An Act of Medicine: From Huff to Hobiyee

On February 6th, I witnessed two performances back to back with only a 20-minute bus ride in between. Both Huff and Hobiyee were intense, with some beautiful moments, audience participation, and ceremony. Yet it was the combination of both recognizable similarities and stark contrast that struck me the hardest after having witnessed the two performances.

Huff, written and performed by Cree actor Cliff Cardinal and directed by Karin Randoja, was honestly incredibly hard to watch. The story of three brothers struggling to live on a reservation included insights into the prevalent issues of substance abuse, incest and sexual abuse, mental abuse used as punishment in the reserve school system, inadequate parenting, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, domestic violence, depression (in both adults and children), and suicide. In Medicine Shows, Yvette Nolan discusses this act of exposing poison (pages 7-19), and it is obvious that Cliff Cardinal is intentionally exposing these poisons to the wider public through his nationwide tour of Huff. The discomfort that the performance provoked testifies to this; there were more than a few moments when I felt my pulse racing, my face flushing, and my head become dizzy as visceral reactions to the trauma that was being revealed onstage. Nevertheless, Huff can also be seen as an enormous act of medicine (which Nolan discusses throughout her book). The humour felt in some moments of comic relief showed us that we were still able to laugh, and toward the end of the play Kokhum (the grandmother) conducts a healing ceremony for Wind (the middle brother) after his younger brother Huff’s suicide. Overall, the play can be seen as an grand act of good medicine. Cliff Cardinal, an Indigenous actor who is familiar with the traumas of everyday life for children on reserves, raises awareness of this in front of a mostly-elite audience. (Tickets cost $23; therefore, only those who could afford it attended the show.) In addition, the events that Cardinal depicts can reach deep inside witnesses for whom these traumas trigger certain memories, perhaps making them reconsider something they’ve forgotten or bringing to light repressed thoughts in need of healing. Throughout the performance, it became clear that Huff serves to bring together individuals and communities in order to find support in one another.

Upon exiting the Firehall Arts Centre on East Cordova Street in the Downtown East Side, I seemed to suddenly be aware of my surroundings. Exiting an environment full of awareness-raising and calls for healing into an area in which all of the poisons previously exposed are still very prevalent was absurd. I could not help but feel an enormous discomfort whilst walking to the bus stop and riding the bus for 20 minutes on my way to the PNE for Hobiyee—the Nisga’a New Year celebration.

When I arrived at the PNE, I was still feeling some leftover visceral reactions from Huff. Yet upon entering the great hall and finding myself in a crowd of thousands of people—all revelling and celebrating the largest annual gathering of Northwest Coast First Nations dance groups—my spirits were lifted. I remember feeling absolutely in awe whilst witnessing a group of hundreds of drummers (amongst whom was Professor Dangeli) perform a set of songs with synchronised movements to what truly felt like the heartbeat of the Earth. Soon afterward a friend of mine arrived, so we found some seats in the bleachers and watched a number of dance groups perform. My favourite performance (both because of my connection to Professor Dangeli and because of the inventiveness and elegance of their choreographies) was her group, the Git Hayetsk Dancers. I especially enjoyed their innovative “Photographer Dance”, which I suppose was inspired by Professor Dangeli’s PhD research. I was also very impressed as to how quickly the dancers, especially Professor Dangeli, changed regalia in between each dance. Revelry surrounded us, as seen by the food, the packages of fresh fruits handed out to guests, and the smiles on people’s faces. Between many of the songs, a leader with the microphone would sing a joyous “Hooobiyeeeeeee”, which was then echoed by all of the witnesses in the stadium. What a change to the tears, shivers, and headaches that we had experienced earlier at Huff.

Huff and Hobiyee can, on one hand, be seen as performances on opposite sides of a spectrum: one exposing the extreme difficulties of everyday life for Indigenous residents of reserves, and the other celebrating an occasion that has taken place annually for thousands of years (the enormous number of attendees more than testifying to, but rather shouting: “We are still here!”). On the other hand, both performances are acts of medicine. Huff brings together those in need of healing, and Hobiyee can provide that healing through community, tradition, and celebration. Witnessed one after the other, these two performances together told an incredible story of struggle, healing, and resurgence.

Jack Charles vs. The Crown – Witnessing

On January 23rd I attended the theatre performance, “Jack Charles vs. The Crown.” This production is part of the PuSH festival in Vancouver. This festival was introduced as a festival to bring in performing art productions from around the world to Vancouver. Jack Charles vs. The Crown has been performed around the world and has received positive reviews everywhere it goes. Jack Charles wrote his piece with the help of John Romeril. The inspiration to make his story a theatre production came from the positive response he received from his documentary, Bastardy, which was released in 2008.

