Decolonizing The Queer Native Body in Alethea Arnaquq-Bari’s film, Aviliaq (Entwined): The Embargo Project @ Reel Reservations

 

Aviliaq

Source

On Feb 25, 2016 I attended The Embargo Project At the Talking Stick Festival: Reel Reservations Event at the VIFF.

Before going any further, I highly recommend viewing the trailer here.

The Embargo project is a collection of short films by Indigenous Women Filmmakers. In this post I will focus on Alethea Arnaquq-Bari’s film, Aviliaq (Entwined). But for a detailed description of the project, bios of the filmmakers, and descriptions of their films go here.

Around the same time as seeing this film, I read the article, “Decolonizing the Queer Native Body,” by Queer Indigenous Feminist,Chris Finley. I have found it really helpful to engage with in my analysis of the film.

Colonization relies on gender violence and control of sexuality in its assertion of control over the settler state. While the role of gender violence in colonization has become a focus point in First Nations and Indigenous studies and communities, sexuality has not. Finley calls for “more open, sex-positive, and queer-friendly discussions of sexuality in both Native communities and Native Studies” (p. 32). She pursues this by 1) examining queered colonial discourses, which define Aboriginal people; 2) critiquing the state’s role in portraying Indigenous people as non-heteronormative because they do not conform to heteropatriarchy; and 3) critiquing Indigenous nation building that uses the settler-state as a model (p. 32).

Heteropatriarchy is perpetuated through media and film, especially through Hollywood films. The mainstream film industry is dominated by male directors and producers. However, the Indigenous film industry in Canada is made up of approximately 50% women (L. Jackson, personal communication, February 25, 2016). It should come as no surprise, then, that these Indigenous women filmmakers are creating space for the decolonization of the queer native body.

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s Aviliaq: Entwined is a short romance film set in the arctic during the 1950s. In the film two Inuit women, Ulluriaq and Viivi, try to stay together as lovers even after Viivi gets married. The two women convince Pitsiulaaq, Viivi’s husband to take Ulluriaq as a second wife so they may stay together as lovers, arguing that before colonization Inuit could have polygamous relationships. Pitsiulaaq agrees so that the women may remain together but he asserts that they must keep it a secret so they will not be arrested. Meanwhile, Ulluriaq’s family has decided to leave their territories and move to town. They arrange a marriage between her and Johnny, an Inuk man who lives in town and has a job. When Johnny sees Ulluriaq with Viivi and Pitsiulaaq he calls the police. In the end of the film, Johnny and the police carry Ulluriaq to town in a boat and Pitsiulaaq is arrested. They are all forced apart (Arnaquq-Baril, 2014).

Finley argues that heteropatriarchy is required by colonialism in order for it to “naturalize hierarchies and unequal gender relations” (Finley, 2011. p. 34). In the film we see that heteropatriarchy has been normalized for Johnny and Ulluriaq’s family, so much so that Johnny involves the police in disrupting the polygamous relationship. Ulluriaq, Viivi and Pitsiulaaq also are aware that their relationship is not “normal,” because they try to keep it a secret.

Rayna Green’s concept of the “Pocahontas Perplex,” is the image of Indigenous women represented by colonial discourses as sexually available for white men’s pleasure. Finley argues that the children of Indigenous women and white men become the white inheritors of the land because through white supremacy and patriarchy, inheritance is passed through the father. Therefore, Indigeneity is erased and since colonizing logic requires Indigenous people to disappear for the settler state to inherit the land, when the Indigenous mother gives birth, her Indigeneity must disappear to allow her offspring to inherit the land. In order for this story to work, the Indigenous woman must be heterosexual. Her body and the land must become owned and managed by the settler state (p. 35-36). Ulluriaq’s and Viivi’s love for one another is forbidden because it disrupts the Colonial narrative which allows for the conquest of Indigenous land.

