Think Out Loud

Bringing Indigenous perspectives to the stage

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Dec. 13, 2021 7:04 p.m. Updated: Dec. 20, 2021 5:24 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, Dec. 13

People fishing on the lower Klamath River in Northern California.

"Salmon is Everything" is focused on the importance of the Klamath River to the community.

flickr/Cristiano Valli


A drought Klamath Basin in 2002, led to the death of over 34,000 adult Chinook Salmon. Theresa May, a professor in theater arts at the University of Oregon, knew she wanted to share the story of the Klamath Watershed community and worked with several tribes to create the play “Salmon is Everything.” Marta Clifford, an elder with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, acted in that play and the two women continued to collaborate together afterward. They now co-teach a course on Native theatre at the University of Oregon and are working on their next production, “Bluejay’s Canoe.” They both join us to share what it means to take Indigenous voices to the main stage.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud, I’m Dave Miller. Ten years ago, the University of Oregon theater professor Theresa May put on a production of her play Salmon Is Everything at the university. Marta Clifford was in the cast. She is an actress, a storyteller and a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. In the years that have followed, May and Clifford have only deepened their collaborations. They’ve taught courses in Native theatre together. They’ve helped to create a new Native American theater company in Eugene, and Clifford has become an elder in residence in May’s classes. Marta Clifford and Theresa May join me now to talk about their work together. Welcome to you both.

Theresa May: Thanks for having us.

Marta Clifford: Thank you.

Miller: Theresa May first, as I noted that the two of you first worked together on a play staged at the University of Oregon in 2011, what can you tell us about your play Salmon Is Everything?

May: It’s what’s called a community based play, which means it’s not a play that’s created where a playwright sits in a room and thinks it up in their own head. It’s created out of conversation and dialogue and interview with a community. And in that way, the artist is in service to the community, in service to what the community wishes to be said.

When I was a new faculty at Humboldt State, about 80,000 salmon died on the Lower Klamath river in the course of a couple of weeks. And that event impacted Indigenous communities and people all along the river. And it was out of that event and an observation of the impact on the community that I went to one of my Native colleagues, Suzanne Burcell, who was a professor of Native Education, and I said “What if we do a play about this event in order to get the voices and the issues that the Native tribes like to see presented?” Because the coverage of the event and the coverage of the very impactful 2001 drought, and the involvement of the Bush administration and all of that in that drought, left the tribes bereft, really, of their water rights, ultimately of salmon. And so they were not getting national coverage.

So the play was born out of that event. And then in the process of it, many relationships were created and, and ultimately when I moved to the University of Oregon, we produced it here in 2011. And thank goodness Marta Clifford walked in and  said “I’m willing to be in this play.”

Miller: Marta, what do you remember about that production and your introduction to Theresa?

Clifford: We had a tribal office for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde at that time in Eugene, and my niece worked there. And she told me that somebody at the University of Oregon was going to do a play, and they needed a native elder in the play. And I had acted in high school, which was a long time ago. So I took a while to think about it. I was very nervous to go and check it out. But I walked into the theater and up on the stage, and I was welcomed by everybody, and especially by Theresa.

Miller: But you hadn’t acted between high school and that moment?

Clifford: No, I had not. So it was a huge undertaking for me. And it was amazing. It was amazing to work with the students. It was amazing to let that story unfold before me, and become Rose in the production of Salmon Is Everything. She’s a Karuk tribal elder, and she tells her stories in the play about her people and about the salmon, and cultural issues for the tribal people down there.

It really changed my life to be in that production. It brought me to the university where my daughter also works, and to Theresa. And then we formed this collaboration that we now have, and it all came from me saying yes, I’m going to be brave and I’m going to go to be in this play.

Miller: Theresa, when did you realize that you wanted to have a deeper collaboration with Marta? I imagine that the standard procedure is a director casts somebody to play, they work on it, it goes well or it doesn’t, and then you say goodbye. Sometimes you might work together again. But what the two of you have done really seems different.

May: Oh, that’s a good question. I haven’t actually thought about what was the moment. I fell in love with the plays written by First Nations and Native dramatists. I wanted to teach a class in that, because we have a kind of series of literature criticism based classes as part of our Theatre Arts major. So I started teaching Native theatre. Margaret took that class as a community member, and community members can take classes at the University of Oregon. So she was in that class, and I think we discovered together that this class has to have a Native elder in it. That the material is sometimes so challenging, particularly to non-Native students. And she was just an extraordinary asset in that class.


We often in theatre arts have artists in residence, in our classes or come to a guest lecture. So I thought, well, how about an elder in residence? So we just did it, and decided that this class has to have that component.

Miller: Why? And I’d love to hear from both of you on this, but going back to Marta Clifford, why did this class, I think if I understand correctly, the majority of the members of which were non-Native, why did it need to have a Native elder in it?

Clifford: This class needed to have a Native elder in the class to help them understand the plays that they were reading. Many of the plays are about tribal history and things that they’ve never heard of and they probably don’t understand, such as boarding schools. And you can’t teach a play about a child running away from boarding school if the students in the class have never heard of a boarding school. So what I will do is basically a history lesson on the aspects that are happening within the play to help them to understand it when we read it. A lot of the plays that we read have a lot of stories in them. And they don’t understand that stories are acting, and acting is storytelling. And so that’s a lot of what I do. And it needed the presence of a Native person.

