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Venturing to the Great White North: Saskatoon Sagas

When I left the warmer climes of Australia and New Zealand for Saskatoon, Canada I knew I was in for an unforgettable experience.

An unforgettably frigid experience dominated largely by polar vortexes, but nevertheless it was an opportunity to experience some heartwarming generosity thanks to new friends who made the five weeks much more, shall we say, hospitable.

The reason for my sojourn to the Great White North was as a visiting scholar in the drama studies department at the University of Saskatchewan. In addition, it was a unique opportunity to broaden and develop my own knowledge and experience as a theatre writer/director working with Indigenous communities. Thanks to the Ian Potter Cultural Trust and the University of Saskatchewan I was able to travel and take up the position of Visiting Scholar/Artist in Residence for what seemed to be five of the coldest weeks of Canada’s winter.

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You think I’m exaggerating? How does minus fifty-two sound? Celsius not Fahrenheit … That is an all time low if you’ll pardon the pun.

I arrived via Vancouver where the temperature hovered around a balmy two degrees, spent the night in an airport hotel and then flew to Calgary the next morning. A brief stop over to stare at the Rockies from an airport window and then onto Saskatoon where I was met with bracing winds and a chilly minus fifteen.

And to think only a week earlier I had been splashing in the waters of Australia’s Bateman’s Bay beneath cloudless skies.

This landscape was very different. I had been to Canada once before and that occasion included brief visits to Toronto for the Planet IndigenUS Festival and to Manitoulin Island. This time however, I was to spend five weeks teaching in the drama department (and this later expanded to the gender and Native Studies departments) give two public talks (one in Saskatoon and the other in Regina) and give a workshop for SNTC (Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company’s) Circle of Voices program.

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It wasn’t supposed to be a chocka five weeks but by the end of the week the calendar month looked pretty full, partly due to the extra classes I was invited to teach and because I leaped at the chance to audit several native studies classes.

Yes, exactly thank goodness for time management skills. And people with cars. Most definitely heartfelt gratitude to people with moving transportation. And don’t worry, I paid my dues rocking the motor monsters when they got stuck. And I certainly wouldn’t have been able to get around if it wasn’t for the hospitality and generosity of my host, Moira Day.

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She along with many of the other members of the drama department including Dwayne Brenna and his lovely wife Bev made the time to take me to Wanuskewin; and Pamela Haig Bartley despite her busy schedule still found space to have conversation and share a meal. Those things matter enormously and as fleeting as some of the meetings were, I’m very glad the connections were made.

One of the fundamental lessons I learnt during my time here was that prayers are answered. If you have faith in the universe, the grandfathers and grandmothers are listening and the land does provide all the sustenance you need.

This wasn’t an easy or simple lesson to learn. In fact I seem to continually be put to the test. Patience has never been my forte and I found the first week harder than usual. Perhaps it was the climate. Perhaps it was the lack of ceremony and proper protocol and welcome to country. Perhaps it was just me, questioning whether I was in the right place at the right time. Being able to watch the magic of Buff St. Marie was definitely a moment when I was so grateful my calendar and the stars had aligned, what a magical concert!

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On one hand this was because I was cognizant that within academia I am a younger scholar who self-identifies as an artist, but an artist whose practice informs my academic writing. This was often is seen to occupy a liminal space refusing to slot in neatly into an either/or binary within the infrastructure of a university system.

And I do find binaries terribly dull.

I remember telling students in a second year history of theatre class exactly that. I encouraged them to challenge not just what they were being taught, but HOW they were taught and to re-evaluate their own process of engaging with material. On that particular occasion I was giving a lecture on postcolonial drama replete with questions and provocations as to the accuracy of the term; different examples from various supposedly ‘post colonial states’ and how the various definitions that populated the discourse has been shaped largely by the writers own experience and understanding of colonialism.

I love teaching young people at university. The majority actually want to be in the space and have a keen interest in learning. I taught classes that included not just history of performance and performance making but also practical acting classes, courses in community development and performing gender and I had a great bunch of young people with whom I could share and learn.

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But entering a university which has it’s own sets of rules and regulations (not to mention resembles a rabbit warren during winter) offered it’s own challenges at various points. I wouldn’t call it ‘culture shock’ because it’s a very tepid term that really fails to engage in the swathe of nuanced differences one may experience coming from Aotearoa New Zealand but there was definitely a range of different surprises in store for me.

And yet when I did find my community, in the case of Saskatoon it was the Native community, I couldn’t have been happier. And the story of how that happened is through a series of fortunate events that began in Oct 2013. I was lucky enough to meet, listen and hang out with Monique Mojica and Brenda Farnell in London at the Indigeneity in the Contemporary world conference and exhibition.

