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June 2010

Scene4 Magazine: Arts of Native America - Earth...Water...Wind...Fire | reviewed by Ned Bobkoff | June 2010 -

by Ned Bobkoff

Anishinaabe Maajiidwin VIII,  the 8th annual production of the Indigenous Performance Initiatives and the Indigenous Studies Department,  at the Nozhem (female bear) theater at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, was a theater event full of cultural detail. The intricately woven Nozhem quilt, displayed in the lobby of the theater, represents the different clans of the Anishinaabe people. In the words of elder Edna Manitowabi,  the "transformation" and "healing" effect of personal creative expression is of major concern, for both indigenous and non-indigenous student performers.


In short, the Female Bear is protective of the young. With an open-hearted swoop of the Nozhem  paw, the array of theater events in ANISHINAABE MAAJIIDWIN VIII  challenged the young performers to blend a variety of indigenous performance values; merging traditional stories with contemporary theatrical means.  


"When Were You Outside Today?," a clown work by Mercatroy (Julia Lane), a Master's candidate in Indigenous Studies and Environmental Education, used a variety of comic techniques that revealed a flexible model of environmental education. Working her audience outside on the lawn, and then bringing them into the theater, she weaved her clowning through one theatre event to the next: "Ice Fishing or Fish & Chips (Bring Your Own Chips)", "Bus Stop or Words, Words, Words", and "A Walk in the Park or The Crack of Doom". Lane worked best when she appeared to discover the comedy within each environmental segment  – a sign of growing skill. The other sign occurred when the laughter of the kids seated on the front row were ready to join her at the drop of her hat – a sign of the times.


Michabo Creates The People
In aboriginal societies, masking serves as a doorway into the unknowable of other worlds. In the western theater masking opens that door to story and character. Both were combined in "Michabo Creates the People", a creation story from the Powhatan peoples of Virginia. Masked dancers depicted numerous characters such as the Wind Giants of the Four Directions, First Man and Woman, and the Great Deer. The central action occurs around Michabo, the trickster creator who creates Man and Woman, but has to then protect them from the Wind Giants. The Masked Dance performers rose to the occasion with well-designed masks for every character and merged their activity with mime and dance.


"Cipayak E Nimihitotown – The Spirits Are Dancing In The Sky.
Sandra Lamouche is becoming well known in Canada for her beautiful and skillful hoop dancing.  As a Master's degree candidate at Trent University's Indigenous Studies Department, Ms. Lamouche chose to bring not only the Hoop Dance, but the values of her Cree heritage into her new choreography.  It is a Cree life story told in one day, with the offering of prayers from the rising of the sun to its setting. The Northern lights are central to this story-telling hoop dance from the Cree people. Each hoop represents a challenge in life. The skillful gathering of a series of hoops around a dancer symbolizes "the hoop of life" honoring ancestors as well as challenging the dancer, or dancers.  Manipulating  the hoops requires perfect timing as the hoops accumulate around the dancer in a variety of rhythmic circling. In the final sequences of the story, with songs created and performed by her husband Lowell Yellowhorn, Sandra Lamouche and her dancers manipulated  long multi-colored poles honoring the phenomenon of Northern Lights: the spirits of Cree ancestors dancing in the sky – a beautiful conception.   


Tierra mi  Cuero – Earth my Body
Aqua mi Sangre – Water my Blood
Aire mi Aliento – Wind my Breath
Fuego mi Espiritu – Fire my Spirit
- Norma Araiza

Dancer/Choreographer Norma Araiza's "Setewauki Saila Maso" (the Flower World of Our Brother the Deer) depicted the self-sacrifice of the deer built on the traditions of the Yoemem of Sonora (Yaqui Nation). Traditions creatively fused with the Catholic rituals of Easter in northern Mexico. Her astonishing work celebrates the "self sacrifice" of the deer to become one with the Yoemem people and help them survive.  Although not allowed to reproduce the real dances, Araiza's suggestive performance of the evolving deer ritual, done with exquisitely trained performers moving with slowly evolving impact, from upstage to downstage, revealed the dramatic power of the deer's sacrifice with riveting attention to detail. The rigor and grace of the accumulating dance, intensely amplified with statuesque beauty, captured the heart of the evolving ritual.  Araiza's respect for cultural values embraced the dignity of its source, with subtly sculptured dance technique and artistic certainty. An intensely pleasurable witnessing event and a fully rounded concept from beginning to end.  