Jocelyn Macdougall, from the PuSH international performing arts festival, gave the opening remarks to the production “Jack Charles vs. The Crown”. She spoke about the festival it self and then she recognized the land we were on. This acknowledgement of the land was both thorough and heartfelt. She talked about all the territories that the theatre was located upon and went on to describe the meaning of unceeded and stated, “this is land that was not freely given.”

The space itself was set up much like that of a living room on the far right, with a band on the far left side of the stage. In the back center of the stage there was a pottery wheel. This wheel was used at many different times throughout the production. The set made you feel as though he was simply telling you a story and you were in his living room with him, or beside him as he worked in his pottery shop rather than being in a theatre. This lighthearted atmosphere helped people feel at ease as he told his life story and the hurt and pain within it. It reminded me of sitting with my grandmother as we had tea and she talked about when my dad was a little boy. Listening to her stories has been a big part of my life and hearing Jack’s stories reminded me of sitting in my grandmother’s living room and listening to whatever she wanted to share with me.

As the lights dimmed the band members came to the stage and started playing a slow, melancholy piece. Jack came out to the stage and sat behind the pottery wheel. He proceeded to work with the clay on the wheel and mold it into a beautiful piece of art. While he was working on his pottery there was a clip rolling behind him from his documentary, Bastardy. The clip was of him taking drugs. It was a very powerful clip that caused many in the audience to divert their eyes, cringe and squirm in their seats. I initially looked away as many around me did. Then I realized the courage he had to share this part of his life, this reality that I couldn’t personally relate to, but wanted to try and understand. So I watched as he put a needle in his arm and talked about the way the drugs don’t’ effect him as much anymore. He had used them for so long that people around him couldn’t tell if he was high or not.

Throughout the production Jack tells stories in chronological order of his life. Within each part of his life he has faced racism, oppression, and pain. When he was in boarding school he had a few pictures to share. One of these pictures was in the winter where he had a chunk of snow on his head. This snow was a metaphor for the world he had inhabited. His world was filled with white all around him, and there was him, the only dark skinned student. During his time at the boarding school he was also asked to sing a song. This song was about how the white man had helped the Aboriginal peoples on the land, and without the white man they wouldn’t be successful. At the time he didn’t realize what the song was about and why he was asked to sing it. He was simply proud of himself for being asked to sing a song. The school had taken advantage of the colour of his skin and asked him to perform a song that was demeaning and hurtful towards his people.

Watching the production you can already tell that the pottery wheel is an important aspect of Jack Charles’ life. He repeatedly returns to the pottery wheel throughout the piece and seems to be very comfortable talking about hard issues when he is behind the wheel. He speaks of pottery as his way of finding freedom. Pottery was his release. He expressed his feeling when working with pottery as a way of setting him free, making him feel like a child playing in the mud. His life was determined by the crown, it was shaped and molded by the crown and all he was, was a number to them. His prison number was how he was seen. His past followed him wherever he went and was described by him as something that shadowed and stalked him. When he was molding the clay he had control of his life. He could mold it in anyway he wants. He created 3 different pottery pieces throughout the show and added them to a shelf behind him. They were all different shapes and sizes and each one unique and beautiful.

Hobiyee- The Nisga’a Lunar New Year

On February 6th 2016, I attended Hobiyee- the Nisga’a Lunar New Year at the PNE. I was able to witness about 6 different dance groups as well as the drum drill. Each group was incredibly unique, talented and exciting to watch. While in attendance I paid specific attention to protocol: the entirety of the dance floor was designated for whichever dance group was performing at the time and we were explicitly told not to cut across the back of the dance floor. The audience was told to rise as dancers entered and as they exited the dance floor, additionally there were seats designated at the front for elders. Every dance group began their performance by thanking their Coast Salish hosts and detailed the communities and territories they were coming from. Every song and dance was introduced and the story attached to the song was told. Performers stated whether the song was contemporarily created or if it has been passed down and by whom.

Aside from protocol there were a few notable phenomena that I wanted to include in my witnessing account of the event. First of all, I noted that there were a number of dancers in wheelchairs. I appreciated that the presence and seeming acceptance of such dancers who subverted notions of ableism that stem from colonial norms distinguishing desirable bodies from tolerated and deviant bodies. This act of radical inclusion did not seem radical at all and from what I could perceive was incredibly normative in the space.

Additionally, I found after spending a full day at the Hobiyee celebration I was able to recognize the various dances from the Coast Salish clans in attendance. A member of the Iswalh dance group said earlier on in the day that “our songs and dances tell the stories of who we are as people”. By the end of Hobiyee I felt I had a much better grasp of who the coastal nations were, as well as certain aspects of their cultures that were portrayed through dance to hold significance.   