Ulluriaq’s love for Viivi is tied to her love of the land. Her refusal to leave is tied to her refusal to be disconnected from the land. Moreover, staying on the land with Viivi and Pitsiulaaq allows for her to have more control over her own life, whereas life in town is subject to more control by the colonial state. Finley draws on the work of Taiaiake Alfred in her assertion that decolonization relies on sovereignty and connection to land. Finley writes:

“Native people and Native studies need to understand how discourses of colonial power operate within our communities and within our selves through sexuality, so that we may work toward alternative forms of native nationhood and sovereignty that do not rely on heteronormativity for membership.” (Finley, 2011, p. 39-40)

Aviliaq: Entwined, directed by Inuk filmmaker, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril has played a decolonizing role through the uncovering of the control asserted over Indigenous people through heteropatriarchy and control of Indigenous sexualities. Moreover, it demonstrates the ties between sexuality and sovereignty and connection to land. Finley asserts:

“Sexuality discourses have to be considered as methods of colonization that require deconstruction to further decolonize Native studies and Native communities. Part of the decolonizing project is recovering the relationship to a land base and reimagining the queer Native body.” (p. 41)

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s work and the work of other Indigenous women filmmakers and artists have a role to play within the decolonizing work of First nations and Indigenous studies, and within the Indigenous communities.

You can find Rebecca’s post on Skyworld, by Zoe Hopkins here

And find Melissa’s review of Bihttoš by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers here.

Check out the Reel Reservations Embargo Project Prezi here.

References

Finley, C. (2011). Decolonizing the Queer Native Body (and Recovering the Native Bull-Dyke). In Driskill, Q. (Ed.). Queer indigenous studies: Critical interventions in theory, politics, and literature (pp. 32-42). Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (Producer & Director). (2014). Aviliaq: Entwined [Motion picture]. (Available from ImagineNATIVE Film, 349-401 Richmond Street W, Toronto, ON, M5V 3A8)

Grand Mamas: Artists and Activists talk about their Grandmothers, Mothers, Sisters, Daughters, and Chosen Family

 

Back in February I had the immense pleasure and honour of witnessing the third annual Grand Mamas event. Grand Mamas is a space where Indigenous, Black, and racialized artists and activists share poems, stories, and songs (and sometimes a combination of the three) about the women in their lives—mothers, grandmothers, aunties, cousins, sisters, daughters, and chosen family to name but a few.

It was curated three years ago by three incredible queer femme organizers Amber Dawn, Anoushka Ratnarajah, and Jen Sung.

Amber, Anoushka, and Jen (source)
Amber, Anoushka, and Jen (source)

All the proceeds of the night go to the Downtown East Side Women’s Centre’s program “Warriors Organizing Women”, to help them in their organizing of the Annual Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women every Valentine’s Day.

So, right off the back, I think its important for me to recognize that Grand Mams is not only a space of challenging heteropatriarchy and misogyny, but it is also held in service of an anti-colonial resistance that it is already happening, and has been happening for the past 26 years.

The Indigenous performers of the night included:

Squamish, Stó:lō, and Hawaiian mother-daughter duo Cease and Senaqwila Wyss, who conducted a land acknowledgement and sang a “Winter Bird” song to welcome the Elders and the women in the room.

Cease and Senaquila (source)
Cease and Senaqwila (source)

Queer Gitxan/Tsimshian photographer and artist Jessica Wood;

Jessica Wood (source)
Jessica Wood (source)

and Cree Métis writer Samantha Nock; who (along with Jessica Wood) read original writings.

Sam Nock (source)
Sam Nock (source)

The immense love that undersocored the night can be seen in one of the poems that Nock wrote, called “pahkwêsikan’ ”, or “Bread”, which honours her Aunty and her method of cooking fry-bread as an act of self-love immediately following a breakup with a boy who left her for a white woman—and the immense insecurities and internalized racism that this breakup triggered.

I won’t say too much more because I focused on this piece for my paper, but I will talk about honouring and giving thanks—which for many Indigenous artists, is a central component to their work and life.

As Mohawk scholar Santee Smith, in her chapter “Dancing Path” from Me Artsy, says, ““Whether directly inside of a work in song or spoken word, thanksgiving is the leaping-off point.” (2015, 113)

For Smith, giving thanks has become, and I quote, “a fundamental aspect of [her] individual and artistic aspect” (113).

Giving thanks through art, she continues, orients one to be mindful not only of their relationships to other beings, but also to their connection with the spirit world. It orients one to ask:

What is the status of our humanity and our relationship with the universe today? How well are we faring as custodians of the earth, the plants, the medicines, the four-legged ones and the elements? What of the water and fish, how are they faring in our humanity? (2015, 112)

This interconnectedness through giving thanks, I think, could be seen throughout the event.

