Julie Cajune wants to know if you can name 10 famous American Indian women. Sound too difficult? She thinks so, too.
"We're presented as beasts of burden who have no speaking roles," she says. "There's so many weird representations of American Indian women and I think that affects young women today."
Cajune, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, takes on that historical fallacy with her one-woman show Belief, which she performs in Bigfork on Friday for one night only. It's a collection of refashioned stories based on traditional tales from American Indian women.
Cajune is a documentary film producer, but most of her energy has been spent in education. In 2009, Utne Reader named her one of "50 visionaries changing your world" for her work over two decades on preserving the Salish language and getting American Indian stories into general school curriculum, as well as into materials for groups like the National Science Foundation and the Montana Historical Society. That same year, Cajune, who teaches at Salish Kootenai College, won a $1.4 million W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant to "create, publish, and distribute exemplary, high-relevance texts and media about Native American tribal history." The money's helped to fund projects for the Center for American Indian Policy and Applied Research and HeartLines.
Cajune is also involved with the KwKwsum theater program. Salish for "star," the project has roots bringing original theater to the Flathead Reservation since the early aughts. It's now the theater arm of a larger arts effort called Npustin (whose mission is "to bring what's in the heart into the world"), which Cajune started in 2007 to offer rural communities more artistic opportunities.
While Cajune is comfortable in front of school desks and lecture podiums, Belief presents a different kind of challenge. She's adapted the stories for performance and will be accompanied by live music. "We must remember what loves us, and we must be brave enough to reach for love," she says at the start of Act II, which has a violinist, percussionist and flutist joining in her crescendo.
To help devise the project, Cajune collaborated with director Linda Grinde and enlisted the help of Salish writer Jennifer Finley-Greene. What started simply as a selection of Cajune's mother's stories and Finley-Greene's poetry eventually coalesced into a cohesive theater piece. She says the thread that tied all of the stories together is beliefbelief in love, belief in the creative process and Cajune's belief in positive change.
"We all live through disappointment or times of great discouragement or grief that cause us to question beliefs," Cajune says. "This is a universal story that doesn't have cultural or gender boundaries. It's just one way to deal with it. It's not the way for everybody, but it's my way."
Excerpts of the show were ready in time for Grinde and Cajune to read at Arlee's playwright festival last summer. The audience reaction was positive, but Cajune says she still didn't feel ready.
"At the first reading I thought, 'What is this, amateur night at a bad talent show?'" she says, laughing. "But Linda has a way of pulling things out of you very gently. She's very gifted in that way."
Cajune says the work is worth her effort. Through theater, she's reaching a different audience than lectures, books and films can access.
"For me and the work that I'm doing, that means presenting a meaningful and authentic voice and image of American Indian people and American Indian women," she says. "I couldn't think of a more meaningful way of doing it than through theater."
Belief will be performed at The Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts Fri., Dec. 7, at 7 PM. $20/$15 advance.