Native tradition on stage – field – land.
Settling in at the Debajehmujig Storytellers by the Global Savages, our storyteller announces that they list as a requirement for the show to have a fire. Half jokingly he tells us that he was told that the problem with permits in having a fire in the city had been solved through the existence of a fire in a fireplace in the lobby of the Walper. Now they will say that they need a fire – – and the sky.
This performance by a company from Manitoulin Island brings us on a journey into the primeval. They take us into this nation before Canadian nationhood was at all a contemplation. The company weaves us through the 18,000 years of indigenous history (as it’s known) with three male characters representing each one of the identities in the Council of Three fires and one woman who represents Sky Mother. This piece reinforced the notion that the currently told and perceived history by colonizers is flexible and often wrong even in their own estimations.
How can anthropology establish a case for a people so innate to this land when every time they find another artifact, it takes the history back several thousands of years. And even with artifact, how can empirical calculations establish the connectivity to a land that birthed a beginning?
This company builds a simple narrative of the history of the Anishinaabek and their connection to the land, interweaving it with the ancient people of Europe, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. They use comparative narrative to establish timelines, reinforcing thoroughly the belonging of indigenous people to Turtle Island. They peal the mythologies off layer by layer to reveal a people, a civilization, an active and vibrant culture, and a spirit that exists to this day.
The power of the piece is in it’s context as builds in emotion as the description of colonization through the depiction of traditional notion (the Black Robes) mounts. And when we come closer to the current condition of genocide – a crescendo through the telling of residential schools and cultural cleansing, we watch a sky mother’s wailing.
I have to stop – I cannot review Theatre when the acting throws you gently over into the position of a reality check. The normal disconnect that a critic must use in the writing of a review has been shattered in this show. This is simply too close to home. The sensation of a wail, a true cry for a people is beyond theatre to this writer, and echoes deep into places in my psyche. There is no way to connect across horrors that have not ceased. There is no way to cross a Highway of Tears where lost sisters, mothers are never found in the country in which policy and politic does not care. There is no way to bring children killed through neglect and active experimentation back. You cannot build understanding where unmeasurable loses are deemed unimportant.
Theatre as we know it is a Eurocentric tradition with the most repeated voices being primarily white men: Beckett, Pinter, Shakespeare. This is not like those. This is not following a contemporary genre that blends into dance. This is storytelling taken to deeply emotional level where the pain of the last few hundred years is written in the text on the soul of the performers. It’s a truth-telling by an indigenous company finding a voice. It’s the kindest version of speaking truth to power.
We are asked to suspend our colonizer/settler beliefs about indigenous people and what we have been told. From common misconceptions to revisionist history, we are welcomed to challenge notions that simply have never been true, and then asked to accept that different people separated by seas could have different practices and beliefs. I
I want to be critical of the show – as in establish a dialogue around theatrical merit. But in this instance, I am reminded my own roots, my own complicity in silence that has branched across generations and genocides that aren’t simply absorption of practice or loss of language but total loss of identity. I am not your critic anymore. I am an Anishinaabe woman. I am a non status Anishinaabe woman whose family is the product of this genocide. Not that quantum should matter but if we count on that level, I am hovering around one third. I have Lost Grandmothers who were erased from their culture, from their connection to self. And at this point Theatre stops being a platform for critique, and is instead a platform of connection, activism, dialogue, and realization.
“We do not know how to make the ceremonies that can forgive this yet” says the storyteller from the Global Savages. This is not a negation of forgiveness, but a welcoming to a new intervention. “The Great Spirit does not make junk” he reminds the audience composed primarily of Canadian settlers. And then this company tells us how to be gentle people. They speak of the Teachings of the Seven Grandfathers and the stunning pain of complicity and complacency without use of lectures or news media anywhere present hits but only with the pulling of our settler culture into a new possibility. There is a place of understanding of a space in which cultures can allow forgiveness, that these ceremonies can be wrought. I will be half way in between. I will be sat in my mother’s genocide, and in my grandfather’s colonization struggling to find definition and identity, and all the while hoping for a gentler world.
You must see the Global Savages. You must, as Canadians, as Canadiens, as new Canadians. Perspective. For all of us.