancers in the sky above him.

Several of the artists submitted their ideas for cover sketches and members of the public chose Shanley’s in a poll. Bosco’s Comics in Anchorage hosted the cover sketches on its website. Bosco’s has been very supportive throughout the process, with owner John Weddleton writing the foreword to the book.

Each artist was paid $500 per scene, with Peter and Dimi doing three scenes, Shanley, Sean and Gideon two, and the others one. The pay rate was really quite minimal, considering the amount of work they all put into it. Some were very experienced in this format and others not at all, and the challenge turned out to be rather daunting. A few other artists who had wanted to participate fell by the wayside. Those who survived truly were the fittest.

I approached various publishers, and found the perfect fit with Greatland Graphics, based in Anchorage. They publish beautifully-illustrated books for young children, including some by Shannon Cartwright, but they hadn’t published a graphic novel for older children and adults before. I think they gradually started to become more enthusiastic about the project as they saw how good the artwork was that was being produced. The book can be read for enjoyment as well as used in the classroom to bring Alaska history to life.

See pictures of the artists and some of the events we’ve had for the project on our Facebook page.

And, a documentary of the first production of the play is available here:

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Sarah Hurst was born and raised in England and lived in Russia, Azerbaijan and China before moving to Anchorage in 2001. She has written articles for publications all over the world, and she has written several books and plays. She also translates articles and books from Russian to English and provides intercultural orientations to expats. Sarah founded the organization Alaska’s Kids to implement creative projects in the 49th state, and A Native Lad, funded by the Alaska Humanities Forum, was the first of those. She has a three-year-old daughter, Cecilia.