Riel’s Prophecy

The new confidence of Aboriginal theatre

Illustration by Davide Di Saro

My people will sleep for one hundred years. When they awake, it will be the artists that give them back their spirit.Louis Riel

It is a sunny late afternoon in June, and up on the fifty-sixth floor of cibc’s head office building in Toronto, the bank’s youthful president, Gerry McCaughey, is presiding over the launch of the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, musing about the contribution of native culture to Canada’s prosperity and about such role models as Mohawk Roberta Jamieson. The bank has been one of the lead sponsors for fourteen years, and Jamieson, a former chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River and provincial ombudsman of Ontario, recently took over as president of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation (naaf), which organizes the awards. McCaughey is followed by Jim Flaherty, the federal minister of finance, who also rhapsodizes about Jamieson and what naaf has accomplished. He’s known her since his Ontario days and is clearly a fan. “It’s what Canada is about,” he gushes. “This is a country of opportunity, and when preparation meets opportunity good things happen.”

Judging from the list of award recipients since 1994 — over 200 remarkable individuals, including such international stars as Haida carver Bill Reid, Mohawk rock guitarist Robbie Robertson, and Cree playwright Tomson Highway — preparation and opportunity have been meeting for some time. This wasn’t the case when these artists were young and Chief Dan George, famous for his role in the Dustin Hoffman film Little Big Man, was the only aboriginal artist mainstream Canada had heard of. Less widely known was the chief’s historic appearance in the original production of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, one of the plays that launched the independent theatre movement in Canada. Written by Ukrainian Canadian George Ryga, Rita Joe is the story of a young aboriginal woman who meets violent death in the city. It is an utterly contemporary and Canadian tale — one taking place on a regular basis a few streets over from the Vancouver Playhouse, where the play premiered in 1967.

It was two decades before the other shoe dropped. That was when Highway burst into the mainstream with The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, plays that won audiences, acclaim, and, amazing for anyone coming from the fringe, commercial success. The plays depict contemporary reserve life in the raw and with startling intimacy. No sensitivities are spared — as with the infamous scene in Dry Lips when Dickie Bird Halked, a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome, rapes Patsy Pegahmagabow with a crucifix. In the original Passe Muraille/Native Earth production, Patsy (the trickster figure in the play) was portrayed by Odawa-Mohawk Gloria May Eshkibok, wearing a huge set of fake breasts that shuddered like a foundering ship as Dickie Bird smashed into her. Such imagery was bound for controversy. Highway was accused of misogyny and sensationalism, charges often refuted with a line from the program notes: “Before the healing can take place, the poison must be exposed.” Undoubtedly, he was telling tales on his people, but the real target was colonial history, the massive cultural trauma behind the sexual violence.

Highway puts mythology at the heart of his project. “The mythology of a people is the articulation of the dreamworld of that people,” he writes. “Without that dreamlife being active in all its forms — from the most extreme beauty to the most horrific and back — the culture of that people is dead.” Plays are but one manifestation of this dynamic, crafted “to fit, snugly and comfortably, the medium of the stage.”

While Highway remains the best-known aboriginal playwright in Canada, he wasn’t a lone phenomenon. Alongside him was a generation of superbly talented artists, dancers, singers, and storytellers who simply set up shop, started crafting plays, training the actors, and organizing the companies to produce them. One of them was Cree/Saulteaux actor/director Margo Kane (Confessions of an Indian Cowboy), who similarly saw her work in terms of the revitalization of indigenous community. “We were very conscious about what we had to do, what theatre could do, and what we could do as artists to contribute to our communities’ well-being,” she says.

In Vancouver, Kane created Full Circle First Nations Performance as a place where local aboriginal artists could congregate to “train together, develop a vocabulary together and a way to work based on teachings we’d learned.” These included the concept of collaborative creation, where performances evolve through the interaction between actors, dancers, and singers, and scripts are treated as works-in-progress. In Toronto, Highway helped establish Native Earth Performing Arts and came on as artistic director in 1986, focusing on the development of writers. Collaboration with non-native companies was proving difficult, as demonstrated by the turbulent partnership of writer Maria Campbell (Halfbreed), a Metis (she uses the term Michif ), and playwright Linda Griffiths (Age of Arousal) in the creation of the play Jessica. (The two women documented their Manichean struggle with racism in The Book of Jessica.) Jessica underscored the importance of building native theatre from the inside out. “Like the original company of Rita Joe, the creators of Jessica were empathetic but at the core not Native,” writes Algonquin playwright Yvette Nolan (Annie Mae’s Movement), Native Earth’s current artistic director.

