While Brent Florendo was growing up on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon, his mother would tell stories of their Wasco heritage to help others understand American Indian culture.

While Brent Florendo was growing up on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon, his mother would tell stories of their Wasco heritage to help others understand American Indian culture.

Now the Southern Oregon University Native American Studies instructor is continuing that tradition with a musical he's written based on his mother's stories.

Called "Raccoon Earns His Stripes,"the musical will open Friday, Feb. 24, in SOU's Center Square Theatre and continue through March 11.

"I'm a modern Wasco Indian," Florendo said, referring to the tribe of the Columbia River Basin and Cascade Mountains. "I'm a theater person, I'm educated, and when I graduated out of the theater department this was my capstone proposal, to take my traditional stories and turn them into a musical and keep the traditional components in it.

"It took 15 years to come to this place, and that's why we're doing this play right now."

Incorporating elements of Wasco dances and songs written by Florendo, the play tells the story of Raccoon as he finds that everything in the world is alive.

"I'm so excited, but I'm terrified at the same time," said Florendo. "I hope I do my people justice. As an artist I hope my art is sufficient, because it's the first time I've produced a play."

SOU Professor Chris Sackett will direct the play, which features SOU students as storytellers.

Florendo was adamant that certain components of storytelling were upheld in the production.

"I consider myself a traditional storyteller because my mom taught me these set of rules that I, as a Wasco storyteller, would utilize," said Florendo.

One rule is untying a storytelling belt at the beginning of a story and retying it at the end. This signifies finishing what you start, Florendo said.

"More importantly I did the same thing every time, tie the knot, untie the knot," said Florendo, "and I said to myself, 'What's the same thing every time in my stories?' It's the teachings. You must keep the teachings in the story, or you're not true to the oral tradition, because that's how we taught, through language. Not through writing, or computers, or recordings, it was through speaking and hearing."

Another rule is that the storytelling take place in the winter, not in summer, when it was time to hunt and gather food that would keep their families fed through the dormant months.

Florendo said Wasco storytellers would point to someone in the audience to continue the story. Members of the cast in "Raccoon Earns His Stripes" will use this technique to further the story. This tradition is about accountability and listening skills, he said.

"If you knew you were going to listen to a storyteller and he might point at you, then you know you'd better be listening," said Florendo. "This also shows the storyteller who is a good storyteller and who should continue on the traditions."

Another Wasco tradition is call-and-response. When the storyteller says, "uh," the audience is expected to respond with, "nah." To the Wasco people, this call-and-response means "out my mouth, to your ears, and out your mouth exactly as you heard it," said Florendo.

Students acting in "Raccoon Earns His Stripes" seem to appreciate the opportunity to do something culturally different.

"It's a great opportunity because this is a Native American story from a Native American playwright," said Zlato Rizziolli, a senior at SOU who plays a storyteller. "I think we're learning so much because he's (Florendo) so sincere in being part of this."

Florendo had his sister, JoAnn Smith, a Warm Springs elder, come to the theater to smudge the space and perform a blessing. She also brought with her artifacts to help the actors visualize the objects in the play, such as the traditional basket hat that Grandmother (a character in the play) wears and a medicine stick.

"It's really interesting and different because it's a children's show," said Chelsea Acker, a senior at SOU who also plays a storyteller. "We've been workshopping the show and it's way more active. His style (speaking of Florendo) is very fluid, he lets us figure it out."

For Florendo, it was important for the actors to see the real tribal artifacts that feature prominently in the play. "It's just an added thing for the actors so they know the stuff they are doing is for real. They are not playing Indians," said Florendo. "These parts are written as Wascos, so they are Wascos. The last thing we wanted was a bunch of white kids playing Indian."

Florendo said a production of this kind is unusual in theater.

"Where is Native America in the theater? It's almost non-existent," he said. "It's only until now that Native people have gotten to a place where we can represent ourselves. That's what I feel like I am doing on behalf of Indian people for this play, I take that as a personal feather in the hat."

Mandy Valencia is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach her at avalencia@mailtribune.com.