It was thanks to Monique and her generous sharing of friends dear to her heart that I got to meet Marjorie Beaucage. I have no hesitation in saying that my time in Saskatoon was given new direction and purpose after meeting Marjorie. Aside from being an amazing storyteller, culinary magician and brilliant film maker she has a heart that has so much love to give. The first evening I arrived on her doorstep out in Duck Lake (thanks to Winona Wheeler, whom I met through Marjorie’s text introduction) I was so happy and relieved, I unashamedly cried salty tears into the hearty soup she had prepared.

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You know when you feel safe? Really safe? Not just as a stranger in a new land, not just as a woman, not just as an artist who takes crazy risks, but really safe…as a human being, that’s how I felt.

That weekend, well actually five nights ( I didn’t want to leave) I received an introduction to the history of the land, the battle grounds just yonder that were submerged beneath an icy sea, the story of the house that once belonged to Gabriel Dumont’s niece and the story of Batoche. There was so much more of course, watching a film about who could make the best fry bread, driving across an ice river and hearing the water gush beneath, eating moose meat and knowing that each mouthful was made with so much love and healing that I knew when I had to return to Saskatoon I would be fortified both physically and spiritually.

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Marjorie and I drove back
to Saskatoon on Tuesday, a day I’ll remember particularly well as I taught one of my favourite classes. I had been invited by Carol Greyeyes to visit her Acting class and I was particularly excited.

Not only because Carol was one of the first people who welcomed me with medicine (birch painting) and we immediately connected but because I love actually working on my feet with young people, I find their energy transformative.

That class was particularly memorable because it highlighted for me how as teachers, mentors, leaders one of our key skills is to be able to put aside our entire lesson (as meticulously organized as it maybe) and give our students what they need at that moment, in that space.

I had a beautifully planned ninety minutes but when I entered I could tell immediately that that particular group needed something different. So we did a brief sharing circle and accordingly the next hour and a half was spent in creating, devising and revitalising spirits. When we closed with a sharing circle the feedback Carol and I received confirmed what I had hoped – that those women and men would leave that space in spirits that were strengthening and supportive.

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I taught nine classes during my time in Saskatoon and gave two public talks. The first hosted by the drama department at the U of S and the second in the Queen City of Regina where I spent one brief night. Each talk was different, the first discussed aesthetics of Indigenous performance with a focus on storytelling and highlighted work from Bangarra, Ilbijerri and Big hART. The second focused on decolonizing methods of research when working with Indigenous communities and examined arts making process and protocol. On both occasions, students and lecturers were openly enthusiastic and the conversations have continued to engage on a number of levels with the different raises that revolve around Indigenous arts, art-making, the aesthetics and the availability of critical feedback.

It sounds strange to some when I say I work and collaborate with others to create space for healing through performance. The work in which I am increasing immersed in is about stepping outside the arena of conflict resolution, victim trope theatre and reconciliation performance (all of which have valuable and legitimate spaces) and instead focus attention on strengthening, revitalising, renewing and yes, healing within an Indigenous context.

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The adage that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ I think is silly then it comes to human spirits. The extent to which colonialism has dismembered communities across, within and beyond its diasporas is mind boggling. And it is highly problematic that at times it feels the ramifications can barely be addressed when (as in some cases) it is denied that colonialism even existed!

After living and working in Saskatoon for five weeks and slowly being introduced to the numerous talented, intelligent, thoughtful and provocative members of the community I can only be grateful for the breadth of knowledge and the sharing and exchange of ideas by the native community.

I don’t consider myself an educator. A listener, a site-keeper, a cradler of space, a teacher and a student but I am not here to educate anyone.

Yet at the same time I feel increasingly exasperated at the lack of knowledge about white privilege, the damaging effects of patriarchal ideologies and the cloak of oblivion and disinterest that many educated (and generally well intentioned people) have chosen to wear in response to some of the most traumatic events and issues of our times.

And that’s not even the beginning of my rant but I will save the rest for later. Needless to say I found being in Saskatoon an experience of multiple worlds. When I arrived I was told by a young Masters student that the native population wasn’t very obvious in Saskatoon and most lived out on the reserves that surrounded the city.

I remember that remark jangling in my head the night of Tasha Hubbard’s film screening of ‘Buffalo Calling’. It was my fourth week in Saskatoon and as I sat down next to my good friend Deb (who shared many rounds of tea n cards with Marjorie and myself) I paused and looked around at those in the theatre. There was hardly a face that I didn’t know, at least by sight and the majority of folks I had got to know fairly well. Let’s be honest the arts community in Saskatoon on a numerical quota isn’t very large and the native arts community is even smaller – but despite statistics and their skewed ways of representation, that night I felt at home.

