- The Good: Native life in Alaska focusing on an actor-turned-fugitive and his trial
- The Bad: Leaves you with more questions than answers
- The Literary: Unusual structure that comes together in the end
In rural native Alaska, James Dommek Jr., the great-grandson of the last of the Inupiaq storytellers, investigates the true-crime tale of Teddy Kyle Smith. Teddy was a successful indigenous Alaskan actor whose career was on the rise in independent films featuring natives. But one night in September 2012, Teddy’s mom dies, followed by a gunshot, a manhunt, and bloodshed. Teddy escapes into the wilderness, where he claims he was followed by Iñukuns, a mythological tribe of the Inupiaq.
I really like this short audiobook, which reads more like an extended podcast. James is a great storyteller, weaving threads of official records, personal interviews, and his own journey to retrace Teddy’s footsteps and understand who Teddy was. James didn’t know Teddy personally, but being a native from Alaska, he knew a lot of the same people. He provides intimate conversations with those who knew Teddy best, usually straight from their living rooms, together with court recordings, and eerie atmospheric music and ambiance.
I love the rough and unfiltered documentary look at the rural lifestyle, and cadence and tone of the natives. I love the consideration given to the mysterious and mischievous Iñukuns, a myth that many natives still honor and uphold today. Not only is the native myth on display, but Dommek uses the opportunity to explore modern native life, mental illness, alcoholism, cultural appropriation in Hollywood, and, most interestingly, government systems that fail natives. In a retrial, Teddy claims he wasn’t tried by his peers, as the entire jury was white, even if they lived geographically in the nearest town. The judge ruled otherwise.
Teddy’s story morphs from a fairly clear-cut case of attempted murder and mental illness into a larger conversation about how we honor and respect those different from us, especially in our modern secular world, and how the justice system is not optimized for all Americans.
Highly recommended for anyone interested in rural native life. If you’re a true-crime buff, this might be a little outside your wheelhouse, but it’s worth it!