The event curated by three non-Indigenous organizers, but they gave focus and space, as well as amplified, Indigenous voices and stories.

The artists were sharing poems and songs in thanks of women in their families, whether chosen or by blood. These exchanges were intergenerational—one of the artists (they weren’t Indigenous) read a poem about their mother to their mother, who was sitting in the front row of the audience.

Again the event ultimately was to support the March honouring the lives of the missing murdered Indigenous women in the DTES, a profound expression of love, and honouring, and giving thanks.

As well, at the end of the event, Elders lead a singing of the women’s warrior song with everyone in a circle holding hands—in this to me symbolized ethical allyship—wherein settler-colonialism is acknowledged as a serious issue that needs to be addressed, and we’re coming together to further dismantle it, while the voices of Indigenous Elders and leaders are amplified and not appropriated.

As Monique Mojica explains in “Verbing Arts”, also from Me Artsy:

“Art is defence.” I art in defence of women’s bodies. “Art is action.” I art to make our knowledge speak.

I art to for that little brown girl asking, “Why war?”

Over and over again…

I art to protect our lands, waterways and breath.

I art for all the young Indigenous artists coming up fast behind me who don’t know a world without Indigenous artists in it.

…I art for you.” (28)

And so Grand Mamas, as I witnessed it, was a site of thanksgiving, connection, defence, action, and alliance-building when seen through the various lenses of Indigenous performance.

Discussion questions:

  1. How may Grand Mamas offer a glimpse into Karyn Recollet’s concept of “radical decolonial love”?
  2. How do you feel about the title “Grand Mamas”? Does it take away validity from women who are assuming different roles (familial or otherwise) in their communities?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Talking Stick to Microphone: Remembering Poet Zaccheus Jackson

On February 26th I had the amazing honour and privilege of attending the annual “From Talking Stick to Microphone” poetry slam, which was started in 2011 by (one of my heroes) Blackfoot poet Zaccheus Jackson Nyce. He sadly passed away in 2014, and so the event continues in his honour. I will talk more about him in just a bit.

The night featured some of Vancouver’s most talented Slam Poets and musicians.

The night was hosted by the ever incredible and ridiculously hilarious Tahltan/Kaska performing artist Nyla Carpentier, and was DJ’d by Vancouver-based Cree turntablist DJ Kookum.

Nyla Carpentier (photo from FaceBook)
Nyla Carpentier (photo from FaceBook)
DJ Kookum (photo from FaceBook)
DJ Kookum (photo from FaceBook)

The event itself consisted of three sections.

The first part featured youth poets from the Urban Native Youth Association, the second part featured the 2016 Van Slam team as well as Van Slam all-stars. The last section was an open slam.

So many of my dearest friends and heroes performed that night and it was absolutely unreal to have so many rad people under the same roof.

Here are a few examples:

My dear, dear friend Molly Billows from Homalco, a brilliant poet, UBC FNIS graduate, and youth facilitator. Her work touches upon reconciling her father’s whiteness with her Indigeneity and radical anti-colonial love. So we have connections to Nolan’s concepts of poison exposed and Necollet there.

Molly Billows (photo from FaceBook)
Molly Billows (photo from FaceBook)

My good friend Valeen Jules from Kyuquot (ky-YOO-kit) Sound on the Island: a ferocious writer and activist. She volunteered to be fire-keeper on Burnaby Mountain during the Kinder Morgan protests—where she kept the fire burning for protestors for up to 19 hours a day for 11 days straight. Her poetry is poison exposed in motion. One of her poems, which I don’t know the name of, compares settler-colonialism, as it is experienced in Indigenous communities, with the Hunger Games to shed a light on the extra-judicial violence that the state commits every day on Indigenous bodies. I am so in awe of her work, and she came up to me that night and told me my own writing was “deadly” and I nearly fainted from being so starstruck. She’s incredible.