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There were numerous occasions during my five weeks sojourn when those feelings rushed in: playing Saskatchewan rummy till the early hours, being invited to partake in a sweat, participating and sharing in a moon ceremony and just conversations.

Lovely long stories told in rocking chairs, anecdotes and histories in the car, sharing good food with beautiful people: that is the stuff of life. At times I can be a bit of a recluse and I need space to write, think and dream… but people are my life. Children, elders and everyone in between are my family, I tend to open up and trust and give without thinking. Sometimes that hasn’t always had the most positive results but in general, my attitude has always been able to connect me to people and the land in loving ways. Louise Halfe and her beautiful daughter Omeasoo were two more beautiful women who did just that, thank you for the send-off at the airport!

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An example of this kind of connection took place (obviously) at Marjorie’s. I had just spent my second long weekend out in Duck Lake which included travelling to Manitou Springs (to visit the beautiful medicinal waters) and we returned back to find that Winona (Marjorie’s neighbour and also head of the Native Studies department) and her husband had got some fresh moose.

Well actually Tyrone had done the hunting, it was Winona and the other woman who were going to take over from then on.Some of you may have already seen photos but a moose’s nose alone is bigger than my face. So there was a lot of meat. ALOT. And the next night we had two large cadavers brought over to carve up.

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I will never forget that night. Marjorie and I sleeves all rolled up, with this beastie’s forequarter on her dining table and Patsy Kline crooning in the background.

For me it was the highlight of my trip, not only because I got to share something so nurturing with one of my favourite mother figures but also I had eaten and partaken of moose meat during my time at Marjorie’s, it was only fitting that I could at least in some small way contribute to that cycle of sharing meat with the community.

It was in itself a performance, a truth that practice and lived by and as an artist there was much healing in that act.

Speaking of acting and theatre the wealth of talent in Saskatoon is not to be understated. I had the opportunity to be at the premiere of Pj Prudat’s ‘Reunir’ at SNTC and during my time in Toronto I also got to know this beautiful soul and her spirit and her writing is sharp, deft and true to the story. Similarly, time spent with the incorrigible and brilliant playwright Ken Williams contributed to many laughs and it was such a pleasure to be in his class – not once but twice!

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And of course SNTC deserves a separate blogpost devoted to the wonderful team there and their magical COV young people. I was genuinely touched that Curtis Peetuceee, Artistic Director and also director of Pj’s play welcomed me so generously into the circle upon our first meeting and encouraged his young people to work with me during rehearsal. Such generosity within the theatre is often rare and I’m so delighted that in the course of my
journey it is indeed becoming less rare and more natural to create spaces of sharing, collaboration and support. To the entire team, especially Darlene in whom I found such a kindred spirit, I hope our paths cross again. The workshop that I ran with photos and poetic responses will be published separately but it was an inspiring time.

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Looking back on those icy weeks from the sweltering heat of my tiny hotel room shared with two other lovely ladies as we continue our over expedition, Canada seems very far away. But as clichéd as it sounds I can’t help but smile as I remember flashes:

Ice-skating on a bright sunshiny day with Giles who cooked me beautiful food and serenaded me in French; Marie who called me in Vancouver when I thought I was about to be deported from the country and organized a welcome dinner (I’m so glad you came to my farewell too); breakfasts at the farmers markets, a tad late because I still hadn’t got the hang of whether the apartment number came first or second (thank you Tasha n Narcisse); literally playing tricks with time and hanging out with Marcel despite both of us having ridiculously busy schedules, much twisting of the arm (no not really it was an honour) to teach Rob’s community development classes, having imaginary friends share our circle of magic at the Rook and Raven with Ken so we had extra room; eggs Benedict with Yvette and so much food for thought: sharing pounamu with Carol and her class, being a New Zealander and yet being at home; of course endless Marjorie-isms filling my nights and days, sometimes till 4am in the morning!

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So many more memories but what I remember is the laughter. The constant laughter when a group, especially of women (Andrea, Tasha, Deanna, Marie n Moira that last night was a treat) opened up and laughed.

Laughter is healing. Story is medicine. These aren’t new things and yet I wonder why we continue to acquiesce to a society that demands we adhere to deadlines, timelines, schedules. Especially during times of struggle we need to make time to laugh.I know I’ll return to Saskatoon, I know now that I have family there and I know next time I better pack an extra bag to take a truckload of goodies to my whanua across the seas.

Can’t wait to see you all, preferably in the summer or fall!

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