Last year, MFA student Alexandra Hesbrook wrote an essay, “A Dream on Buckskin,” about making a traditional buckskin dress. For Hesbrook, who is half-Lakota and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the process of making a buckskin dress was daunting. It was a coming-of-age that brought being Lakota, and Hesbrook’s comfort with her culture, sharply into focus. “At the time, cultural identity seemed an overwhelming force—one separate from myself,” she wrote. “I was worried that others would only see the buckskin dress, not the person wearing it.”
Hesbrook’s piece was subsequently published on the Huffington Post website, in a series called Waking Youth, which explores spirituality in young people. A trained performer,Hesbrook also adapted her essay into a spoken-word piece.
We recently had the opportunity to talk with Hesbrook about the difference between writing and performing, her experiences at Oregon State and her goal of giving back to the community through creativity and education.
What is different between writing a piece like “A Dream on Buckskin” and performing it?
The biggest shift between writing and performing is imagining what the emotions feel like. Every time I perform I remind myself about the experience of making my dress, the emotions I felt at the time. Acting focuses on emotions and being present in a moment. Writing, for me, is more analytical and reflective.
Do you experience the emotions differently when you perform the piece?
Yes. When I’m performing, I’m in a conversation with an audience. Their reactions and emotions influence the performance. There’s a much more immediate and visceral quality to acting. I react with my audience.
If they laugh at something I pause so they can experience that emotion. And if they don’t laugh at something I thought they were going to laugh at, or if they gasp at something, or seem bored, I shift what I’m doing a little bit.
Do you have a history of performing?
Yes. I received my B.A in Theatre and English at Colorado College.
What made you come to OSU?
When I talked to Marjorie Sandor, the previous Creative Writing Program Director, she was very friendly and open with me. Several months later, she worked with CLA to award me the Diversity Bonus Scholarship.It blew every other school out of the water as far as financial concerns, and I had been accepted into nine other schools.
This generous offer, allowed me to get an MFA. It also allowed me to leave the program without any debt, which will help me focus on my writing when I graduate.
While I have been here, the Creative Writing program has been wonderful. The professors are always available. They are more than obliging. The community is fantastic with many generous people who are here for the same reasons I am.
Another great item about the program is, the program guarantees two years of teaching and the pedagogical resources to get better at this profession. That puts me ahead of a lot of other MFA program graduates.
At many other schools I was given a teaching contract for one year, or maybe a semester or a term, but I was rarely guaranteed the full two years. This was a very impressive aspect of this program.
What do you consider your missions with your time here at OSU?
My father grew up in extreme poverty. He benefited greatly from education. It changed his life. I am proud to follow in his footsteps and improve myself through education. I want to share our culture through the world of academics.
Teaching is very important to me and something I would like to do for the rest of my life. I’ve been a GTA here for the past year and a half. I think it’s essential for any student, but especially minority students, to have mentor figures who are like them, so they can say, ‘There are other people who are being successful at this. I’m not totally alone.’ Oregon State has been very good at providing diverse mentors for students.
Has anyone here been a mentor to you?
I have so many. All of the creative writing faculty—Marjorie Sandor, Tracy Daugherty, Susan Rodgers, Keith Scribner and Ted Leeson, have been very helpful.
One of the biggest writing challenges I face is trying to figure out how to explain parts of my culture, such as making a buckskin dress,to others without over explaining. Memories, events and terminology that seem basic to me, might need explanation to others for them to understand them the way I do. All of my professors are very good at pointing out what I need to explore more and guiding me in this process.
Do you have plans after graduation?
My long-term goal is to help other people improve themselves through education, especially other Native Americans.
Because of the history and the past that Native Americans have, education and culture oppose each other. So many languages and customs and families were destroyed by Indian boarding schools and correctional facilities. To this day many Native Americans see education as a dangerous, destructive force rather than something positive. Up until 20 or 30 years ago, it was a destructive force in these communities.
But now education has changed and there’s a new generation that could benefit from what universities have to offer. Instead of losing culture, education can help us share our culture with others and give others an idea and respect for the modern Native American.
As someone who did not grow up on a reservation – is there more of a barrier for reaching people on a reservation because you didn’t come from that area?
I think so. I’m very much an ‘urban Indian.’ I grew up in a society where I could naturally come to trust education more, just by seeing the benefits my father had, and by growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where there is a lot of integration of culture in everyday life. I think that on a reservation you feel the negative side of what government has done more strongly. It is hard to want to trust the same entity for improvement that committed genocide on your people for hundreds of years.
Do you see yourself helping change some of that culture?
In the long run I would like to make opportunities more accessible for American Indians. On Pine Ridge, in the Greater Sioux Nation in the Dakotas, for example, there’s a stark difference from the world that we live in here. There aren’t grocery stores, gas stations, or employment opportunities for miles. It’s a very rural, very poor area. Many elders live with no electricity or running water.
The best thing people can do is provide opportunities, especially opportunities that do not force American Indians to leave the reservation. I would love to help boost knowledge of what education can do and show that you can go to school and still keep your culture. We Natives can create a new definition of what education means to us.
What was your own path to writing? Was it nurtured by your father, teachers or professors?
I wrote a little in high school for fun. And then I went to college and most professors said I was a horrible writer, which I was. But one professor said, ‘I don’t have to teach you how to think, I just have to teach you how to write. ’ No one had ever put it like that before. Suddenly writing and improving my writing seemed possible.
However, working in theatre was always my main goal. Looking back, I think there were rumblings of wanting to write because I was always obsessed with plays and how plays were constructed. I’ve always been fascinated with the relationship between the live performance and the written text. But I thought I was more interested in the performance and theater side of it.
After college, I went to Chicago and worked at the Goodman Theater in production. I was convinced I wanted to do production management in theater. And there I met Rebecca Gilman, the playwright. I realized I wanted to be creative. Rather than helping others create their artistic visions, I wanted to create my own.