Valeen Jules (photo from FaceBook)
Valeen Jules (photo from FaceBook)

The incomparable Jillian Christmas from Markham Ontario:

Jillian Christmas (photo from FaceBook)
Jillian Christmas (photo from FaceBook)

She’s not Indigenous but was nonetheless honoured as a Van Slam favourite not only because of her amazing poetry, but also because of the solidarity work she has done with Indigenous youth and with land-based resistance. One of the poems she read was for the Unist’ot’en Camp in Wet’suwet’en territory, which she wrote for an Unist’ot’en Camp fundraiser that I helped organize back in September. I love her dearly, she’s a beautiful weaver of words and a breathtaking musician, and I’m glad to call her one of my friends.

Zoey Pricelys Roy:

12718063_10153804663505700_5677647534374059897_n
Zoey Pricelys Roy (photo from FaceBook)

Métis, Cree, and Dene, Youth activist. Spoken word poet and Community leader. She also co-hosted the night. I don’t know too much about her personally, but her performances were incredibly powerful and moving. According to her bio on the event page, she left home at 13 and was incarcerated before the age of 15. It was through Youth Faciliation and various outlets of creativity (one of them being spoken word poetry) that she began her path toward healing. For Zoey too, spoken word represents Nolan’s concept of medicine.

Mitcholos Touchie, Nuu-Chah-Nulth from Tofino.

Mitcholos Touchie (photo from FaceBook)
Mitcholos Touchie (photo from FaceBook)

He’s a dragon poet with words of fire. His work, like everyone I just mentioned, exposes poison, and does so in the most unforgiving fashion. Whether calling the world he grew up in a ‘swirling pile of shit’, or announcing his bid to start a war party against the state in the next local election—his work ferociously exposes the disconnections that colonization has left in his life. His poetry is thus also medicine, as it allows him to reconnect to himself and his commitment to reviving his indigeneity and maintaining his sobriety. He has a frequent refrain where he rejects his status number and maintains “my name is Mitcholos motherfuc*ing Touchie!”. He’s definitely one of my heroes, and he actually pulled me aside during one of the breaks to perform outside for the people waiting in the rain to get in, which was a huge honour. A short clip of this performance, shot my Mitcholos himself, can be seen here:

But I want to talk more about this guy, Zaccheus Jackson.

photo source
photo source

He started this event in 2011 and sadly passed away in 2014. I did not knew him super well, but my gosh was I a fan. He came in one time as a guest speaker for this youth program I was a part of with Urban Ink, and he told us the story of how spoken word came into his life, and for him, like so many of the poets I’ve discussed, poetry was medicine, and it came by accident.

He was living on the streets of East Van and had a drug addiction. And one Monday evening he walked passed Café du Soleis where the Van Slam happens every night. He didn’t even know what a slam was, but he said he did a lot of writing to keep him grounded. And so he went in and tried it out and people absolutely loved him. He described the feeling of being heard and loved that night as the most ‘potent high he had ever experienced’. And he kept doing it, eventually breaking his drug habit

And so this this event, “From Talking Stick to Microphone”, doesn’t just represent the legacy of a beloved poet, but it represents the legacy of survival. Of futurity. Of resistance. Of connection.

What made him special, as noted by many, was his ability to connect with others. He built a community wherever he went, and with whoever he spoke to or with. People loved him.

“Broad shoulders, huge catlike grin, a large man larger than life. He held space in a room and had a laugh that was memorable, these are just some ways those who’ve known Zaccheus described him.” – Lena Recollet, Urban Native Mag

“Nobody could speak faster than him. His voice would just capture a room. It was a beautiful baritone that just shook the walls.” -Jillian Christmas, thestar.com

To see his magic yourself, check out his booming performance of fan-favourite “In Victa” below:

We miss you Zacc.

 

 

 

In Motion

I attended In-Motion in late February at the Roundhouse Performing Arts Centre. The event, part of the Talking Stick Festival, involved two separate contemporary dance pieces in sequence, followed by a Q&A panel with all of the performers.

The first piece, NDN Way was performed by Anishnaabe/Metis/Irish dancer and visual artist, Brian Solomon and Mestiza dancer/choreographer Mariana Medellin-Meinke. The piece was fairly abstract and set to a recording of Cindy Bisaillon’s 1974 interview with Cree-Metis elder and knowledge keeper Ron Evans.

I have a fairly limited background with formal dance both as a performer and a viewer, and I entered the event fairly nervous about the difficulty I would have in interpreting a plot line from Solomon’s choreographic choices. To me, it seemed to be largely an examination of the stages of life and development humans go through, linked intimately to the idea of the Sweat and the emotional/spiritual/physiological challenges endured by Sweat participants.

