Native American Tim Gleason chats about Brother of All and his heritage

Tim's arm tattoo that means Cherokee blood.

Brother of All director Traci Brant took a moment to chat with actor Tim Gleason about his heritage, the play, and tattoos. 

Tim, you play Wohali in Brother of All who is Cherokee, what is your own Native American heritage?

Chickamauga, otherwise known as Lower Cherokee. The Chickamauga were a faction of the Cherokee in North Carolina who refused to move and be relocated. They also refused to assimilate to the ways that were being imposed upon them in North Carolina so they broke off under the leadership of [chief] Dragging Canoe and Doublehead and moved into eastern Kentucky. My Great Grandfather was born in Jackson County, Kentucky; and later moved to Seelyville, Indiana, before coming north to work in the steel mills. He was Chickamauga Cherokee, Red Paint Clan.

Unfortunately, it is rare to have the opportunity to play a Native American on stage. What has this opportunity meant to you?

I appreciate that Jim [Henry] has written a Native American character that is not stereotypical. There are lots of emotions, lots of enthusiasm and humor, which is different from some of the stereotypically stoic representations of natives in past film and theatre.

Talk about how legends and native culture play a role in this production.

I think that Jim, being a storyteller himself, finds a kinship with the idea of Indian legends. As a storyteller, he is using the concept of Native legends to help mold and create his own, very unique, story.

You were instrumental in obtaining many of the native artifacts that adorn the set for Brother of All. What was that like?

I travel to as many local powwows as I can. There aren’t nearly as many here in the Midwest as there are in areas like the Southwest. For this, I traveled to a powwow in Lebanon, Indiana, and looked through all of the vendors to find pieces that not only spoke to the play and the story we’re trying to tell, but also pieces that are large enough and striking enough to project a strong visual image onstage. At any given powwow, the main events are the dancing and the singing, but there are also many vendors there who offer a great variety of handmade items. It’s a very serious legal issue to make sure that any non-Native items are clearly marked, as such. Naturally, I opted for Native-made pieces, exclusively; and chose pieces best-suited to compliment the vision created by Jim, Traci and Jonni.

What’s your favorite piece?

The antler mobile. I like that it’s very organic with these animal pieces and parts, and yet, it’s meant to be used as adornment—as a mobile—in a child’s room.

You have a number of tattoos. How are they related to your native heritage?

When I was first deciding to get tattooed, it was an easy decision for me to choose the palette I wanted to go with. There was no rebellion or act of defiance in getting tattooed. Most of my family is heavily tattooed. The choice was all about finding something that meant a great deal to me and would also be something that would never change. It was then I decided to go with a representation of my Indian blood. I chose a lot of Cherokee symbols. I have some Cherokee syllabary on my arm. It’s actually the word that represents blood in Cherokee—gi gv.

I also sought motifs from tribes across the world. There was a native artist, Andy Abeita, whom I met when I was a teenager. I spoke with him about the anger and the angst that I was feeling as I was discovering the atrocities that had been committed against Native people in recent history. He was very quick to advise me to not only learn of my own heritage, my own tribe, but also to have an understanding of all tribes and the struggle of all native people in North America. So, I’ve chosen to go with a broad native motif that represents all native cultures in North America.

How did being Native American influence you growing up?

There is a very strong sense of pride in my family. There was an identity that I believe made us closer …and provided a strong connection to our extended family…aunts, uncles, cousins. Knowing that we shared this Indian blood brought us closer together. It was unique to be of Native heritage in this area because there is not a large concentration of Indian people in Northwest Indiana.

I had a strong sense of identity and pride, but the culture also influenced me spiritually. I’ll never forget this one particular moment when I was very, very young—probably 6 years old. I was alone, outside in my backyard and it was a summer day, very windy…the gusts were coming at me from all directions. It was like the wind was wrapping its arms around me. And I just knew, in that moment, that it was my Great Grandfather. I felt it so strongly that I actually said the words 'hi, Grandpa.' I was as a young child and not yet influenced by movies or popular culture, just a boy being visited by someone very, very special. I will never, ever forget that moment.

You’ve been involved with the process of this play with Jim Henry almost since its inception. How have you seen the play evolve?

I’ve seen the play evolve through Jim’s courage to combine so many different story elements and truly make them his own. He’s really embraced the Native texture of the show and added that to his own incredible talents as a storyteller.

With regard to Native American culture, what do you hope the audience gets out of this play?

I would hope they walk away with the understanding that Indian culture is still very much alive and present in the world. People have a tendency to see Native culture as something of the distant past. I think that a show like this--that is set in the present with challenging contemporary issues, and yet has a Native American motif--will maybe bring some awareness to audiences that Native people are still here, still surviving…that our spirit has not been broken.