This February, Nolan took Death of a Chief, an aboriginal adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, to the National Arts Centre, in Ottawa. Death pares down and reconstructs the play, moving from Rome to “Rome, Ontario”: chief gets elected, gets too big for his britches, gets overthrown. The play has been in development for three years at this point, and some thirty artists have had a hand in it in the course of three workshops. Guided by Nolan and Shakespearean voice teacher Kennedy C. MacKinnon, the artists delved into the play, identifying points of connection with metaphor and plot, and then negotiated a translation into aboriginal terms. Their point of departure was a single line spoken by Brutus, “Th’abuse of greatness is when it disjoins / Remorse from power,” a kernel of truth where the Western and the indigenous could meet.

But what to do with all those swords? Or Caesar’s ghost coming to tell Brutus he’d see him again at Philippi? “In our cultures, ghosts don’t come with so little to say,” Nolan says with a smile. The retelling introduces the female point of view, along with some gender reversal: Caesar is played by Kuna-Rappahannock playwright Monique Mojica (Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots), and her husband, Calpurnius, by Cree actor and Corner Gas star Lorne Cardinal. This instantly sexualizes the plot and underscores the blind capacity of power to corrupt anyone who messes with it. Death of a Chief cuts close to the contemporary bone.

The first challenge of native theatre will always be that of relating an aboriginal world view to an outside (and largely non-aboriginal) audience, drawing on tradition while respecting it. Okanagan writer Jeannette Armstrong understands this tug-of-war between city and reserve. “It’s like a split in the road. The decision to try to survive, to get to present the work and find an audience leads to other decisions and compromises.” How far do you go to fit into an alien art form? How far can you hope to bend it to your way? Even if there is an affinity between the oral tradition and theatre, they are profoundly different enterprises. Western drama, for example, demands a central character (which neither of Tomson Highway’s hits possesses) and some sort of conflict. The latter is a problem if you come from a culture where only two activities permit it: hockey and lacrosse, as Delaware playwright Daniel David Moses will tell you: “I resisted the imposition of naturalistic forms on our oral culture, and this is why my work uses ceremonial gestures as a way of creating moments when contact is made and you break down the fourth wall.” Moses is known for his reliance on poetics and epiphany rather than plot. He searches for unusual ways into stories, such as in Almighty Voice and His Wife, where the dead hero returns in whiteface so the story can unfold in another realm.

Dene-Metis playwright Marie Clements is equally daring in her mix of the rational and the supernatural. Her evocative play The Unnatural and Accidental Women has been described as “docu-memory.” It chronicles the serial murders of aboriginal women by a Vancouver barber, which went undetected for thirty years. “Marie took a lot of flak for the structure of that play,” says Nolan, who directed it for Native Earth in 2004. “The first act is so different from the second, and you’re not sure if the central character is really central.” The dominant image in the first act is indeed the barber and his chair, where the killings are re-enacted. Scores of women dying with blood alcohol levels as high as 0.91, and no one connects the dots, or imagines a balding sadist whose murder weapon is a few words: “Down the hatch, baby.” But the barber is not the driving force, and in the second act, when his victims gang up on him, this becomes obvious. “It’s in the title. It’s the women, all of them together, who are central,” Nolan explains. As Clements says herself in the play notes, the first act is about memory and the search for lost lives. You could say the second act is about revenge.

Accidental is hugely cathartic, a complex and crowded piece that runs on multiple layers of meaning. This multiplicity is found in all aboriginal plays to some degree, because of the commingling of Western protocols with the traditions of indigenous performance, where much is communicated through gesture, rhythm and silence. At the same time, because the work is being created by an urban diaspora of aboriginal artists from all over North (and South) America, the collaboration also embraces cultural hybridity in a way that gives new meaning to the Canadian idea of the multicultural.

To Cree actor/director Floyd Favel (Lady of Silences), the creation of a body of indigenous work that is now studied in universities, performed in Europe, and available in bookstores is a huge achievement, but he sees “playwright-driven theatre” as one specialized kind of performance. His own practice works “through ensemble, improvisation, research of theme, and development of physical actions based on personal or cultural sources.” He recently collaborated with Monique Mojica and Kuna Oswaldo DeLeón Kantule in Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way, using “visual art, mola textiles, cosmo vision, and pictographic writings of the Kuna.” The enterprise drew on the physical, intellectual, and spiritual resources of the artists, through a process Mojica describes as “transcribing, transposing, and transforming” — the latter occurring when the work finally acquires dramatic structure. “I’ve been crawling around massacre piles for more than a decade now,” she says, “and while I do not discount our victimization, I ask myself, what happens if I tell the story from another point in the circle, where I am not broken?” It is not a bridge she seeks, but a place where rupture can be reconstructed and historical memory recovered.

Native theatre has now reached a stage where it is making demands and taking liberties. It has established its own multidisciplinary tradition and collective aesthetic, and has the authority as well as the chutzpah to tug on Shakespeare’s cape. Death of a Chief does more than adapt; it appropriates Caesar. Words are altered, scenes are moved, swords are replaced with rocks, soothsayers speak Ojibwa, and Caesar’s ghost arrives with the portentous news that Portia has taken her own life.