I also saw themes of Native erasure, resilience, freedom, struggle, and release illustrated by the ways that Solomon and Medellin-Meinke interacted with each other, and the ways their individual physical and facial expressions morphed from the beginning of the performance to the end.

In the Q & A Panel following the performance, Solomon explained some of the inspiration for the piece. Part of it, he said, came from seeing young people full of potential struggling very publicly with drug dependence on the outskirts of his neighbourhood. He also described personal struggles with health and the tragic loss of some of those close to him. I imagine the performance, which appeared at times to be very physically challenging, was a tremendous outlet for both he and Medellin-Meinke to find emotional, physical, and spiritual release from these sadnesses and struggles. As well, the recreation in a sense, of the Sweat ceremony lift that weight from the performers and the audiences alike.

As I watched the piece, I wished several times that I could pause and rewind moments so I could retrieve more meaning. I understood that there were many layers to the piece, and felt as though my lack of basic understanding of contemporary dance movement hindered my ability to delve through all of the intended projections of the choreography. In addition, there were several points where I felt the compulsive urge to move or dance along with the performers. I felt embarrassed about it until, during our presentation on the event, Vanessa mentioned a similar experience. After having had that confirmation, I decided that the urge to physically respond was more than likely the performance unlocking something within the both of us (and very likely others in attendance), although I’ve yet to give much thought to what that something is.

The second piece, Greed, was performed by Byron Chief-Moon (Blackfoot), Jerry Longboat (Mohawk-Cayuga), Olivia Davies (Welsh-Anishnaabe), and Luglio Romero (Costa Rican). The piece was introduced by the evening’s program as an examination of greed as told through the lens of a man struggling with the stock market. Chief-Moon has stated at various points that Greed was a contemporary reinterpretation of the traditional Blackfoot story of Bloodclot Boy (I will provide a link to this story at the end of my post) and the concept of triple witching (a time in the stock market where one can win or lose millions).

I found this piece much easier to interpret, I think, partially because I had heard earlier in the month from Chief-Moon himself a bit about the piece and its origins. As well, the information in the performance program provided a basic outline of the central theme, while the description of NDN Way felt more cryptic to me.

I saw plenty of Christian imagery throughout the piece; there was a point at which Chief-Moon’s head was pushed down repeatedly by the other performers that seemed reminiscent of a baptism into the religion of greed. Additionally, quite early in the performance, Davies was held aloft in a very Christ-like way. I thought it was an interesting and apt parallel to draw  between Christianity which has been responsible for the justification of much greed in the world (via the attempted takeover and annihilation of many Indigenous peoples around the world) and greed represented by the American stock market.

I feel as though both performances embody Yvette Nolan’s concept of survivance quite well; Solomon’s piece through the lens of Indigeneity surviving trauma with lightness and hope, and Chief-Moon’s piece via the struggle to maintain traditional knowledge despite Western society’s favouring of capitalism above all.

I also thought both Solomon and Chief-Moon’s very contemporary forms of storytelling were compelling, but would like to problematize the word “contemporary”. Obviously, any Indigenous performance occurring in the present is “contemporary”, but I think there is a prevalent Canadian conceptualization of Indigenous performance in particular as being wrapped up in tradition in a non-living/fluid sense of the word. These performances are different from many others I have witnessed in that they are told in very abstract ways, not ones that would necessarily be pereceived as “traditional” by outsiders/non- First Nations viewers.

Question: Byron-Chief Moon’s performing arts company COYOTEARTS, seeks to support contemporary retellings of traditional Indigenous stories. How might this effect Native and non-Native audiences differently? What are the pros and cons of opening these stories up for display in “acceptably” tradition and “non-traditional” ways? Are there better terms for traditional and contemporary that aren’t in competition?

 

See here for a (very problematic) review of Greed: http://www.vancouverobserver.com/culture/dance/demalahamid-and-circadia-indigena-dance-first-nations-experience-old-and-new

http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/BloodClotBoy-Blackfoot.html (see here for reference to the Blackfoot Bloodclot Boy story)

*End note: it was difficult to find reviews for both Greed and NDN Way, although significantly harder for the latter. Both of these pieces have been performed several times over a period of at least a year, so I found this quite interesting. Worth noting is that Greed itself is an experimental piece, and as such it has fluctuated in performers and means of presentation in the years since it opened.

