FLAGSTAFF -- Rachel Tso has been involved in drama most of her life, so she said having her daughter, Camille, follow in that interest is no surprise.
Tso has been involved in plays since childhood, and ever since she served as a counselor in training at the local YMCA, she has been coming up with ways for kids to get into skits.
Tso studied drama in high school, where she was president of the Thespian Society. After high school, she took a full year of drama classes at the Florida School of the Arts. She received her degree in Environmental Communications in 1995 from Antioch.
One of the requirements to receive that degree brought her to northern Arizona and the Navajo Reservation. She was required to do a cross-cultural co-op, where students work in the field in their chosen discipline.
"All of my friends were going to the south of France, and basically, I couldn't afford it," Tso said. "I had seen the Big Mountain slide show by Mary Alter, and it really affected me. She said that the elders there were needing help, and it fit all the requirements for a cross-cultural co-op so I came on out."
She said her arrival in northern Arizona was complicated by an impossibly long journey to Big Mountain under the guidance of an individual she knew only as "Paco the Peyote Man."
She arrived at the beginning of the Sun Dance there, where a "very large white lady" started screaming at her. By this time, Tso was strongly thinking about home. But she finally met her contact, Rebekah Reppert. It was Reppert that connected Rachel to her future in-laws.
"Francis, Calvin and Fiona [Tso] placed me at the home of Jenny Manybeads, who I helped care for, for three months. Every now and then Francis would ride by on his horse and ask if I was okay, and I'd say yes," Rachel laughed.
During a second visit, Rachel produced her own documentary movie about Big Mountain, entitled "Crimes against Humanity," in which Francis served as translator. Rachel and Francis were married in the summer of 1994.
Even at Big Mountain, Rachel taught drama, starting a little hogan school for the community where children of all ages joined her in turning every book available into a play. Years later, in 2004, she accepted a teaching position at the STAR School, near Leupp, where she became involved in the production "Tolchaco."
"We spent the first half of the year researching the events surrounding this story, sorting through all of the different viewpoints," Rachel said. "We started with 1799, one hundred years before the event, and looked at what the community was like, what did members do, what did they wear, what did they think?"
The play was written with the seventh- and eighth-grade class, and was a challenge for Rachel, who had written plays in small groups before, but never one including so many people.
"I broke the event into 10 scenes and each group was assigned two, and the kids would work on those. As this went on, I'd find more information about their individual events, and sit with each group, assisting in the development. Steve Babcock (another teacher at the school) wrote a scene and I wrote a scene."
Eventually, it was Tso's job to make these disjointed parts flow freely.
"I'd rewrite it. We'd try to do a scene to see what would and wouldn't work, and finally I got to the final rewrite where I finally thought, 'this is good enough.' The bones of the play were written by the kids. The script still had their initial ideas, but because it was to be performed, I knew it had to flow together better."
Tso's daughter, Camille, who is featured in "Into the West," took the part of Desbah the narrator.
The play featured the masks made under the direction of Zarco Guerrero, a master mask-maker who worked with STAR School students as part of a grant provided by the Coconino County Arts Consortium and the Museum of Northern Arizona, with assistance from the Learn and Serve program of STAR School (Arizona Department of Education).
"The good part of the mask was that there were kids who were so shy to get up and perform," Tso said. "The masks gave them confidence and helped them to physically present their character rather than rely on facial expressions."
Camille's mask transformed her into an old woman.
"I liked the mask, I thought it was cool. I like how Zarco did the whole thing in a week," Camille said. She said that Zarco worked with the students to make a 'younger' mask, but the masks for the play were finished by the master mask maker.
"My only regret in doing 'Tolchaco' is that I wasn't able to keep my mask," Camille said. "I would like to have it as a reminder of the play."
Though producing the play was a major undertaking--Tso worked on it alongside her other duties as an English, literature and writing teacher.
"When I think of Dewayne Nelson, and the other students who blossomed under it, I know it was worth it," Rachel said. "A lot of the kids--Nia Garza, Jenny Howell, Lucas Johnson, Brenda Russell--came into their own."
Tso has given up her teaching position to enter Northern Arizona University, where she plans on continuing her work with drama and communications.