Elder is encouraging Native American youth in Minnesota to explore their creativity through theater

Mike Swan is an elder in the village of Pine Point on the White Earth Reservation, 20 miles from Park Rapids. He grew up in the village, attending the old school. He said there weren’t many opportunities for drama at that time.

Theater gives youth from the Pine Point and Park Rapids area a chance to express their imaginations and creativity. On March 16, a group of youth will be heading to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis to further expand their horizons.
Contributed / Mike Swan

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 said. “They thought of me because of the work I did with and with the Northern Lights Opera Kids (NLOK) summer program. “

Swan is an elder in the village of Pine Point on the White Earth Reservation, 20 miles from Park Rapids. He grew up in the village, attending the old school. He said 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 said. “Other than that we didn’t have anything in 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.

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 said. “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 said 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 said. “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. 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 said 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 said. “It keeps them off the streets.”

Wild imaginations at work

Swan said 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 said. “They come up with the plot, design the set and costumes and everything else.”


Swan said 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 said. “One girl was really shy. Her grandmother talked her into trying out, and her family members were surprised at how well she performed and sang on stage. 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 said. “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 were pretty good sized crowd,” Swan said. “Quite a few of the families were there. When the Wendigo came out, some of the little ones started crying.”

Performing together has helped youth from both communities make new friends. “It helps for students who go to Park Rapids after they graduate from Pine Point (which only goes through eighth grade) break the ice because they already know some of the other students. Some of the students from the two communities keep in contact with each other after drama camp, so that’s been beneficial for both communities.”


Heading to the Guthrie

The Native Advisory Board has been meeting on Zoom monthly and includes members with several tribal affiliations. Swan said when he was asked to share what he would like to see, he said he would like to bring students to the Guthrie to see a production. Past and present members of NLOC are invited to join the group.

“I thought a trip like that might inspire the kids to look at being more involved with drama and theater,” he said. “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 will be traveling 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 is providing free tickets for all of the students who are attending. A $500 donation from the Park Rapids Rotary and another $500 donation from the Pine Point Community Council will pay for meals and other expenses.

“I hope this trip will inspire kids to continue to explore drama and theater,” he said. “There has been talk about filming our trip for publicity for NLOK and also for the Guthrie. They want to see that because 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 in other communities on the reservation as well.

Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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