And it has grown so much since the first time we did it. We don’t get very many Native students because we don’t have that many at the University of Oregon that are able to take the theatre classes. So we do have to do a lot of Oregon Native history first. And then as we decide which plays are going to be read, we do history on those individual plays.

Miller: Theresa, there are things you could do as a teacher yourself, as a non-Native teacher, you could assign readings about boarding schools. You could assign readings about all kinds of things. But I’m wondering what you think you can’t do, and what Marta can by nature of her experience, and the fact that she is a citizen of a sovereign tribe in Oregon?

May: Well, I think you just answered it. Of course, when I teach the class, teaching it by myself, I would have students do research into boarding schools, tribal histories, whatever was the background of the playwright. They do reports on artists. They do a lot of what I call dramaturgy digs. You didn’t understand a little thing in a play, like who is Black Hawk and why did we name a weapon after that person? Go look it up. That has always been a part of my classes for students to do that kind of research, and also I bring that information.

What Marta brings is presence. She brings the lived experience. She brings the person to whom these stories matter in a way that is beyond academic, that’s beyond literary analysis. She brings her heart, and that matters a lot, both to Native and non-Native students, because non-Native students come up against what we would call settler grief. They come up against “why didn’t I learn this in fourth grade? Why didn’t I learn this in sixth grade? Why am I a sophomore, junior in college, and I did not know the history of this nation or the history of my state or my community?” And so Marta provides a container that is present, that is compassionate, that is knowledgeable, that has expertise, to allow them to cross over from that grief and that shock, and a lot of times that anger, into being a productive ally, into asking the questions about, well, what does this mean going forward for me as a student, as a citizen?

So it’s that live presence. I mean in the theatre, we’re all about live presence. And so if you’re teaching a course, to have that person there is an incredible space.

Miller: Marta, Theresa there was talking about what your students have been able to get because of what you’re bringing. I’m curious what you feel like you’ve gotten, what you’ve learned, how you’ve changed as a result of, of this collaboration?

Clifford: I have changed so much. Every year, what Teresa and I do together seems to grow. Our classes are amazing. We’ve got stellar reviews on everything we’ve done because we are thinking of the students, we are teaching them things they’ve never heard of before. And so therefore, one thing that I make sure and tell them is, now that you know this information, what are you going to do with it? Please think about going out, and every one of you at least telling one other person about what you learned in this class. That will continue to teach everybody out in the world something they did not know about Native American history.

What I’ve got from this is the joy of being able to help to teach these students about the history of my people here in Oregon, plus also the history of Native Americans and First Nations in Canada, that they would have never ever known anything about. And also, we’ve done so much more than just a teaching part, and it has helped me to grow as a person and be able to reach out to other people, and to grow as an actress and a writer.

We did a new version of Salmon is Everything, and I wrote one of the chapters in there, and that was very fulfilling. It was a chapter about my journey. It was a chapter about being in Salmon Is Everything and what it meant to me. And so, I have grown as a person. It’s amazing to be my age as a tribal elder, and also every single day feel like I have grown and improved and worked on learning more, and learning to tell stories every single day and learning my tribal language. There’s so much I have learned in the last 10 years.

Miller: You are two of the people who have created a relatively new theater company called illioo Native Theatre, my understanding is illioo is a Kalapuya people word. What does it mean,  Marta?

Clifford: Here in Eugene, along the Willamette River, we have what’s called the Kalapuya Talking Stones. They’re beautiful stones along the path along the river, with individual Kalapuya words, and then translated into English. Illioo is a Kalapuya word for joyful. Those stones were put up by a very prominent Kalapuya elder that lives in Yoncalla named Esther Stutzman. She worked with the city of Eugene and the city of Springfield to get those installed. And I’ve always been compelled to go down along the river and walk because that’s where I grew up. But I also started doing tours for students and for community members of the Kalapuya Talking Stones. And that’s always been my favorite stone. And I love the word. So the word means joyful in Kalapuya language.

Miller: Theresa, can you tell us about the play that you are all working on right now? It’s called Bluejay’s Canoe.

May: Sure, I wanted, if I could, to just wrap back a little bit to that question that you asked earlier. As I’m listening to Marta, I also realized that one of the things that the students see in the class that is perhaps not something that would ever be visible on a syllabus, is the partnership and the collaboration. They see that model, they see a productive, both intellectual, spiritual, emotional and creative partnership between non-Native and Native educators, and they see that model. And hopefully they can take that as a model for a particular kind of activism going forward, that is really grounded in relationship, not necessarily grounded in whatever the cause is at the time.

So your question. Blue Jays Canoe grew out of our work in the class. We taught a class that was focused particularly on the waterways and water rights and water life ways of Oregon Native tribes. And in that class, students did a lot of research, both about the history of those water rights and when many of them were taken, stolen. And also what tribes are doing now to restore their water life ways. Out of that, we developed a draft of a play. And then COVID happened, and it was hard to move the project forward.

We have a dear friend, Joe Scott, who is a traditional ecological knowledge educator and culture bearer of the Siletz tribe. He has also been working with us, and one day I asked him if he was in a play, who would you want to be? And he said he wanted to be a radio host. So a radio host is the center of the play. There’s a young Native kid who gets an internship at that radio station. And there is an elder, played by Marta, that is also on the radio. There’s a lot of humor. We’re really in process with the script at this time, but it also has to tell the story of what’s happened in the last two years, particularly its impact on Native communities. So that was kind of a big left turn for us, but we’re moving that project forward, and we’ll let you know when it’s produced.

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