The Saturday Rumpus Interview: Storme Webber

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Storme Webber is a Two Spirit, Alutiiq/Black/Choctaw, poet, playwright, educator, curator, and interdisciplinary artist. She creates blues-influenced, socially-engaged texts and images exploring identity, art activism, and the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, memory, and spirit. Storme’s poetry collections include Diaspora, Blues Divine, and the forthcoming Noirish Lesbiana. Her solo theatre works include Buddy Rabbit, Noirish Lesbiana: A Night at the Sub Room, and Wild Tales of Renegade Halfbreed Bulldagger. She has been highlighted in numerous anthologies and literary journals, documentaries (including Venus Boyz) and international tours. Blues Divine, a poetry collection that is at heart ancestral mixtape and tribute, is also available as an audiobook with Storme’s signature voice in the performance of poems birthed from music and sung traditions.

Over the past six years, Storme and my family have joined together in activism, in ceremony, in strategizing scholarship, and in attending biannual Cook Inlet Region Inc. meetings in the Seattle area (we both have Alutiiq heritage from Alaska). We’ve had countless conversations that range in topic from Jimi to Janis, Seldovia to Seattle, potlatches to police brutality, drumming to docent-ing, and dozens of other alliterative pairs.

Before I moved to New York last summer, we’d been planning to get together for a day of (seal) skin-sewing and Alutiiq-style regalia-making. While we haven’t yet been able to see that through, we were able to meet up for a steaming pile of seafood and conversation in December 2015, at a restaurant in Pike Place Public Market. On our way to the restaurant, Storme convinced me to stop by a shop two floors down from the famous Pike Place fish-tossing mongers, to check out some otter pelts she spotted there earlier. They were beautiful. She asked me what I’d do with one of them, and I said it would make a great (ceremonial) pipe-bag. After admiring the pelts and after teasing the shopkeeper who refused to touch the pelts, we left them and went upstairs for lunch, where Storme ordered the seafood bowl, because as she said:

Storme Webber: The seafood bowl has everything. Like when we had potlatch in Seldovia, they had everything. It doesn’t have bidarkies, though. Have you ever had bidarkies? The gumboots? Those are good. The female has her eggs on her back, and it’s like creamy clams. Delicious. But seal is interesting. When I had it, it was the solstice, and it was a blessing. One of the reasons I went back to Seldovia was to take home the ashes of my grandmother’s cousin. I went and picked up the ashes in Soldotna, and then I put him in my backpack. I landed in Seldovia, and they were having seal camp. All the people who had been away for a long time had come back. They were all there that day, and there was a feast. So I took him to this gathering, but nobody knew he was with me. We were sewing skin, and talking to the ladies, and feasting, and it was beautiful.

I went home and they had octopus, bidarkies, seal. They were processing a sea otter. And the seal… it gives you so much strength. I had been traveling, eating fast food. I’d landed in Anchorage, slept at the airport, got up, got the bus to Soldotna, stayed in a strange man’s house, and was just worn out. But that seal we ate—it revived me. Anyway, this man dropped me off at the bus to Homer, but the boat wasn’t running, so I had to fly from Homer to Seldovia.

The first thing I saw when we landed was an eagle feeding her baby in a tree. I walked into town, then camped on the beach. My relative was in a container inside a Crown Royal bag. People had scared me about the bears, so I had one of those bear-bells. While I was camping on the beach, I thought I heard a bear, so I started jumping up and down, ringing that bell, and singin’ the “Go Away Bear” song! Meanwhile, I had a big sage bundle burning nearby. So while I was singing and jumping up and down, the Crown Royal bag caught on fire—and I’m just jumping up and down, completely focused on scaring away this bear, but my relative’s ashes are getting ready to burn again! So after awhile, I looked up, and saw that it wasn’t even a bear—it was a little plane. I thought, oh my god, my ancestors are laughing! And so was the bear in the woods. It was so funny—and that was my first day in Alaska.

The Rumpus: What did you do with your relative?

Webber: I didn’t want to ask anyone if it would be alright if I put his ashes in the cemetery, but as it happened, this Indian guy gave me a ride out to the beach one day, and on the way, he just starts talking and he goes, “You know, when I die, I just want someone to throw my ashes in with my mom.” He just says this out of the blue! I start cracking up and ask him, “Really? Can you do that?” And he goes, “I don’t care, I’m just doing it.” So I said, “Thank you!”

