To represent a culture, you must listen to a culture.
In the space of a week, Sean Vesce, creative director at E-Line, met with four different groups, including an Alaska Native elders group that counted William Hensley, who helped negotiate the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, among its members. He also met with a group of kids hand-picked by the Alaska Native community to represent youth issues and a group of CITC employees of indigenous heritage.
The fourth meeting was with an artists and storytellers group, where Vesce met Ishmael Hope, an actor, playwright, and poet who immediately delivered some hard truths about the project. Hope’s father is Tlingit, an Alaska Native people whose culture is based in the southeastern portion of the state. Hope is an expert in the Tlingit language. His mother is Iñupiaq, an Alaska Native people who hail from the state’s northernmost regions and who currently live in large numbers in the town of Barrow, Alaska, which sits above the Arctic Circle.
“[Ishmael] was the one that came out right at the outset and said, ‘Hey, look, if you guys are thinking that you’re gonna come up here once in a while and make your game down in Seattle, and check in with us once in a while to see if you’re on the track, there’s a long list of films and books and other kinds of artists that have come up to try that, and they have all failed,’” Vesce recalled. “‘If you want to succeed in this, if you want to create something that’s really appropriate and authentic, and you want to make something that not only excites people outside Alaska but makes people inside Alaska proud, you’re going to have to involve us in a very direct way, throughout the entire development.’ That really set the tone with us, in the way that we engaged with the community from that point forward.”
Hope and Vesce had a lengthy dialogue about how Westerners needed to break down internalized stereotypes, especially if they wanted to share, articulate, and understand an indigenous worldview. Without the ability to articulate the Alaska Native experience, Never Alone would be dead on arrival.