Reel Reservations: the Embargo Project, “Skyworld”

Skyworld Still 1

As part of The Talking Stick Festival, I attended the film screening of Reel Reservations: Cinematic Indigenous Sovereignty Series, which is a series of short and feature Indigenous films curated by Colin Van Loon. On Thursday, February 25, I attended the film screening of The Embargo Project, a collection of short films by Indigenous women filmmakers. For this blog, I will discuss one of the films titled Skyworld by Zoe Hopkins.

Biography: Zoe Hopkins

Zoe is Heiltsuk and Mohawk from Six Nations, Ontario. She is a fluent speaker of the Mohawk language and maintains close connections with both her Heiltsuk and Mohawk roots. She received a degree in Film from Ryerson and furthered her studies at the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program. Zoe has screened films around the world at festivals including Sundance, Worldwide Short Film Festival and Berlin. She has won several awards, including the NSI Online Festival Festival’s A&E Short Filmmakers Award and the Best Canadian Short Drama at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival.

Film Synopsis: Skyworld

Part of the Embargo Project is that each filmmaker had a set of restrictions to work with. Zoe Hopkins had various restrictions to work with, including:

  • Had to be surrealist film although her recent work was comedies
  • She had to work with a different crew than normal
  • make a single-shot film
  • Use non-synch sound
  • Use hand-made props/costumes
  • Had to be influenced in some way by Caroline Monnet’s work

Zoe said, “To sum up the rules I was given by the group: I’m scared. Until I remember the point of the whole collective – to experiment without fear of failure.”

The film is an 18 minute surrealist drama about a mother’s journey after the passing of her son’s father. At the beginning, the narrator briefly describes skyworld. In Mohawk teachings, people come from skyworld and return after their passing. She said that when her husband’s passing, part of her went to skyworld as well. As part of her grieving process, the main character moves between the real world and skyworld. She moves in with her parents to help take care of herself and her son and her parents begin teaching the Mohawk language. Through her connection with family and learning the language, she is able to find healing. At the end, a year after the death of her husband, she no longer moves between the two-worlds as she embraces her son.

Witnessing

There are a lot of things that could be talked about from this film but one thing that stood out to me was the role of language. The main character is on a personal journey of grieving and healing but I think it can also be viewed as a metaphor for the colonial damage on Indigenous people and the work that is being done to repair and resist this damage. Zoe’s film can be looked at in Nolan’s terms of ceremony and healing. One of the ways language is used in this film and for Indigenous people is as a tool of healing. By understanding the world around us and our lived realities through our Indigenous language, we create a worldview that allows us to escape from cognitive imperialism. One thing that the main character in the film pointed out is that there is no word for “empty” in her language but rather everything stems from the positive, so it would be “not good” rather than “bad.” Language is a way to return and reclaim Indigenous ways of knowing and being.

Language can also be used as a tool to decolonize the presentation space. Too often, film, theatres, the stage and other performance places are colonial spaces that impose one way of knowing onto the experiences of the audience. This little room for Indigenous experiences to be validated, upheld, and discussed. The use of language immediately challenges and deconstructs that space to make it relevant to the Indigenous performers.

An Act of Medicine: From Huff to Hobiyee

On February 6th, I witnessed two performances back to back with only a 20-minute bus ride in between. Both Huff and Hobiyee were intense, with some beautiful moments, audience participation, and ceremony. Yet it was the combination of both recognizable similarities and stark contrast that struck me the hardest after having witnessed the two performances.

