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I live 47 miles from Astoria, Oregon. It’s a lovely town at the mouth of the Columbia River, sheltered a couple miles in from the Pacific Ocean by a serious sand bar and Cape Disappointment (
There are three stories I want to tell you. 1) The story itself: the real life nation-building story. 2) The play about the story, which somehow totally works! 3) The Armory, the building hosting the play.
I entered the theatre with a virgin understanding of the journey about to unfold. That is, no understanding. I had learned, in the course of reading a brief synopsis while buying my tickets, that the man who financed the expedition to found Astoria was John Jacob Astor. And in that way, two weeks ago, I learned how the town got its name. That should illustrate the level of not knowing the story I’m talking about.
Over the next 3 hours I began to realize it’s a *monumental* story of how my part of the North American continent became the United States instead of Russian territory, or British, or Canadian. Before the play I could tell you more about the founder of the McDonald’s franchise than I could about the early explorers of Oregon, because we are products of what we’re fed through media. Why oh why aren’t we fed the good and healthy stuff?
The play is based on the book by the same name, written by Peter Stark. It’s set mostly in 1810. Astor was a wealthy German immigrant who wanted to become more wealthy by capitalizing on the fabulous otter pelts that rumor had it were there for the taking on the Pacific Coast. From his home in New York City, Astor arranged for two separate approaches to the Columbia River: one by land and one by sea. Back then, the sea route was by way of Cape Horn, Chile. Remarkably, the sailors got there first. The time pressure is a plot point, since whomever establishes the first trading post will control the fur markets on the west coast and will certainly have access to the most wealth. Astor is constantly fretting about news that the French might beat him to the prize.
Hundreds of people joined his expeditions, including men from Scotland, Hawaii, Quebec, Ireland, and England who joined the original Americans on the teams. And original, original Americans (indigenous people) contributed further to the survival of those who did make it to the destination. Because yes, many people died along the way, including the two Hawaiians who froze to death trying to cross the bar into the Columbia River. They were not the only men who died at the bar, in the shadow of Cape Disappointment. Remember I said “foreshadowing?”
What’s remarkable, and irresistible, about this story, is how much went spectacularly wrong. Many people died by accident, and some were killed. Two went insane. Often people fought with each other, and hated each other. Miraculous are the repeated incidences of survival in the snow, survival from starving, survival from drowning, from raging ocean storms. Though catastrophes don’t always result, there was always a threat: of mutiny, getting lost, scalped, abandoned.
Chris Coleman, the artistic director, pulled off magic with that stage. One set, mind you – with occasional backdrops – conveyed a ship on the open sea, or a wealthy fur-merchant’s home, or a frontier fort, or a camp in steep mountains, beside a creek. We got up close and personal with four people rowing a boat, we listened to quiet conversation among the bunks below deck of the ship, we huddled close to the fire and tried not to feel hungry while a trapper told a story, we gasped in despair when three provisioned boats smashed and were lost in a river, and we watched while travelers reluctantly slid from their horses to continue on foot. All one set, and it worked. Like I said: magic.
Scenes with all actors on the deck of the ship were convincing partly because everyone swayed in unison with the waves. We soon learned that tables can be anything, often boats. I enjoyed the artistic creativity throughout, such as when Astor meets with three potential leaders of the excursions. All three are on stage at the same time, in points making a triangle. As each one leaves the meeting with Astor, they rotate until another is before Astor.
More magic: 16 members of the cast! Just imagine how many people you would need to portray the multiple journeys (one by sea with all the crew to run a ship, the overland party split into two, and still Astor remained in New York), and then imagine only 16 people bringing it to life. It’s a tribute to the quality of the actors that they were able to pull this off, switching back and forth between dramatically different characters, such as when Leif Norby starts as John Jacob Astor but becomes a crusty, bearded Frontiersman Edward Robinson, and back and forth. DeLanna Studi is introduced as Astor’s elegant wife, then becomes a pregnant Indian woman, then switches back. The accents switched from thick Scottish to Kentucky backwoods to prim English to French to German. Wow! I’ll interject my only criticism here: impressed as I am by the ability of the actors to do this, it was distracting to look into their faces and recognize other characters. This was amplified because I was in the front row and so close I could discern crow’s feet. I think at a distance it would not have been such a problem for me.