But I was so nervous. There’s a map that shows where my relatives are buried there, but it’s an Indian/Russian cemetery, so the map is hard to use. There are no markers in the cemetery, just old Russian crosses falling down. All my ancestors are listed with their location. But I couldn’t remember where my relative’s mom was, so I just put him there, with family.

Rumpus: I guess it might be unusual to hear someone talk about ancestors as if they’re still right here with you, all of the time.

Webber: For me, there’s a beloved line: “You are a result of the love of thousands.” I think about that, and suddenly they’re all with me. Some days I feel like I’m closer to the ancestors than I am to living people.

Rumpus: What is it like for you to have have certain kinds of roots in Seldovia and another kind in Seattle?

Webber: When I was born, my mother was a nineteen-year-old lesbian. I was born in the Public Health Hospital, Harborview—where my mother was born. Where Jimi Hendrix was born, and where his mother died, because she was found beaten up in an alley off Jackson Street. I imagine they thought she was just another drunk Indian woman when she was left in the hallway.

So anyway I took thirty-four hours to get born. I must have began equivocating—uncertain whether I wanted to come out, but I couldn’t go back. When my grandmother came to take me and my mother home, they brought me first to the Public Market to see their friend, Old Man Carl, who was a merchant marine. Old Man Carl lived in the LaSalle Hotel, which had previously been a brothel. So I delight myself with my story, in which the first place I ever went in the world was to a whorehouse to see a sailor! And this gives me a feeling of great bravado and strength and toughness, and it somehow is really comforting in an odd way. So my grandmother brought me here all the time. It was more working class then, and there were all these different characters, people who worked here. I knew them all. So every time we came here, we’d walk on the wooden steps or ramp, and even now, when I’m here, I remember that she walked here. I remember her. And I know she’s here with me when I go into the rummage, saying over my shoulder, “There’s some Indian stuff over there.” [laughs] She’s just going around with me. If I chose one place in Seattle where I do belong, this is it. My grandmother’s steps are here, and the Indians are here.

But you know, when I’m in Seldovia, I feel like I belong in the most unusual way. Probably because my relatives were there for so many centuries. But then, there’s racist white men there too, who make me nervous as hell. When I’m there, I think, I couldn’t come here and live. They’d kill me and throw me in the forest. It’d be too easy. Because, you know that ‘wave on the road’ thing when you visit a small community? They didn’t wave to me. I was thinking, Okay, I see how it is. I was fitting in; I didn’t have dreads out. I had on my Carhartts. And they just didn’t wave.

Rumpus: Do you think any of us belong anywhere?

Webber: I think we’re all traveling on this Earth. We have moments of belonging.

Rumpus: I knew you as my kid’s acting coach, and as a Native community member long before I read, heard, or saw you perform any of your own pieces. So by the time I first experienced your spoken-word poetry, it was a very “Seattle” poem: “For John T.” I was completely moved by how perfectly you voiced the sentiments of the Native community in Seattle after the police shooting of John T. Williams. But you spoke from your own position, and it was so profound. In “For John T.,” you say: “I was born to an Aleut mixed blood lesbian mother /And an African American Choctaw bisexual father / And I grew up in these streets / Spent my life vanishing / At risk / Crossing the bridge of Rise Up Fallen Fighters / Crossing over /forever Crossing over.” So my question is, what does it mean to you to “spend your live vanishing”? And what does it mean to be “forever crossing over”?

Webber: It’s like historical consciousness. Think of the [Edward] Curtis project—The Vanishing Race—and how it became comfortable for non-Natives to say, “Oh, you people are vanishing.” That attitude is still with us, as we saw with the Oregon occupation when Ryan Bundy said, “There are things to learn from cultures of the past, but the current culture is the most important. The Native Americans had the claim to the land, but they lost that claim.” He really said that! So arrogant. So the vanishing came from that idea people have that we don’t really exist, we’ve vanished, and if we haven’t vanished, well, we should. We’re frozen in memory, but they don’t allow us to be contemporary beings.

