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It seems reductive to call Darrell Hillaire a playwright,
given how much work he has done in
his life on behalf of the Lummi Nation, and for
Lummi youth in particular. Darrell has served
as a coach, mentor, teacher, and leader for the
Lummi Nation for more than twenty years. He
has served on community boards, on the Lummi
Indian Business Council, and as Chair of the
Lummi Nation. He founded the visionary Lummi
Youth Academy in 2008. His great-grandfather
is featured in almost every important photograph
of the Lummi from the 1920s. In recent years,
Hillaire discovered the power of writing and producing
plays, and now his life has opened a whole
new and unexpected act. Though he is still passionate
about educating Lummi Youth, he has chosen
an additional classroom—the stage.

History to the Coast Salish tribes is always living,
always breathing. It is not a dusty corner of
the past, but among us, with us, in the present.
Ancestors, elders, young adults, and children all
contribute to society, all play an important role in
preserving the past and working toward the future.
Hillaire embodies this spirit in his works, which
combine traditional stories, news events from the
past, and current events in a giant cultural canvas.
Hillaire’s audio production Beginnings: A
Meditation on Coast Salish Lifeways is based on
the book by Jesuit priest and dedicated friend of
the tribes, Father Patrick Twohy. A collection of
quotes and impressions of Native American culture
and life, the book is a remarkable document
that speaks to the essence of what it means to be
Native American. Hillaire recorded sections of
the book with a cast of students from the Lummi
Youth Academy, bringing the voices of the book
alive. Hillaire and Twohy had been giving readings
of the book together, and Hillaire decided to
record them. Instead of using their voices, Hillaire
gathered elders and youth and created an entire
audio project from the book. They recorded at Bob
Ridgley’s studio, Binary Recording Studio.

Also with Ridgley, Hillaire created an elevenminute
animated film titled It’s Good To Be
Home. The story of a Lummi youth who returns
to Lummi Nation to attend the academy, the film
incorporates animation and live-action. A beautiful
story of loss and redemption, It’s Good To Be
Home also included local talent (and tribal elder)
Bill James. But it is Hillaire’s next step as a dramatic
artist that shapes his career today.
Hillaire returned to the Lummi Indian Business
Council a few years ago. “I felt the young council
members needed to know about land claims.”

In particular, an item called Docket 110, the first
decision the LIBC makes every year—they vote to
turn down money being held for them in a trust
in DC. Why and how that money will remain
untouched is the central message of What About
Those Promises?, Hillaire’s first major stage production.
Calling upon the history of the Point
Elliott Treaty of 1855 and the subsequent effects
it has had on the Lummi, the play began as a
simple document. Hillaire wrote out a long history,
and felt it needed more life, more energy. He
went to Dennis Cantrell, Robert Mosy and others,
and began to write scenes. He had a basic
structure, some dialogue, but something was missing.
He finished the play, and still felt there was a
narrative hole, a lack of tension. A woman who
read the play told him about a similar play called
One Hundred Years Ago written in 1955 by a Joe
Hillaire.

Joe Hillaire was Darrell’s uncle, a prominent
Lummi carver and artist. “Joe’s work was
poetry. We went with a dramatic presentation of
the work he had done, and the play came to life.”
A woman who was present at the famous 1974
Bolt decision sat in on the read-throughs to help
with advice and direction. Hillaire realized one day
he needed to cast her, and Ramona Morris’s brilliant
speech at the end of the play never fails to
bring down the house.

Hillaire’s subsequent play Sonny Sixkiller Buys
The Washington Redskins is a more playful look
at the history of native culture in the U.S. The play
interrogates the Washington Redskins’ decision
to retain their name despite tribal objections. “I
was in New Orleans for a conference on financial
management, and the Redskins name controversy
was on all the TVs in the hotel. I asked the bankers
around me how much it would cost to buy
the Redskins. They crunched some numbers and
came up with a figure.” They also determined that
such a purchase ($1.7 billion) was within reach if
the West Coast tribes formed a syndicate. In the
play, legendary NFL player and former UW Husky
Sonny Sixkiller decides to buy the team. He seeks
the counsel of his elders, consults with his tribal
council, and goes ahead with the purchase. In a
twist, he buys the Redskins, but remains under
contractual obligation to retain the name. So
instead of changing the name of the team, each of
the players has to change his name to an Indian
name. A member of the Cherokee Nation, Sixkiller
is thrilled to have his name attached to this project.
Directed by Dennis Cantrell and produced by
Hillaire, the play is expected to have the kind of
huge success of What About Those Promises?.

Maintaining his commitment to the Lummi
Youth Academy, Hillaire has more projects in the
works, including another animated film (a play
on Alice in Wonderland) and an epic telling of the
story of the sockeye. “The sockeye is our oldest,
most sacred relative.” Tentatively called The Last
Harvest, this play would use the migratory journey
of the sockeye as a central metaphor for environmental
concern, as well as the lives and livelihoods
that form around salmon fishing. He is also interested
in producing a play about The Basket Lady,
a woman who gathers up ill-behaved children after
dark and carries them off. His play would explore
the societal ills of our youth, criminal behavior,
and the power of reconciliation.

Sifting through the lessons of history in our
present circumstances, Darrell Hillaire’s plays
hold plenty of interest for those who crave universal
lessons of pain and redemption. His work will
be produced in September in Seattle, and watch
for more dates in Whatcom in the fall. Be forewarned—these
performances always sell out.