Action never stopped, and even the slow moments were tense or foreboding. In real life the years-long journey was a grueling series of hardships day after day, but on stage the successes and catastrophes rode each other’s heels, barely allowing an audience-member’s heart to settle in between. Amidst the hardest times in life, humans manage to find a way to laugh at their circumstances, and thus we had a not insignificant number of funny moments, such as when a couple of Frenchmen gazing at sharp mountain peaks began comparing them to breasts (“Grand teton” is large breasts, in French, and we can only imagine our travelers must have been in Wyoming about then).
Surprisingly, there was a lot of singing, though it was not a musical. I found this to be very effective support to enriching the scenes, helping us to be back in time with the actors, and helping us to understand the cultures blending on stage. One funny example was during a scene with many people rowing a boat and singing to keep the cadence. It was one of those classic tunes that multiple countries claim, with their own lyrics, and the rowers from different lands were competing for which was the “correct” version of the song, with good-natured and rowdy aggression, singing louder and louder like sports fans arguing over favourite teams.
At long last the overland parties reunite and find the Columbia River (though not yet its mouth). Captain Thorn sends enough sailors to the bar that eventually some of them live to find the entrance into the river. And that’s the end of part one! We have to wait until Portland Center Stage presents next year’s performances, to find out what happens in the end. In the meantime, I’m going to read the book.
I mentioned earlier that the performance was about 3 hours, but that includes a nice long intermission halfway through. Before the show I had admired some of the structure of the old brick building, called the Armory, and at intermission I investigated further.
The brick structure appears castle-like from the street, but it’s hard to get a good look at it because it’s downtown in the Pearl District and surrounded by tall buildings. Inside, I saw that the entire expanse is open: no support beams the length of it. There are two levels, but the second level is merely a balcony, a mezzanine level, that surrounds the open lobby with places to sit and chat, or look out the window. So I looked out the windows, which are bonafide rifle slits – glassed in and wood-framed, ha ha – leaving no doubt about the military origins of the building. I walked right up and put my hands on the bricks. Something about touching something helps me connect to the proper time and place to understand it.
So many bits were intriguing to me that I had questions about its construction, and sought out the concierge. I asked for an information brochure.
“We have a book, if you want,” he said. “It’s a regular, bound book, all about this building. We give them to people who are particularly interested.”
It was the most serendipitous outcome of a random question that I’ve had in some time. The man walked off, and returned moments later holding a large, gorgeous, illustrated, full-colour, 192-page book about how a crumbling and abandoned former military armory became a modern theatre. In fact, that’s the name of the book: “Voices of the Armory: A Chronicle of the Transformation of a 19th century icon into a 21st century theater.”
“Here you go!” he said, obviously pleased to hand it over. “It’s free! I think you’ll love it. I have one and I love it.”
The show was originally supposed to run through February 12th, but was so successful that the run was extended. If you are in Portland, you can still see it, and you should! Look for it at https://www.pcs.org/ Tickets are available through February 19th.
Since we hit the markets Tuesday, today the plan was to lean toward culture. Our Air Bnb host told us how to find the area considered more cultural (i.e. less touristy), with lovely neighborhoods and museums. We struck out in that direction, and did not have to try very hard to admire everything we saw.
We walked through the beautiful neighborhoods of obviously wealthy families, on our way to Vega Central. It’s a huge market area, but we were not going to shop; we wanted to see it. We walked along the river, Rio Mapocho, which is a particularly ugly river for a downtown anywhere, and spotted our destination easily from a distance. Vega Central is worth the visit. There is a rather big flower market, next to a very big two-story market, with grocery on the ground floor and mostly clothes on the second floor. I am impressed with how mouth-watering the produce looks. Sometimes markets are just not that appetizing, even if they sell “fresh” food. Here, however, everything tempted me. We bought spiced peanuts and blueberries to munch while we walked.
