A fist-sized necklace hangs around Jimmy Snyder’s neck. The tiny, intricate beading forms an eagle with its wings open wide against a baby blue sky, a stark contrast to the rich green fields with people riding canoes along the river pictured below the bird.
The necklace lies proudly in the center of his chest; it represents his people. It is the seal of the Kickapoo tribe in Kansas, where he is originally from.
It was hand-beaded by a family member as a gift to Snyder, who only wears it on special occasions like today.
Snyder, who is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon in the College of Education, participated in the play reading of “Salmon is Everything” as one of the lead characters: Will. The reading was performed by the Native Play Reading Group in the Many Nations Longhouse as part of the Native Play Reading Series; this was their seventh performance since they began in 2011.
The play reading series began as an extra credit assignment for the Native Theatre class UO associate professor Theresa May was teaching. The class met at the Longhouse armed with books and read plays like a family. The Longhouse is a place of gathering for Native American communities.
Shortly after the play reading routine, people who weren’t part of the class began attending, which led them to begin producing the plays that were read. Today, the group is formed by members of the Native community who want to join.
“You can’t understand [Native theatre] unless you were there — you can't even feel it. You can’t describe it. I don’t even have the words right now,” Snyder said. “...You’re different after you’re done, after you experience it. Everyone is different.”
Snyder first became involved with the play reading series after being invited to join one of the productions by May. According to Snyder, finding people who want to be part of the process is never an issue.
“Salmon is Everything” tells the story of the 2002 Klamath River Fish Kill and the Native peoples’ response to the event. The play is written by May in collaboration with Native artists.
The script highlights the longstanding and meaningful connection some Native communities — especially ones in the West coast — have with salmon. For Native people, salmon aren’t simply fish, they’re family.
Snyder’s tribe doesn’t have the same connection to salmon but, since the first time he moved to Oregon in 2008 to pursue his graduate degree, he’s been learning about them and making connections with the fish.
“I get it. I get that you’re nothing without [salmon], but why I get it is because of things like the play,” he said. “I will be making sense of salmon for the rest of my life.”
For Snyder, this night is about giving back to Oregon, its tribes and the people that have welcomed him into their community. Telling this story is a way for him to show his appreciation.
“I like to think of tonight as a ceremony. And everyone, every being, every thing and every spirit in this Longhouse as being a part of it,” he said. “It wasn’t just us up here reading the play. It wasn’t just folks in the audience... And I know Native folk approach dang near everything that way.”
The 20-person cast was mostly dressed in black, with some of the Native folk wearing traditional necklaces. The cast was filled with people with all different backgrounds — some Native, others not. But, for Snyder, that’s part of what makes Native theatre so powerful.
“It’s not just for Natives. This play tonight might have been a Native story and a Native experience, but the theatre — the plays — heal you too,” he said.
The play reading series is important for the Native community because it highlights their voices and experiences. For Snyder, this is the part of the beauty of Native theatre: it allows Native voices to be heard and felt.
“You feel Native people in a story like this and you can’t get that any other way,” Snyder said. “...You have to feel us, because we don’t get listened to.