INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — Fourteen-year-old Raven Sockalexis grew up hearing stories about Gluskabe, the transformer who shaped the landscape and the traditions of the Wabanaki people.
Ruby El-Hajj, 16, grew up 30 miles south of Indian Island, in the Penobscot River town of Winterport. She had never heard of Gluskabe (gloo-SKA-beh) or his grandmother Monimkwe’su (muh-NIM KWA-soo) before this summer.
Both teens have spent the past two weeks with about 40 others between the ages of 4 and 19, working on Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “Transformer Tales: Stories of the Dawnland,” a compilation of traditional Gluskabe stories that have been part of the Penobscot Indian Nation’s oral tradition for centuries. The show is being performed as part of the theater’s Dramatic Academy program.
“The play is about the adventures he goes on through his life,” Raven said. “It teaches people about how they are supposed to be in life. All of us grew up with these stories.”
The opening story tells of how Gluskabe was so enthralled with the animals that he brought all of them home to his grandmother only to learn that if he kept them, there would be none on earth for future generations. In another, he snatches a piece of summer and carries it across frozen land to winter, which melts in its presence. Gluskabe learns that perpetual summer is not good for the earth or his people.
The show, which includes 13 tales and is about 70 minutes long, is the result of a yearlong collaboration between the theater company and the tribe, Bari Newport, producing artistic director for the theater, said Wednesday.
“I’d been waiting for the right time because I knew it would be a big project,” she said. “So, the right time came along about a year and a half ago, when Friends of Acadia Park reached out and asked if Penobscot Theatre Company would do something for the park’s centennial.”
Newport approached Margo Lukens, an English professor at the University of Maine who has worked with tribal members before. Lukens helped assemble a group in October that began looking at the Gluskabe stories as a possible play.
“These 13 stories take him from the early, early stage of his life into his young adulthood, when he’s done what he needs to do,” Lukens said Wednesday. “By the end of the play, he’s shaped the world, and his descendants are going to be OK, and he’s leaving unless they call him back.”
The stories, which were published once in 1918 in an academic journal, are performed in “Transformer Tales” mostly in English, but the play includes words and sentences in Penobscot. That delighted tribal elder Carol Dana, who worked on developing the play, Thursday when it was performed for the first time at Indian Island School.
“I think nobody enjoyed it more than me, because I understood the language,” she said after the show. “I think it has value for everyone because that is how we transmitted our values and our culture — through stories. And it has a good message for people about conservation.”
Roger Paul also worked with Newport to turn the traditional stories into a play. He said after the show Thursday that there is value in sharing the tribe’s stories and culture.
“Our culture is not just for native kids,” said Paul, who teaches Wabanaki languages at the school. “We share the earth with everyone. And especially today we need the rest of the world to understand how to take care of the earth the way that we’ve always done it.”
“Transformer Tales: Stories of the Dawnland” will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Bangor Opera House, 131 Main St., and at 3 p.m. Sunday at Blackwoods Amphitheater in Acadia National Park. The rain location Sunday is the 1932 Criterion Theatre, 33 Cottage St., Bar Harbor. The performance in Acadia National Park will be free to the public. Admission for the shows at the Bangor Opera House, August 12-13, is $8 for students and $12 for adults. Tickets may be purchased by phone or in person at the box office by calling 207-947-3333 or online at penobscottheatre.org.