Huff: Biography, Synopsis and Witnessing


Biography- Cliff Cardinal

Cardinal was born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, but has spent most of life in Toronto where he currently lives. His love for acting started at a young age as result of his mother, Tantoo Cardinal, being a well credited actress. When he was 15 years old, he took a semester off of school to focus on theatre.

Cardinal performed in Freeman’s Wake by Yvette Nolan, authour of Medicine Shows,  which showed in the Rhubarb Festival in 2005. After this, Cardinal started taking acting classes and workshops. As mentioned in Medicine Shows, Cardinal acted in “an adapted version of Tales of an Urban Indian that toured BC secondary schools in a Green Thumb production in 2007” (Nolan, 2015, 28) where he received a Jessie Richardson Memorial Theatre Award nomination for Outstanding Performance.

Cardinal only started to write after joining Native Earth’s Young Voice program where his work was influenced by George Carlin and Richard Pryor. His first play, Stitch, was shown at SummerWorks 2011 and won the Theatre Passe Muraille’s Emerging Artist Award.

The next year, Huff was shown at SummerWorks 2012 where Cardinal received the 2012 Buddies in Bad Times Vanguard Award for Risk & Innovation. The play was inspired by and based on a short story Cardinal wrote in 2005 called  “Huff”.

In 2013, Cardinal’s Maria Gets A New Life, debuted at SummerWorks 2013.


The performance started with the main character, Wind, trying to killing him. He is lying on the ground with a plastic bag taped around his head and his hands handcuffed behind him.  He is talking to the audience as if he is narrating what is happening. The audience then understands that the play is going to be about how he ended up in the situation.

The play only has one performer who is acting multiple people. He describes how his parents met, referring to them as “the warrior and the princess”. He then states how after having three boys, his mom committed suicide , leaving his dad to look after them. The performer acts out what life was like for Wind and his brothers, Charles and Huff, growing up on the reserve. The audience witnesses the mischief, and drugs the brothers get into, as well as the abuse they face.

After accidentally burning down an abandoned motel they used as a club house, the brothers get sprayed by a raccoon. In order to get rid of the smell, they have to bath in tomato juice. The oldest brother then threatens to tell their dad that the younger brothers burned down the motel if they do not do him sexual favours and he then proceeds to sexually abuse them. It then becomes clear that the younger brothers are doing drugs and playing the “pass out  game” in order to numb themselves from their reality.

When the dad sees that what a mess they have made with the tomato juice, he beats the boys and Wind runs away. The youngest brother meanwhile plays the “passed out game” and ends up killing himself. The result of all those factors is why Wind tries to kill himself, but he doesn’t fall through with it. The spirit of his little brother helps him free himself.


The organizers around Huff did a great job of making sure that it was known that the contents of the play were going to be heavy and that some people might find it difficult to watch. I went into the play knowing and accepting this, so I was surprised that when I left the performance, I had felt under-prepared for what I had just witnessed. I feel like no “trigger warning” could have prepared someone for the violence that was portrayed.

My first thoughts of the play were that the overall performance was very well done. Cardinal did a fantastic job of acting so many different characters and making me forget it was all one person. I enjoyed the simplicity of the set and I felt that the minimal props complimented the the minimal or lack of multiple actors. I found it interesting the way Cardinal interacted with the audience. Rather than just purely “breaking the fourth wall”, I felt that the audience was an active role in the play. But, as with Jack Charles, I am not sure what that “role” was that we were playing. Were we witnesses? The enemies? Other? Making medicine?

While I did enjoy the play, it left me with a lot of thoughts and questions. I was not sure if the play emphasized enough that these awful realities are direct consequences of colonialism and its on-going effects. I wonder how I would have perceived or understood this performance if I did not have any context about colonialism in Canada. Might I have just thought that that First Nations have difficult lives on reserves? At the same time, maybe this play is not intended for someone who does not have any context. This leads me to thinking about who was the attended audience and what was the purpose of the play?

Nolan reminded me in Medicine Shows how after all the trauma and abuse Wind is face with, Wind does not commit suicide (31). Nolan states how “the telling of these stories…is a political act of resistance” and how these stories are based on the fact that “in spite of everything [Indigenous people] are still here” (31).

Jack Charles: Synopsis and Witnessing



Protocol: Acknowledgement that this performance was taking place on unceded Coast Salish land.

The performance started with Charles moulding clay on a pottery wheel while the three membered band, who remained on stage from the length of the play, played music. Projected behind him was footage from the documentary Bastardly that showed Charles shooting heroin. When the footage ended, the lights came on and revealed the stage. The stage was set up as if it were Charles’s house or living area. There was a pottery area, a living room, and a kitchen area with a tea pot and kettle.

