The Power of Story

Marie Acemah is passionate about the power of story. Her brainchild organization, nonprofit See Stories, offers youth film workshops, professional productions, and educational services - all using film to capture story and dialogue that deepen understanding and build an inclusive community story.

In 2016, Marie's work was recognized with a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, one of just 12 programs from across the nation to receive the honor. The award-winning project engaged Kodiak students in creating video documentaries based on interviews with local elders and immigrants to bring out stories that had not previously been recorded, and was funded in part by an Alaska Humanities Forum General Grant.

How are you connected to the Forum?

The Alaska Humanities Forum is like family to me. I've been connected to the Forum for almost a decade, from receiving a general grant in 2011 with the Kodiak History Museum to empower youth to document Filipino Community Stories, to facilitating Forum cross-cultural education programs for adults and youth over the past several years. Whether I'm collaborating on their Educator Cross Cultural Immersion Program, working with their Take Wing students from Western Alaska, or traveling to Washington D.C. with a group of AK|Next teenagers, I'm consistently overwhelmed with how thoughtful and innovative Forum staff are. I think we should coin a term called the "Forum Factor" that accounts for the intangible magic they work in peoples' lives; they invited me to be a part of their first Culture Shift, which was not only extremely fun, but also synchronistically connected me with a dream team of people for a new film project. I work very independently, so I love when I drop by the Forum office and get my fix of warm people who love story as much as I do.

What’s one Alaska story you’ve heard or read that you would recommend to others?

I am privileged to have traveled around the state to lead film workshops for the past decade. I've facilitated youth interviews with elders and community members, often people my students are related to. There are countless stories that stay with me, stories of survival from Buckland, of walking across a river on the backs of salmon from Karluk, of how Raven teaches us to be Real Human Beings from Hooper Bay.

That said, the very first film workshop I ever helped lead was in Nikolai in 2010, and unbeknownst to me at the time, I witnessed one of the best storytelling experiences of my life with an Dichinanek' Hwt'ana (Upper Kuskokwim Athabascan) Elder Philip Esai Sr., who has since passed away. You can catch some of that interview on the following film, Portrait of Nikolai. Both his story and the way he told it were stunning. My then 6-month old baby was crying during the interview, but Philip firmly instructed me to keep the baby in the room for the interview, since "crying is a part of life." The young man asking questions during the interview was surprised as Phillip turned the questions around on him, asking the student how many moose he thought he would get hunting in the Alaska Range. When the student said "none," Philip nodded with great approval, surprising me and teaching me that humility in the face of "Great Mother Nature, who is always looking over you" was something that he felt in his bones. I encourage everyone to watch the film and experience the chills I do every time I re-watch the wisdom and humor of his interview.

What’s one thing you have been curious about lately?

I recently started working on a film project documenting the enslavement of Indigenous Peoples in what is now known as the United States, a contract that See Stories (the nonprofit I direct) received from the Southern Poverty Law Center. I've been devouring every book on the topic I can find. I'm co-producing this documentary with Alice Qannik Glenn of the Coffee and Quaq podcast, and Inupiaq filmmaker Howdice Brown III is directing the film.

Like many Americans, I've been taught a cursory narrative of how colonialists displaced and mistreated Indigenous Peoples, and how disease wreaked havoc on this land's First Peoples, but I did not learn about the enslavement of Indigenous Peoples throughout the Americas, including Alaska. To put it in perspective, a modest estimate is that between 2.5 - 5 million Indigenous Peoples were enslaved by European Colonialists in the Americas between 1492 and 1900. I'm deeply curious about the details of this story which is relevant to all of us as Americans, how and why this story has been buried, and what we can do to integrate this chilling story into our national narrative so that we can try to bring healing to the wounds from this era that continue to this day. The film will look at Russian enslavement of Sugpiaq on Kodiak to hunt sea otter pelts as an example of this national story. If you're interested in learning more about this history in the Americas or if you're looking for a good holiday present for your reader friends, I encourage you to read The Other Slavery by Andres Resendez.

What question do you wish more people asked you?

I really wish more people would ask me how they can donate to my nonprofit, See Stories. I joke! (Although the See Stories website does make it REALLY easy to donate!)

The truth is, I wish more people would ask me about my students and about teaching. While I get a lot of questions about how I helped found a 501(C)3 and about my work with film, my true passion is education. We do not celebrate or understand the import of teachers with the upside-down values of our modern culture. We don't pay teachers well, we don't trust them to know what's best for the kids in their classroom, and yet paradoxically we heap untenable responsibilities on their shoulders. I am a fortunate educator that gets to do after school film programs with kids who tend to LOVE cameras and interviews and editing (because it's so fun). I would love if more people would ask questions and get excited about the many little positive transformations that happen in the classroom. Last year one of my shyest students interviewed his boxing coach at his boxing studio. This small act of courage to ask questions about a topic he loves, in front of all his boxing compatriots, absolutely moved me. It was simple, and yet things like this are the little bold steps that build character. I would love if people got as excited about these moments as me, if for no other reason than that my ridiculous enthusiasm would feel less lonely!

What conversations do we need to be having (or having more of) in Alaska?

One of the things I love about Alaska is that we don't have the privilege of living in a bubble. We are fiercely independent and diverse in our cultures and attitudes, and yet we are a small state population-wise and have to rely on each other for camaraderie and survival, whether that's physical survival on this land or emotional survival through the long winters and frenetic summers. I think we sometimes avoid the tough conversations with each other because we depend on each other so much, which is a lost opportunity. We need to have some of the tough conversations with one another about how immigrants (and I'm including white folks of European decent like myself in that category) relate to Alaska's First Peoples, and a panoply of other issues that are bursting at our Alaskan seams. I think we can foster these conversations through sharing stories rather than fighting over ideologies. In a time when Alaskans and our nation are polarized, we can start by finding connections through our stories, and being curious about each other. I think a good place to start is stories told and gathered by young people. I once had a 6th grade student create a film on the then very controversial J-1 visa policy on Kodiak that you can watch here. She interviewed a Turkish and a Filipino cannery worker, a cannery manager, and then-Senator Begich. She showed a variety of stories and perspectives on the topic and let the audience decide what they thought. Her film was upsetting to many in Kodiak, and yet they were forced to look at the issue fairly because the producer was a child, which was disarming. I wish we could approach all tough issues with that level of openness.

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