Outside, surrounding the grocery and stretching for a couple of blocks are street vendors selling vacuum cleaners, strollers, kitchenware, batteries, you name it. If anyone in Santiago needs anything, this is the part of town to get it. The markets are jammed though, with stalls almost in the streets, so you negotiate vendors and wares and traffic and other people, and the occasional stray dog, all while watching where you place your feet (just in case), and it gets overstimulating quickly.
We crossed the river again and came out by the fish market we saw on Tuesday. We had only explored one side of it the first time, today we explored the other side. We had a particular lunch in mind and tried to find a shop that would sell it. As we stood gazing at a menu for Tio Lucho, the proprietor came out to tell us what he thought was most important. He held a magazine of what to do in Santiago, then turned a few pages in and pointed out his establishment. The message being pretty obvious: his was the place to eat. So we tried to explain what we wanted. Empanadas…”oh yes!” he says. “But no,” we continue “empanadas with…” Margaret and I struggled to remember the word for crab. Centolla I thought, but that was the word to describe the King Crab we ate the day before. So M pulled out her phone translator and finally got the word: cangrejo. The proprietor knew right away what we wanted. “Con queso?” he asked. With cheese? So basically, yes, Margaret and I walked into a restaurant at a fish market in Santiago and ordered off menu. Spoiled Americans, anyone? The crab and cheese empanadas were outstanding, and came with two special sauces that the proprietor explained how to apply. As we left, our new Tio told us to consider the place our home.
After we ate, we walked back to the wealthy quiet streets and strolled through more vendors. These sold quality goods, i.e. jewlery, fine art prints, books. We aimed for the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. This building caught our eye earlier in the day, and was a perfect stop for the heat of the afternoon.
Inside we were allowed to take photos of the statuary in the main hall, but not allowed photos of the original oil paintings in the side rooms. The sculptures were of such high quality tht we found ourselves admiring knees and shoulders and feet as much as the whole image. Some of the paintings were outstanding; take my word for it. I fell immediately in love with a small one of a reclining woman smoking, called La Fumadora.
After the museum, in the heat of the afternoon, we went back to the apartment – stopping first at the supermarcadero to pick up a bottle of Chilean wine. We were both tired enough to nap, and sadly, I have never been a person who can nap. I can lie down for an hour, but not sleep. If I lie down long enough to fall asleep, and have to wake up 20 minutes later, I’ll be a bear. Best not to go there! Instead I began a blog post because I didn’t know when I’d have access to Internet again. Margaret reclined, but also did not sleep, and instead carefully plotted out our evening travel.
Refreshed, we went back out into the streets, our third day in Santiago comfortable for us as we had learned so many shortcuts and landmarks. In one corner area, as we went from place to place reading menus and checking prices, we enjoyed a guitar player. He was so good that we stopped in the shade and listened for awhile. I would have been happy to sit there in the shade until he was done, and happy to pay for a personal concert. But it was time to eat.
We settled on a place specializing in coastal dishes from southern Peru and northern Chile. Margaret and I are such fans of the Pisco Sours that she ordered another and I ordered a flight of different Piscos in order to taste the liquor itself. We were told it is made from grapes, and I am surprised at the flavor being nothing like wine. The three I tasted were 40 and 42 proof. A liquor I can’t compare to anything I have tried before. The lightest one most reminded me of tequila – isn’t that interesting? The second had strong floral flavors and was Margaret’s favourite. I remarked “I taste plants!” The third, apparently very rare Pisco, was my favourite because of the complicated mineral flavors and creamy oakiness. I had enjoyed the ceviche so much the day before that I ordered another today. M had steak and mushrooms with polenta.