Right after the footage end, Charles stood up and started talking about his life. He started with his heritage and childhood and slowly went into talking about his acting career and his life of substance abuse and crime.

The play ended with Charles changing into formal clothes and addressing the audience as if he was in court and the audience was the judge. He was arguing for the right to have his criminal record cleared due to the fact that what led him into his life of crime was the physical, sexual, and mental abuse he faced from being taken from his family and put into residential school where he was isolated from his culture.


I attended the last performance of Jack Charles v. the Crown that showed in Vancouver on January 23, 2016. I really enjoy watching plays, but I did not know what to expect for this one because I have never watched a play where there was only one actor. From the first word Charles said, I knew that I would not have any difficultly watching only him for 75 minutes. Charles is a very animated, and captivating performer who has a stage presence that demands the attention of the audience. While he was talking about serious and upsetting issues, he did a brilliant job of bringing in humour without trivializing the topics being discussed.

After reading Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington, I was interested in listening to how Charles’ experienced residential school in Australia, and how it compared/contrasted to residential schools in Canada. Yet, I learned very quickly that this play was not a history lesson. Charles gave a brief, but personal, account of his life and he did not dwell on the details of the abuse that he was subjected to in his past. In Medicine Shows, Nolan states how “good medicine” is about making connections and community (2) and it seems that Charles did this by making connections with Indigenous people in Australia and Canada.

The part of the play that intrigued me the most was the last section when Charles addressed the audience as if we were a judge or jury and he was arguing to have his criminal record erased. Due to the fact he was addressing the audience as if we were the Australian state, I could not help but feel uncomfortable and I was not sure why. When reflecting on this, I think it is because he broke the “fourth wall” and was speaking to us saying how “you did this”. While he was talking about Australia, I could not help feel guilty as a settler here in Canada.

Overall, I really enjoyed this performance. I found it to be not only interesting and educational, but entertaining and beautiful to witness. I do wish that I could see it a second time though because I feel that I would get more out of it. There was a lot of speech through the play and it was difficult to catch everything.

Rainbow Creek Dancers (Haida)

On January 17 2016, I attended a performance at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The performers were the Rainbow Creek Dancers (Haida), led by Robert Davidson. The group is named after a creek that runs behind Masset, Haida Gwaii and was founded 1980 by Robert and Reg Davidson. In addition to founding and leading the Rainbow Creek Dancers, Robert Davidson is a highly acclaimed visual artist who produces the dance group’s regalia and masks. His art has been exhibited in many public and private exhibitions and he became a master carver at an early age.

Before the performance began, Musqueam elder Debra Sparrow welcomed the performers and the audience to her territory and discussed. She briefly touched on the ancestral and historical connection to the Vancouver city space, and stated: “the city of glass was once a city of forest”.  

Following Sparrow’s words, one of the museum curators introduced Robert Davidson as a visual artist, detailing the collection of masks that reside in the Vancouver Art Gallery itself, that would be danced to life throughout the performance. After finishing her introduction the Rainbow Creek dancers entered and Robert Davidson made his introduction. He began by giving thanks to the Musqueam, and then proceeded to explain that the performance would be a fusion of both traditional and newly choreographed or altered traditional songs and dances. He then announced the healing song and contextualized it’s need – to heal the traumas of colonialism. Following this sombre performance the group went on to perform a series of dances, each introduced by Davidson. The context of the dance, what the dance was depicting, whether the song and choreography was new or had been passed down for generation, was all re-stated at the beginning of every number. As Dr. Dangeli pointed out in lecture, Davidson’s recurring introductions to performance pieces were not meant to be a translation but an oral history, a strategy to situate Haida culture in the past and present.

There were a few aspects of the Rainbow Creek Dancer’s performance that I especially took note of. Firstly, the majority of their dancers involved them depicting animals that had specific cultural significance and meaning. Secondly, every member of the dance group played a role in every single song. Whether that would be to hold a sheet of fabric to camouflage dancers, drumming, singing or dancing – the performance was the result of a collective effort and all members contributed to the final product. Another notable aspect of the performance was the large age range of the dance group, from elders to toddlers, a community formed on stage that truly emphasized kinship and teaching, or more specifically, the passing on of tradition.

Watching the Rainbow Creek Dancers I began to reconceptualize what it means to be ‘professional’. Though many interruptions (such as a child crying and running off stage) took place throughout the performance and a relaxed atmosphere was seemingly encouraged, the performance group was undoubtedly professional and were clearly extremely practiced and poised, able to share themselves and their culture with immense feeling and precision. Throughout the performance I began to understand how conceptions of professionalism are incredibly linked to victorian colonial standards and how the Rainbow Creek Dancers exemplify what decolonial professionalism can look like.