"When the government has taken everything from you, that's when they give you a blanket to cover your shame"

"Half Breed", based on a book by Maria Campbell, and directed by Marrie Mumford, is a first person account on how it felt to be a half breed woman (French and Indian) in Canada in the early 1900's. Mumford, the founder of Indigenous Performance Initiatives, is a stickler for detail and deeply adamant about revealing the history of her Métis people, and other Canadian tribal sources as well. She is protective of the spiritual fire of indigenous peoples and makes no bones about it.

At the opening of the stage adaptation of "Half-Breed" slide images of Métis life in the late 1800's were mixed with country music.  All the scenes were sewn together through the central image of "The Indian Blanket".  In the opening dance, choreographed by Daystar (Rosalie Jones), who is herself of mixed blood, two characters, the author Maria Campbell as an adult and a child, vie with each other over a blanket.  Seated on her own blanket, watching the action, is the Grandmother – the only "good thing" in Campbell's life. The  Grandmother's intervention  with Maria as a child and an adult, struggling through the pitfalls of a mixed blood person living in a dominant society that belittled and then discarded them, is the central action of the play. The Grandmother's wisdom reveals the creative force in the play; transferring the will to survive despite the pitiless oppression.   

Maria Campbell as a child in school was made to hold a bible over her head, and stand in the corner of the room as punishment.  The teacher had lectured the Métis children, mixing aspects of Canadian law with religion to justify her manipulation of the children into a negative image about who they are, and why they are being punished.  Subsequent scenes revealed how Indian people slowly but surely had their land and sustainable livelihoods undermined by government laws. The impact of the story culminated with  the use of the bright, beautiful blanket of the Grandmother that heralded not shame,  but the beauty and sustainability of Métis cultural identity.


Legacy of the Dream: Maggonite the Child,
The Dancer and the Elder
Daystar (Rosalie Jones) has looked at the stories from the oral traditions of a variety of native cultures as a jumping off place for her expressive dance-dramas.  Anyone who has attended a powwow knows that the Jingle Dress dance is riveting, essential and conclusive. In this version of the history of the Jingle Dress dance, from the people of Whitefish Bay, Northwestern Ontario, the focus is on the origin of the Jingle Dress ceremony: a true story of how the Jingle Dress dance emerged from an historical event during the 1800's, when a young boy "envisioned the Jingle Dress in a Dream".  

Legacy of the Dream commemorates  the healing of the young woman, Maggie White, who fell into a "prolonged illness" and was healed as a result of her grandfather's prayers, and the intervention of spiritual healers, who gathered in a ceremony to bring her back to health. How she rose from her sick bed and was brought back to health through dance was the creative force behind her transformation.  Daystar's stage version was a powerful embracing of Maggie White's healing: her rising from her bed, her gathering strength putting on a dress of jingles, and the slow healing as she rose to dance to a growing drum beat. The full power of her healing was made visible with the amplifying sound of the jingles, the strength of the Big Drum with six powerful singers, and the growing pace of the circular dance urging her on. A highly effective dramatic revelation, a story of well being, that breathed a communal sigh of relief and release carrying the audience with it.

"Earth, Water, Wind and Fire" explored and revealed the power of the Nozhem theater to bring both indigenous and nonindigenous people together to mutually enjoy our sense of shared humanity.  We can always take off our hats and weave a blanket together when we know which way the wind blows.

Photos - Marlon Hazelwood
Cultural Advisor - Daystar/Rosalie Jones


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©2010 Ned Bobkoff
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Playwright, director, and teacher, Ned Bobkoff has worked with performers from all walks of life in a variety of cultural and community settings throughout the U.S., Canada and abroad.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

June 2010

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