It’s also related to the idea of being “at risk.” They use that term, as in, “at-risk youth.” It’s such a funny term, really, because it puts those kids off to the side, as though people who do the labeling are saying to themselves, “We don’t have to take any responsibility for the conditions that make their lives the way that they are.” When I was in a foster home, they sent me to a shrink. It was supposed to be confidential, but she went and told my foster mother everything I said to her! So I stopped talking. The caseworker told my foster mother, “Don’t ask Storme what she talks about. Just ask me, because the therapist will tell me, and then I’ll tell you.” So there was this tremendous cycle where personhood is not respected. If I would say anything about the way I was being treated, my foster mother would respond to the caseworker, “Well, you know, she’s not well. You know where she came from.” So, I was totally without a voice, and totally without agency. So, that’s my experience of being “at risk.” So that’s a kind of vanishing, too.

Of course, “crossing over,” and “rise up fallen fighters,” those are Bob Marley references. His work inspired me so much. To acknowledge that we do fall, but that we can rise, is very powerful for me. John T. literally fell; we saw him fall. And in that fall, we saw the reflection of our own people who fell. And yet, we’re still here.

Blues Divine by Storme WebberRumpus: You and I often connect through our shared Alutiiq heritage, and our mutual connection to the Seattle Native community, but I’d also like to hear about the influences that are at play in Blues Divine.

Webber: The connections to the music in the poems began with my family. We were not a family that could talk about our feelings. There had been so much abuse, and there was always this feeling that, you couldn’t tell your feelings. I think this is often true in addictive families. My mother would say: “The Authorities.” She had this great fear of “The Authorities.” It was a paranoia based in reality.

Rumpus: “The Authorities?”

Webber: Yeah, I thought it was a single word for the longest time. She’d go, “The Authorities! The Authorities!” And I’d go, “Oh my god, thethorities!” [laughs] “The Authorities” for her were welfare agents, the police—everything that could come and get us at any moment, because my mother was making her living by doing things that were illegal, as were most of the other people who were around us, so there was this sense of Sh! Don’t talk, don’t tell! But, the music was the place we could express emotions safely.

My grandmother was the first person to raise me. She had Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Dakota Staton and Dinah Washington playing, and she would sing along. She would have a drink at night, and she would sing just like Billie Holiday. Billie would drink a little bit when she’d sing, too, you know, so they would just be singing together, and that’s one of my first memories. It would be night time and she’d be singing, or we’d be getting ready to go to sleep, and her voice would just be there, rumbling. She would be telling me stories about Alaska, about being the only blonde Indian in Seldovia. So all these stories and all this music was the beginning. As I grew up, I started to love the music that told stories. Nana said the first song I sang was “Hit the Road, Jack.” The first 45 record I ever bought was “A Boy Named Sue.” And the first album I ever bought was “Ode to Billy Joe.” I played it over and over ‘til I wore the record out. These songs, though, they would all tell stories. And my mother, well she would play Isaac Hayes, who would tell a 20-minute story before he’d sing a song.

Music isn’t emotional in the same manner anymore, so I don’t know how people survive now, I wonder about that. There was so much salvation for my whole family, and for me personally, by being able to listen to something that let your feeling out, that just let you cry, without having to cry. Because my mother didn’t cry. But you could somehow cry in that moment, you could weep, you could lay it down. So, that’s where Blues Divine comes from.

Rumpus: I can hear that. You are a storyteller, and you do it through so many media—whether through your visual art, your poems, your music, your performance. It’s all about the intergenerational transfer of knowledge—it’s really pedagogical, if I can use that term.

Webber: Nana didn’t tell many stories about her adult life, but her favorite songs were “I Cover the Waterfront,” “In My Solitude,” “Travelin’ Light” “God Bless the Child.” They were all songs that instructed, that taught. And I remember my mother singing “Summertime” with me. One time, the two of us were walking to Pioneer Square, and we were going to the bar, and it was late. She was going there to sell drugs, and all the broken people were there. She sang, “One of these mornings, you’re gonna rise up singing, you’re gonna spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky.” So, my mother, who couldn’t have any kind of sensible mother-to-daughter conversation with me when I was a child, found a way to sing that song with me. Those were the magic things about the music.

Rumpus: Hearing you perform the poems from Blues Divine gives me the sense of being part of an audience as opposed to the position of just being a reader of a text. Can you talk about the intersections in your work between text and performance?