Huff, written and performed by Cree actor Cliff Cardinal and directed by Karin Randoja, was honestly incredibly hard to watch. The story of three brothers struggling to live on a reservation included insights into the prevalent issues of substance abuse, incest and sexual abuse, mental abuse used as punishment in the reserve school system, inadequate parenting, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, domestic violence, depression (in both adults and children), and suicide. In Medicine Shows, Yvette Nolan discusses this act of exposing poison (pages 7-19), and it is obvious that Cliff Cardinal is intentionally exposing these poisons to the wider public through his nationwide tour of Huff. The discomfort that the performance provoked testifies to this; there were more than a few moments when I felt my pulse racing, my face flushing, and my head become dizzy as visceral reactions to the trauma that was being revealed onstage. Nevertheless, Huff can also be seen as an enormous act of medicine (which Nolan discusses throughout her book). The humour felt in some moments of comic relief showed us that we were still able to laugh, and toward the end of the play Kokhum (the grandmother) conducts a healing ceremony for Wind (the middle brother) after his younger brother Huff’s suicide. Overall, the play can be seen as an grand act of good medicine. Cliff Cardinal, an Indigenous actor who is familiar with the traumas of everyday life for children on reserves, raises awareness of this in front of a mostly-elite audience. (Tickets cost $23; therefore, only those who could afford it attended the show.) In addition, the events that Cardinal depicts can reach deep inside witnesses for whom these traumas trigger certain memories, perhaps making them reconsider something they’ve forgotten or bringing to light repressed thoughts in need of healing. Throughout the performance, it became clear that Huff serves to bring together individuals and communities in order to find support in one another.

Upon exiting the Firehall Arts Centre on East Cordova Street in the Downtown East Side, I seemed to suddenly be aware of my surroundings. Exiting an environment full of awareness-raising and calls for healing into an area in which all of the poisons previously exposed are still very prevalent was absurd. I could not help but feel an enormous discomfort whilst walking to the bus stop and riding the bus for 20 minutes on my way to the PNE for Hobiyee—the Nisga’a New Year celebration.

When I arrived at the PNE, I was still feeling some leftover visceral reactions from Huff. Yet upon entering the great hall and finding myself in a crowd of thousands of people—all revelling and celebrating the largest annual gathering of Northwest Coast First Nations dance groups—my spirits were lifted. I remember feeling absolutely in awe whilst witnessing a group of hundreds of drummers (amongst whom was Professor Dangeli) perform a set of songs with synchronised movements to what truly felt like the heartbeat of the Earth. Soon afterward a friend of mine arrived, so we found some seats in the bleachers and watched a number of dance groups perform. My favourite performance (both because of my connection to Professor Dangeli and because of the inventiveness and elegance of their choreographies) was her group, the Git Hayetsk Dancers. I especially enjoyed their innovative “Photographer Dance”, which I suppose was inspired by Professor Dangeli’s PhD research. I was also very impressed as to how quickly the dancers, especially Professor Dangeli, changed regalia in between each dance. Revelry surrounded us, as seen by the food, the packages of fresh fruits handed out to guests, and the smiles on people’s faces. Between many of the songs, a leader with the microphone would sing a joyous “Hooobiyeeeeeee”, which was then echoed by all of the witnesses in the stadium. What a change to the tears, shivers, and headaches that we had experienced earlier at Huff.

Huff and Hobiyee can, on one hand, be seen as performances on opposite sides of a spectrum: one exposing the extreme difficulties of everyday life for Indigenous residents of reserves, and the other celebrating an occasion that has taken place annually for thousands of years (the enormous number of attendees more than testifying to, but rather shouting: “We are still here!”). On the other hand, both performances are acts of medicine. Huff brings together those in need of healing, and Hobiyee can provide that healing through community, tradition, and celebration. Witnessed one after the other, these two performances together told an incredible story of struggle, healing, and resurgence.

Jack Charles vs. The Crown – Witnessing

On January 23rd I attended the theatre performance, “Jack Charles vs. The Crown.” This production is part of the PuSH festival in Vancouver. This festival was introduced as a festival to bring in performing art productions from around the world to Vancouver. Jack Charles vs. The Crown has been performed around the world and has received positive reviews everywhere it goes. Jack Charles wrote his piece with the help of John Romeril. The inspiration to make his story a theatre production came from the positive response he received from his documentary, Bastardy, which was released in 2008.

Jocelyn Macdougall, from the PuSH international performing arts festival, gave the opening remarks to the production “Jack Charles vs. The Crown”. She spoke about the festival it self and then she recognized the land we were on. This acknowledgement of the land was both thorough and heartfelt. She talked about all the territories that the theatre was located upon and went on to describe the meaning of unceeded and stated, “this is land that was not freely given.”