It has been a quarter century since Native Earth was founded, when, as Highway has said, you could count the number of professional native writers in Canada on one finger. A second generation has been nurtured into being. Today there is a network of theatre organizations run by indigenous artists spanning the country, and a community of theatre artists pushing in new directions: playwright Alanis King at the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company, pioneering work performed (sometimes entirely) in the native language; and Teme-Augama Anishinabe performer/artistic director Sandra Laronde’s Red Sky Performance, pursuing a global expression of indigenous culture.

The underside of this achievement is the extreme fragility of the edifice holding it together. Five years ago, Native Earth, the country’s oldest and presumably most stable professional aboriginal theatre company, was close to folding. Extreme overwork and low pay are common enough in the arts, but in aboriginal theatre the entire community runs on burnout. Most affecting, though, is the failure of mainstream Canadian theatre to support aboriginal work by picking up and producing native plays. After the fanfare of the 1980s, the mainstream moved on. Native theatre thrived, but did so on the margins, in studio spaces the larger companies rented out to them. Says Ric Knowles, the editor of Canadian Theatre Review, “It’s seen as patronizing native theatre, and it absolutely is patronizing.” It is also upstaged by such projects as the nac’s co-production with Native Earth, which brought serious resources to the table.

Meanwhile, Knowles observes a shift in orientation. “What I see is not a native theatre versus mainstream dynamic, but a solidarity across minoritized groups emerging. Yvette Nolan calls it the Brown Caucus, and they are all working really closely together.” This coalescence of talent and energy is marked by a diminishing interest in chasing mainstream recognition that Knowles finds healthy. De-ba-jeh-mujig Theatre Group is a case in point. Situated on the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island, Debaj transformed itself twelve years ago, quite dramatically, as executive director Ron Berti recounts: “We spun our chairs around in the office one day and stopped looking at ourselves in relation to the mainstream.” With a $360,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to fund the revolution, they started investing in artists. Instead of training them only to lose them to Toronto, Berti put them on salary for four years, and ended up with a string of animators in communities across the North. His scheme was to develop a resource pool of artists and community projects that would be mutually sustaining. The success of Debaj is instructive for two reasons. It illustrates the value of support from aboriginal leadership, and the transformative effect of a financial leg up. It proves Minister Flaherty’s point about preparation meeting opportunity.

Louis Riel’s prophecy has seeped into popular culture, reaching far beyond its time and circumstance. Many people know it today, and some can pinpoint the moment they first heard it. For Jeannette Armstrong, it was at a performance of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe in Penticton, BC, after which Chief Dan George spoke. “At the time, I was an alien in my own country; it struck a chord that explained why there was such a silence in terms of the arts. I was stunned by it — and by the play, which was so accessible and beautiful.” Armstrong eventually discovered the words the chief used were essentially Riel’s, but the damage was done. She found validation and began a quest to connect with other artists, which eventually led her to found the En’owkin Centre, a post-secondary fine arts and language institution, in 1981.

When Yvette Nolan was growing up in Winnipeg, the prophecy seemed more like a wish. “But when I came to Native Earth, I began to see it like a self- fulfilling prophecy: ‘OK, he said it, so I can believe it.’” To her and many others, Riel was talking about what happens once you get past survival, when it is time “to revive the art of living.” It may not resonate with everyone’s history, but the prophecy keeps popping up: a walk-on part in the Turtle Gals’ recent piece, The Only Good Indian, and the hero’s parting shot in Metis Shane Belcourt’s recent film, Tkaronto. “Riel said our people would be asleep for a hundred years. Well, guess what? Time’s up. I’m done being asleep.”

According to Maria Campbell, you won’t find the prophecy in Riel’s letters and diaries, all of which she’s read. But she recognizes the words as his, and heard them first from Metis leader Jim Brady, who was active in the mid-twentieth century. Another pioneer in the Metis movement, Malcolm Norris, told her they had made a mistake back then in not working with artists. Roberta Jamieson would agree. “Artists are the visionaries. They ask us to confront the difficult questions, to dream, to rise above and move beyond. That voice is needed in government.” Which is why she instituted an arts and culture portfolio at Six Nations.

It may be hard, as someone put it, to be an artist when there’s no potable water on the reserve, but Campbell is adamant. “The leadership needs to speak up. If casinos can take money from the community, some should go back to the community for more than country and western shows. It would be to their credit to be seen standing beside their artists.” There may be irony in this, but there is also radical hope.

It was Chief Dan George who promised Canadians that his people would shatter the barriers of their isolation. Conflicts like the standoff at Caledonia may seem to deny the mutual understanding this prophecy implies, but native theatre tells another story.

Susan Crean