Webber: There’s a transformative process that happens when you perform, and it takes time to learn how to do it. I eventually combined my performances with music, and then for a time, collaborated with a dancer who told me, “When you’re about to perform, you see that door; you walk through it to the stage. Once you’re through, you’re in a different reality, and you’re controlling that reality.” There’s something to that, and there’s a ritual use of a voice—your voice as an instrument. There are times when I’m playing my person—I’m the instrument. People say, “everything changes about you,” and it’s not at all conscious anymore. I’ve been doing it so long that it’s no longer a conscious shift.

What I think is interesting is when the voice is as if the performer is having a conversation. Somehow it has to be artful, and contrived—but still genuine. Ideally, I want my voice to go easily from spoken, to song, and back and forth without an abrupt marking of that shift. I try to perform as though it’s just a thought running through my mind, or a feeling that just passes through me, not constrained by a “poetry voice,” or that weird thing where people might say to themselves, okay, I have to stop and pause now, because now I’m going to sing. I try not to do that either. So for me the creative part comes from cultivating a multidisciplinary approach to performance—working in theatre, working in visual arts, working with different artists who play music. I think that’s a part of our tradition as Indigenous people, and as African people. We have always used creative performance as a method of sharing knowledge.

Rumpus: If the end result is this performance of thoughts or feelings running through your mind, how do you approach your writing? What is that process like for you when you write?

Webber: [laughs] Well I always think of Dorothy Parker. She says, “I hate writing. I love having written.” I think it’s funny how we can be that way, but I start with a question—something burning in my mind. I try to clearly understand what I want to say—clear in my motivation, in my cause for telling these stories that I want to tell. Alice Walker said an interesting thing, recently. She said that the work we do teaches us so much, so it’s important that we do the work we love, because of what you’ll learn from it. For me, it’s about reconnecting with the love that’s at the root of the stories. That has also been the core part of the process for me—to keep the generative force of love at the center of the motivation. Also, doing healing work on myself, because again, we often internalize messages that tell us that our voices are not valuable. We’re taught by various experiences that we don’t deserve to be listened to, so I have to counter that—to remind myself that that is not my truth—that my voice is valuable.

Rumpus: I’m so glad you’re supported when you do send your voice out to the world, and I’m so happy that you received the prestigious Artist Trust James W. Ray Venture Project Award! Can you tell me something about Noirish Lesbiana—your next project that the Award supports?

Webber: It’s an in-process, multidisciplinary project that will be honored as part of an exhibit installed at the Frye Art Museum. It will feature my ancestors, especially the ones who raised me. These are stories about people who were hiding from everything—on the run from the law and society. One of them is my mother, who never wanted to go to places like museums because she felt excluded, like she would be looked down upon if she were to go to one. Bringing her and my other ancestors into these places will be transformative, like reviving the people and their once-hidden narratives.

Part of my work in Seattle has always felt like some sort of reconciliation project with my ancestors, because of who they were and what they went through. So in a personal sense, I’ll be able to say to my relatives, look, I’ve honored you, I’ve put you in a place where other people will honor you and see you.

Rumpus: They must be just so happy, to not be “vanishing” anymore. What will the book portion of the project be like?

Webber: Well my favorite book is an Alaskan Indigenous memoir by Ernestine Hayes called Blonde Indian. She has a genius with painting painful memories in such a delicate manner. She doesn’t lay them out explicitly. Structurally, she wove the book like a basket, mixing genres, like Deborah Miranda’s Bad Indians.

Rumpus: I love genre-busting memoir.

Webber: That’s what my book will be like. What Noirish Lesbiana will be, along with the installation piece. The longest-term, overarching theme from some of my earlier work has been Wild Tales of a Renegade Half-breed Bulldagger. That’s the vision of the memoir that has not yet manifested itself but perhaps it will be a mashup with Noirish. It’s my aim to produce that manuscript this year.

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After we paid for our seafood and left the restaurant, we went back to the rummage where Storme bought those otter pelts. She kept one, and gave the other to me. I guess we’ll have to make time for a skin-sewing party, after all.


Carol Edelman Warrior is Alutiiq (Koniag Sugpiat), Dena'ina Athabascan, A'aninin (Gros Ventre), and is an enrolled member of the Ninilchik Village Tribe in Alaska. She's a recently relocated Seattle-ite living in Ithaca, where she's a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University, teaching in the Department of English and the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program. She will begin her service as an Assistant Professor of English in July, 2016. More from this author →