Intersection of Space: A response to Performing Turtle Island
As an artist but also a scholar, the tensions straddling not just two but multiple worlds becomes obvious in spaces such as a performance studies conferences. This particular node of PSi was based at the First Nations University of Canada on Treaty Four territory and supported by the collaborative efforts of the University of Regina and FNUC. The conference offered its guest and hosts many rich and varied layers of engagement: spaces where elements of ritual, ceremony, honouring and story weaving came together in a range of different ways and in turn called us, as participants, provocateurs, makers of medicine and storytellers to share together in ways that were healthy and meaningful.
The conference had already begun. Readings, screenings, and the official pow-wow were already underway by the time Marjorie Beaucage and I arrived in the late afternoon sunshine after a roadtrip from Duck Lake. But although we made it in time for the reading from Yvette Nolan and Daniel David Moses, the official reception and opening in the Veterans’ Memorial Tipi was the grounding that I personally needed to orientate myself. Why do we gather collectively? It doesn’t matter whether it’s a musical concert or a feast when communities come together to honour, to commemorate and to pay tribute to those around us and the ones who have passed onto the next world; there is a change that has already begun. People are moving, food is being prepared, fires are stoked, preparations are already underway, and those create channels of energy that start flowing towards a centre where the people gather together.
In coming together in prayer and ceremony for that gathering there is a sense that we are not merely ‘performing’ a ritual; we are already there, embodying, in conversation with our ancestors, the land and the activation of the space that song, story, movement, colour and light all resonate with us. The Turtle Island Song, mihkinâhk-ministikwan nikamowin, stirred the space within the tipi, but also invited the world outside in through the beautiful glass windows. The prairie skies in all their vast and glorious majesty spread over the land and the landscape upon which we were blessed to gather. Song followed by the drum, the heartbeat of people, and Shannon McNabb, beautiful and evocative and all in language, created another portal as she sang in Cree. These were doorways crafted through sound, light and sense, gateways through which we were invited into an expanding space where Robin Poitras’ Silk Dance gave extended shape, colour and narrative to a constantly expanding, and visibly so, atmosphere of charged energy.
It was also poignant that at this time the Collective Performance Storytelling Ensemble offered their memorial dedication, Trans-actions, to honour the passing on of four notable artists earlier this year: Michael Green, Narcisse Blood, Lacy Morin-Desjarlais, and Michele Sereda. A beautiful tribute to the work of these artists, especially Sereda, who was the leader of the collective, allowed the community gathered to recognise and share the mingling of various emotions that surfaced within that sacred space. This ceremony was an acknowledgment of the world and the worldview in which we were immersed, the closeness of the cosmos and yet the immediacy of the present.
This was the start.
An initiation into three very full days of conversations, panels, performances, installations and in between all those moments, exchanges and acknowledgements of creative expression that filled each day to the brim and more.
There was Brett Graham’s large heightened sculptural response to James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains, in the form of the recognisable caravan. Pioneer captured the sense of relentless mobility, its glaring bright whiteness in stark contrast against the evening hues of the setting sun. This was followed by A Woman And This Bannock That She Made For You by Amy Malbeuf. A performance installation that chronicled the ravaging effects of diabetes on First nations communities, the immense weight that is carried by individuals and families; and the silence and the silencing that goes with this subject, Malbeuf’s work highlighted that there is no such thing as a simple story or a story that can be simply told.
It would be an injustice to try to summarize all the various powerful, interesting and diverse panels, presentations and performances that were on offer during the three days, but there were some exceptional moments that resonated with me.
Moments such as Daniel David Moses asking Mary Blackstone why the questions of authorship and authenticity were still being asked of Indigenous artists? The frustration that, despite the efforts of numerous trailblazers over the past decades, the conversation has still not moved forward to sufficiently engage with contemporary Indigenous performance within a context that is responsive and specific to the reality in which work is made and will continue to be made in the years to come. There were also moments when the audience opened up and spoke of medicine, good medicine and sometimes bitter medicine that needs to be taken for the health of our spirits and our peoples. Marjorie Beaucage and Bruce Sinclair both spoke of the need to make those changes, the urgency to do so in order that the future for those who will come after will not be a path that has grown over.
The keynotes offered by Margo Kane, Petra Kuppers, and Michael Greyeyes also all provided various doorways to enter into conversations about Indigenous performance. Through the eyes of lived experience and navigating institutional and bureaucratic challenges, to questioning the uneasy tension of performing the ‘native’ role for television and film and exploring how people with disabilities share, communicate and express artistically and creatively, all three speakers shared stories of themselves and their experiences. The beauty of such personal, reflective and reflexive storytelling was that there was little euro-centric theoretical underpinning; these voices were in conversation with their audiences and even though the structure of the institution was an academic one, it is a credit to the organisers for enabling such spaces for those conversations.