Next we went to the GAM (Centro Culturo Gabriela Mistral), a modern museum right next to our apartment. It’s a huge building so we expected more art, but the space is dedicated mostly to conference rooms. We did find displays of contemporary artists using folk art styles such as metal work, clay, and baskets, with the older art mixed in. Soon we had seen all the displays and we wandered through a bustling book sale. The GAM seems more like a college campus to me than a museum, and kids were everywhere. I settled on a book to purchase as a gift for Tara, and the vendor asked if I wanted the author to autograph it. Until then I had not realized that the place was filled with people selling their own books. The author turned out to be fluent in English and autographed in both Spanish and English. What a treat!
We went back to the apartment and soon after, Angelo and Evelyn (his roommate) arrived. After an enjoyable chat over wine, Angelo saw us to the metro station. With kisses and hugs and many thanks, we separated over the gates and M and I hopped down the stairs to the subway. In moments we were at the bus station and there was only one hiccup of the evening. We asked which bus went to Temuco, and when bus 12 was pointed out, I took my roller bag there and had it loaded into the back. When we went to the front of the bus, the driver wouldn’t let us on. It was a regular bus to Temuco and we had purchased a ride on a sleeper bus. A kind man took pity on us and took our reservation over to the Tourbus counter and got us assigned seats and boarding passes that told us to go to bus 20 instead. And that’s fine…but I needed to get my bag. I tried and tried to explain (in English of course, which was not helpful) to the man at bus 12 that I wanted to get my bag back. I held up the ticket and pointed to the bag storage. The man just shook his head, “No.” Not that he refused to get my bag, but he refused to try to understand what I was saying. Margaret and I became more emphatic, pointing to where the bags were kept, and I kept holding up my bag claim tag. The man simply shook his head at us. The helpful man spotted us still at the wrong bus. “Come with me, bus 20 is over here,” he said in Spanish. “No! We need our bag!” we protested. This man understood instantly. He began hollering at the first man, gesturing at him to come help us, and opening the luggage compartment without even asking. I reached in and got my bag. The first guy, though he hadn’t helped with anything up to that point, stopped me and asked for my bag claim ticket to make sure the bag was mine. Hmpf. I guess you can go anywhere and find people like that.
We got my bag onto the proper bus and we boarded. The seats were huge and reclined way back and we settled in for a 400 mile journey to Temuco.
On February 25th Tara and I attended the monthly meeting of the Mount Hood Cherokees, who hosted cultural specialist JP Johnson and COTTA Technical Assistant Ryan Sierra, both visiting from the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
The Community Organization Training and Technical Assistance (COTTA) Program was formed under the request of former Chief Chad Smith when it was becoming evident that many groups claiming to be able to teach Cherokee culture were not authentic and were misrepresenting true Cherokee culture. The Cherokee diaspora was paying careful attention to the wrong information! Now COTTA maintains a center to assist satellite groups such as the Mt. Hood Cherokees, and also offers assistance to anyone who contacts the group on their website.
Recently we’ve been able to learn from storyteller Robert Lewis, and stickball players Ryan Sierra and Jessica Harkreader. This time we had the privilege to listen to JP Johnson talk without pause on history, traditions, language, and religion of Cherokees. JP said that once he began researching, he could not get enough knowledge. To our great benefit, he is now employed by the Nation as a Cultural Specialist. He is a veritable encyclopedia of Cherokee facts, as well as an embodiment of knowledge, since he lives as authentically he can by speaking the language, participating in stomp dances, and other activities of Cherokee traditional life.
JP’s command of this body of knowledge is so profound that he simply began talking and allowed himself to wander through all the digressions that came to mind. When MHC members asked questions, he was able to answer in depth. JP revealed his motivation to keep the culture alive, and why he feels so strongly about it. When he talked about the original homeland of Cherokees, in North Carolina, he told us with tears in his eyes that there are only 332 people left who can speak the language there. “That’s terrible,” he said. He did not say what a devastating loss it would be if there were no more speakers in North Carolina, but told it clearly to us nonetheless.
