Generations: Setting the stage, White Earth Elder Mike Swan encourages youth with theater
“I’ve seen kids open up more with their personality,”said Mike Swan, a member of the Native Advisory Board at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. “The kids take the lead in their drama camp production. It might be a fairy tale with castles and knights. They are expressing their creativity to let that out in new ways. Some kids never knew they could do something like that.”
Editor's Note: The following originally appeared as the cover story of the Detroit Lakes Tribune's Generations magazine, which was included as a free insert in the March 27, 2022 issue of the Tribune. Read the magazine in its entirety HERE online.
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Mike Swan has been on the Native Advisory Board at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis for about a year.
“They wanted to bring someone in from outside the metro area,” he says. “They thought of me because of the work I did with the Northern Lights Opera Kids (NLOK) summer program. “
Swan is an elder and spiritual leader in the village of Pine Point on the White Earth Reservation. He grew up in the village, attending the old school. He says there weren’t many opportunities for drama at that time.
“I remember a couple of school plays for Christmas and that was about it,” he says. “Other than that we didn’t have anything in the theater for students to experience. I wanted to help the kids have something positive to get involved in. Some do the drama camp, NLOK and community theater.”
For the past several years, NLOK has been involving youth from the Park Rapids area and Pine Point in theater production.
Swan has previous years of experience working with kids, as a former teacher at White Earth Tribal College and Native American Cultural Liaison for Detroit Lakes Public Schools.
Theater as a positive path
Swan’s first involvement in theater came when he was asked to play Sitting Bull in “Annie Get Your Gun” at the community theater in Park Rapids.
“That was my first experience with acting,” he says. “When they called me up I thought it was a prank call at first, but they were serious. I went over for auditions, not knowing you need a monologue and singing. When I got on stage I told them my kind of singing is different than what you do here. I sang a powwow song. They said they’d get back to me and I figured that’s the last I’d hear from them. Two weeks later they called me up and said I had the part.”
Swan says he had fun being in the play: “I’m comfortable being in front of groups because I’ve been doing that all of my professional career,” he says. “I graduated from the U of M Duluth with a biology degree and have done a lot of presentations and training. I also do a lot of powwow dancing where a lot of people are watching me.”
“A lot of kids say they feel shy getting up on stage,” he adds. “I tell them to just think about how they do it at powwows and that in a lot of ways it’s the same thing. You’re sharing something in you.”
Swan says being involved in theater productions and camp gives youth something to do in the summer.
“It’s something positive to do and they enjoy it,” he says. “It keeps them off the streets.”
Wild imaginations at work
Swan says having drama camp every summer is something the kids look forward to.
“We send a bus over to pick up kids in Park Rapids and bring them out to Pine Point,” he says. “They come up with the plot, design the set and costumes, and everything else.”
Swan says he has seen positive changes in Pine Point students as a result of their theater experiences.
“I’ve seen kids open up more with their personality,” he says. “The kids take the lead in their drama camp production. It might be a fairy tale with castles and knights. They are expressing their creativity to let that out in new ways. Some kids never knew they could do something like that.”
“They think of what they want to do,” he adds. “A lot of them have a wild imagination. Last summer I went in and one of the guys asked me to do some native storytelling from our oral traditions. Surprisingly, they did a story like that. They did a play about Wenaboozhoo, who is half human and half spirit, the trickster and the Wendigo, a scary person like an ice creature.
“One of the things we have in our culture is you don’t whistle in the dark or you’re calling spirits. They wrote a story, ‘Whistle in the Dark,’ taking place in a village like theirs, and made a giant puppet with horns for Wendigo. One of the kids stopped by and said they wanted me to play the old man in their play. So I did and that was fun.”
They performed the play at Pine Point School and the Armory in Park Rapids.
“There was a pretty good sized crowd,” Swan says. “Quite a few of the families were there. When the Wendigo came out, some of the little ones started crying.”
Performing together has also helped youth from both communities make new friends.
Heading to the Guthrie
The Native Advisory Board has been meeting on Zoom monthly and includes members with several tribal affiliations. Swan says when he was asked to share what he would like to see, he told them he would like to bring students to the Guthrie to see a production..
“I thought a trip like that might inspire the kids to look at being more involved with drama and theater,” he says. “The kids are very excited about this trip. And I’ve never been to the Guthrie myself even though I’m on their advisory board.
On March 16, Swan traveled with a group of students and chaperones on a charter bus paid for by the White Earth Nation to see a matinee production of “The Tempest”. Paul and Pat Dove’s grandson, Hawken Paul, an alumnus of NLOKids, will be acting in the production.
The Guthrie provided free tickets for all of the students who attended, and donations from the Park Rapids Rotary and Pine Point Community Council paid for meals and other expenses.
“I hope this trip will inspire kids to continue to explore drama and theater,” he says. “There aren’t too many kids’ programs outside of the metro like this.”
Swan said other communities on the White Earth Reservation are exploring the possibility of adding theater experiences for youth, as well.