However, that doesn’t mean it was always ideal.
The days were saturating, full and often demanding with so much to absorb and experience that some moments rushed by in streaky blurs of voice and colour with little time to fully grasp the spirit and the deeper kaupapa that of the work. But equally there were rich, potent and playful presentations. One of these was Julianne Beaudin-Herney’s Strands of Knowledge which offered multiple perspectives (the indigenous, the colonial, and the gods) to engage with the beautiful sculpting of story that took place outside the Tipi. The braids of colour, weaving in grandmother stories, the invocation of the four directions and the coming together at spatial and temporal intersections created ceremony and performance as well as ceremony within performance within a larger cradling of story and narrative.
There were also some brilliantly moving presentations, including Spy Denomme-Welch and Catherine McGowan’s highly informative global and musical engagement with Indigenous perspectives in classical music and opera; as well as Brad Bellegarde, Lindsay Knight, and Chris Merk’s hugely entertaining yet insightful conversation on cross-cultural connections on hip-hop. Through music, another space was heard and in turn made, echoing through the bold, uncompromising telling of native experiences through hip-hop form used to resist and revolutionise; but also through the use of opera decolonising and unsettling a traditional ‘high artform’ situated strong, sassy and central female characters who refute the victim narrative.
All this I found incredibly inspiring. The opportunity too that was offered to re-design the space as in our storytelling session where tables and faux barriers were replaced with a story circle was also liberating. Non-hierarchical indigenous ways oflistening and responding with spaces of cultural safety and support was a need that is vital to healthy conversations; and it brought together ways of re-framing how we can navigate, intentionally and purposefully, through un-settling and decolonising spaces that lacking the appropriate consultation and collaboration have often spoken about ‘others.’
It really is as simple as having a cuppa tea with someone. Or as I learnt here in Turtle Island, the phrase is to go ‘visiting’. I am still constantly surprised at how ‘research’ is still often presented on or about Indigenous cultures with little or no conversation with the people themselves. It is possible, certainly, to only scrutinize and analyse through particular lenses, readily available and so-called reliable theoretical frameworks that are often quoted and referenced within the field of Indigenous performance – but what of the oral traditions? The voices of Elders? Those of Indigenous practitioners who are working actively and have done so for decades, how are their voices to be heard within these discourses? Thesis statements and academic arguments that are often reduced to powerpoint presentations and black words on white pages? This, again, is not new: as I write I am very conscious I ride on the coattails of those who have cleared those trails, including my own grandmothers here in Turtle Island, Monique Mojica and Marjorie Beaucage.
But here is where the tension lies between artists and academics. If the land is our true university, as many Elders will attest, then the source of sustenance at spiritual, emotional, mental and physical levels comes from a relationship with the earth. The concrete walls and maze of hallways and tunnels, even within FNUC, construct an alternative reality where paper knowledge often asserts an artificial legitimacy over oral traditions but the truth to which the artists speak. Moreover, as an artist, we each can only speak our own truth; it comes from a place that is connected to practice, a showing rather than a telling and embodiment of knowledge that is supported, rather than drawn exclusively from one’s intellect.
It was therefore in the performances, both A Musta Be: Maskihkiy Maskwa Iskwew a play by Jane Heather and Tara Beagan’s In Spirit (I missed Edward Poitras’ The House of Chow Mein) that the true spirit of this gathering could be felt. In the stories, in the singing by those on stage and those in the audience; by the sharing of pain and trauma, the recognition of the present urgent issue of addressing the huge numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women – all this was stirred, evoked and offered. The power of theatre is to take us places, difficult places sometimes with medicine that is hard to swallow, but within that same space there is an opportunity to give voice.
To sing back.
That is where the intersections lie. Beneath the Prairie skies and changing colours of the land; in the migration of the geese flying overhead and the harvesting of food, picking of berries and preparing for winter. In these overlays and crossing overs people and place, voice and body, space and time intersect potentially in ancient as well as new and invigorating ways.
As the form, content and style of performing arts conferences continue to evolve, I hope they will take heart at the opportunities offered by Performing Turtle Island. In the future, I look forward to conversations where more voices can be gathered together, more story circles can share knowledge and more good medicine can be made.
So that there are more opportunities for the people to sing back, to the land, to the ancestors and to each other. Hiy Hiy.