The space itself was set up much like that of a living room on the far right, with a band on the far left side of the stage. In the back center of the stage there was a pottery wheel. This wheel was used at many different times throughout the production. The set made you feel as though he was simply telling you a story and you were in his living room with him, or beside him as he worked in his pottery shop rather than being in a theatre. This lighthearted atmosphere helped people feel at ease as he told his life story and the hurt and pain within it. It reminded me of sitting with my grandmother as we had tea and she talked about when my dad was a little boy. Listening to her stories has been a big part of my life and hearing Jack’s stories reminded me of sitting in my grandmother’s living room and listening to whatever she wanted to share with me.

As the lights dimmed the band members came to the stage and started playing a slow, melancholy piece. Jack came out to the stage and sat behind the pottery wheel. He proceeded to work with the clay on the wheel and mold it into a beautiful piece of art. While he was working on his pottery there was a clip rolling behind him from his documentary, Bastardy. The clip was of him taking drugs. It was a very powerful clip that caused many in the audience to divert their eyes, cringe and squirm in their seats. I initially looked away as many around me did. Then I realized the courage he had to share this part of his life, this reality that I couldn’t personally relate to, but wanted to try and understand. So I watched as he put a needle in his arm and talked about the way the drugs don’t’ effect him as much anymore. He had used them for so long that people around him couldn’t tell if he was high or not.

Throughout the production Jack tells stories in chronological order of his life. Within each part of his life he has faced racism, oppression, and pain. When he was in boarding school he had a few pictures to share. One of these pictures was in the winter where he had a chunk of snow on his head. This snow was a metaphor for the world he had inhabited. His world was filled with white all around him, and there was him, the only dark skinned student. During his time at the boarding school he was also asked to sing a song. This song was about how the white man had helped the Aboriginal peoples on the land, and without the white man they wouldn’t be successful. At the time he didn’t realize what the song was about and why he was asked to sing it. He was simply proud of himself for being asked to sing a song. The school had taken advantage of the colour of his skin and asked him to perform a song that was demeaning and hurtful towards his people.

Watching the production you can already tell that the pottery wheel is an important aspect of Jack Charles’ life. He repeatedly returns to the pottery wheel throughout the piece and seems to be very comfortable talking about hard issues when he is behind the wheel. He speaks of pottery as his way of finding freedom. Pottery was his release. He expressed his feeling when working with pottery as a way of setting him free, making him feel like a child playing in the mud. His life was determined by the crown, it was shaped and molded by the crown and all he was, was a number to them. His prison number was how he was seen. His past followed him wherever he went and was described by him as something that shadowed and stalked him. When he was molding the clay he had control of his life. He could mold it in anyway he wants. He created 3 different pottery pieces throughout the show and added them to a shelf behind him. They were all different shapes and sizes and each one unique and beautiful.

Hobiyee- The Nisga’a Lunar New Year

On February 6th 2016, I attended Hobiyee- the Nisga’a Lunar New Year at the PNE. I was able to witness about 6 different dance groups as well as the drum drill. Each group was incredibly unique, talented and exciting to watch. While in attendance I paid specific attention to protocol: the entirety of the dance floor was designated for whichever dance group was performing at the time and we were explicitly told not to cut across the back of the dance floor. The audience was told to rise as dancers entered and as they exited the dance floor, additionally there were seats designated at the front for elders. Every dance group began their performance by thanking their Coast Salish hosts and detailed the communities and territories they were coming from. Every song and dance was introduced and the story attached to the song was told. Performers stated whether the song was contemporarily created or if it has been passed down and by whom.

Aside from protocol there were a few notable phenomena that I wanted to include in my witnessing account of the event. First of all, I noted that there were a number of dancers in wheelchairs. I appreciated that the presence and seeming acceptance of such dancers who subverted notions of ableism that stem from colonial norms distinguishing desirable bodies from tolerated and deviant bodies. This act of radical inclusion did not seem radical at all and from what I could perceive was incredibly normative in the space.

Additionally, I found after spending a full day at the Hobiyee celebration I was able to recognize the various dances from the Coast Salish clans in attendance. A member of the Iswalh dance group said earlier on in the day that “our songs and dances tell the stories of who we are as people”. By the end of Hobiyee I felt I had a much better grasp of who the coastal nations were, as well as certain aspects of their cultures that were portrayed through dance to hold significance.