We learned details of stomp dancing, and the importance of keeping the home fires lit (because we can go to the fires for medicine), typical traditional garb for stomp dancing and how men and women have different roles when they dance (women wearing turtle shell rattles on their legs). He also talked about the violent tradition of stickball, how several tribes played it, borrowed each other’s rules, and how modern Cherokees have had to adopt safety rules to avoid accidental serious injury and even death. We all faced East and JP sang a prayer for us at the conclusion of his talk.
We ate a potluck meal then, and as always I am warmed by this tradition of eating together. It reminds me of the potlatches from my early childhood along the Umpqua River. All cultures have eating traditions, and it makes sense to bring food to a single table and then share it amongst everyone. We are symbolically ingesting the companionship, the traditions, the learning. We are gaining sustenance from the gathering.
As we wrapped up our meal, Ryan Sierra took the floor and talked business. He explained the mission of COTTA, and described some of the basic steps toward becoming a chartered satellite group. He explained taxes, steps toward voting in Nation elections, financial expectations from the Nation, and that kind of thing. He insisted that he is always available for questions and happy to help.
Tara and I left before he was completely finished. I had only planned for 4 hours, and it was time to go. The time went by quickly, as always. One of the senior members of the group came up to me this time and thanked me for coming. I haven’t been active with the board, and so they recognize me, but don’t know me. His thanks seemed very genuine and it made me glad that I continue to make the effort to show up, even if infrequently.
The Mt. Hood Cherokees invited Robert Lewis to Portland to tell us some Cherokee stories. Miss T and I brought some food to add to the potluck, then pulled up chairs and had three hours of fun. (The event was four hours, but T had a commitment before we could go.)
Mr. Lewis explained that he got into professional storytelling by accident, when he found himself in an emergency situation: with a group of children on a school field trip in which 30 third-graders needed to be kept still and quiet for about 10 minutes. The only thing he could think of was to tell the kids a story his father had told him, about how Coyote put the stars into the sky as a special job for The Creator of Everything.
He works for the Cherokee Nation, sharing and teaching cultural knowledge in the form of storytelling, and also teaches art at Northeastern State University, where he gained his formal education in literature, music, and humanities. He works a lot with kids, and says it is his greatest joy to watch the look on their faces when they “get it.” He told me it was his very first trip to the Pacific Northwest. I offered to take him on a quick tour of Mt. Hood and the Columbia River Gorge, but his schedule allowed only storytelling and travelling: no exploring. I told him that was positively sinful. Next time, he needs to insist on a couple of hours of free time!
Mr. Lewis told stories for an hour and a half, pulling audience members into the center of his performance space. Each character in his story had to be acted by someone from the audience as Lewis narrated, and told each character what to do and what to say. We took turns playing roles such as Opossum, Rabbit, A Beautiful Woman, The Creator of Everything, Bullfrog, Panther, Alligator, and Bear.
Each story had a lesson, of course. We learned why Rabbit and Opossum aren’t friends anymore, how Rabbit got big ears because he already has knowledge,where the first Cherokee clay pot came from, how Thunder is a Mighty Warrior, how Woodpeckers came to be, how the Stars got into the sky, why Opossum has no hair on his tail, how Rabbit’s song is so powerful he sings it from his heart, and even why you shouldn’t do what everyone else is doing just because they’re doing it!
Then it was time to eat. Mr. Lewis blessed the meal and we invited the guest of honor and elders to take their food first. Then we began to eat from the tables piled with goodies, as always. When we were finished eating, Lewis told stories for another half an hour. Then he had to jump in his rental car and zoom off to Eugene to tell stories to the central Oregon Indians!
I was proud to see my girl eagerly anticipate the event for the last two weeks, and then attend with me, fully committed. Once there, Lewis recognized her willingness right away and pulled her twice onto the floor to participate. I am hoping to continue to gift some of our Indian heritage to my child.