In Motion

I attended In-Motion in late February at the Roundhouse Performing Arts Centre. The event, part of the Talking Stick Festival, involved two separate contemporary dance pieces in sequence, followed by a Q&A panel with all of the performers.

The first piece, NDN Way was performed by Anishnaabe/Metis/Irish dancer and visual artist, Brian Solomon and Mestiza dancer/choreographer Mariana Medellin-Meinke. The piece was fairly abstract and set to a recording of Cindy Bisaillon’s 1974 interview with Cree-Metis elder and knowledge keeper Ron Evans.

I have a fairly limited background with formal dance both as a performer and a viewer, and I entered the event fairly nervous about the difficulty I would have in interpreting a plot line from Solomon’s choreographic choices. To me, it seemed to be largely an examination of the stages of life and development humans go through, linked intimately to the idea of the Sweat and the emotional/spiritual/physiological challenges endured by Sweat participants.

I also saw themes of Native erasure, resilience, freedom, struggle, and release illustrated by the ways that Solomon and Medellin-Meinke interacted with each other, and the ways their individual physical and facial expressions morphed from the beginning of the performance to the end.

In the Q & A Panel following the performance, Solomon explained some of the inspiration for the piece. Part of it, he said, came from seeing young people full of potential struggling very publicly with drug dependence on the outskirts of his neighbourhood. He also described personal struggles with health and the tragic loss of some of those close to him. I imagine the performance, which appeared at times to be very physically challenging, was a tremendous outlet for both he and Medellin-Meinke to find emotional, physical, and spiritual release from these sadnesses and struggles. As well, the recreation in a sense, of the Sweat ceremony lift that weight from the performers and the audiences alike.

As I watched the piece, I wished several times that I could pause and rewind moments so I could retrieve more meaning. I understood that there were many layers to the piece, and felt as though my lack of basic understanding of contemporary dance movement hindered my ability to delve through all of the intended projections of the choreography. In addition, there were several points where I felt the compulsive urge to move or dance along with the performers. I felt embarrassed about it until, during our presentation on the event, Vanessa mentioned a similar experience. After having had that confirmation, I decided that the urge to physically respond was more than likely the performance unlocking something within the both of us (and very likely others in attendance), although I’ve yet to give much thought to what that something is.

The second piece, Greed, was performed by Byron Chief-Moon (Blackfoot), Jerry Longboat (Mohawk-Cayuga), Olivia Davies (Welsh-Anishnaabe), and Luglio Romero (Costa Rican). The piece was introduced by the evening’s program as an examination of greed as told through the lens of a man struggling with the stock market. Chief-Moon has stated at various points that Greed was a contemporary reinterpretation of the traditional Blackfoot story of Bloodclot Boy (I will provide a link to this story at the end of my post) and the concept of triple witching (a time in the stock market where one can win or lose millions).

I found this piece much easier to interpret, I think, partially because I had heard earlier in the month from Chief-Moon himself a bit about the piece and its origins. As well, the information in the performance program provided a basic outline of the central theme, while the description of NDN Way felt more cryptic to me.

I saw plenty of Christian imagery throughout the piece; there was a point at which Chief-Moon’s head was pushed down repeatedly by the other performers that seemed reminiscent of a baptism into the religion of greed. Additionally, quite early in the performance, Davies was held aloft in a very Christ-like way. I thought it was an interesting and apt parallel to draw  between Christianity which has been responsible for the justification of much greed in the world (via the attempted takeover and annihilation of many Indigenous peoples around the world) and greed represented by the American stock market.

I feel as though both performances embody Yvette Nolan’s concept of survivance quite well; Solomon’s piece through the lens of Indigeneity surviving trauma with lightness and hope, and Chief-Moon’s piece via the struggle to maintain traditional knowledge despite Western society’s favouring of capitalism above all.

I also thought both Solomon and Chief-Moon’s very contemporary forms of storytelling were compelling, but would like to problematize the word “contemporary”. Obviously, any Indigenous performance occurring in the present is “contemporary”, but I think there is a prevalent Canadian conceptualization of Indigenous performance in particular as being wrapped up in tradition in a non-living/fluid sense of the word. These performances are different from many others I have witnessed in that they are told in very abstract ways, not ones that would necessarily be pereceived as “traditional” by outsiders/non- First Nations viewers.

Question: Byron-Chief Moon’s performing arts company COYOTEARTS, seeks to support contemporary retellings of traditional Indigenous stories. How might this effect Native and non-Native audiences differently? What are the pros and cons of opening these stories up for display in “acceptably” tradition and “non-traditional” ways? Are there better terms for traditional and contemporary that aren’t in competition?


See here for a (very problematic) review of Greed: (see here for reference to the Blackfoot Bloodclot Boy story)

*End note: it was difficult to find reviews for both Greed and NDN Way, although significantly harder for the latter. Both of these pieces have been performed several times over a period of at least a year, so I found this quite interesting. Worth noting is that Greed itself is an experimental piece, and as such it has fluctuated in performers and means of presentation in the years since it opened.

Two Ways of Seeing at One Panel Discussion

Panel Discussion for Dana Claxton’s exhibition Made to Be Ready  February 27, 2016 / SFU Audain Gallery

As part of the public programming for Dana Claxton’s exhibition Made to Be Ready, a panel discussion was held that featured three speakers in the location of the actual exhibition space. It was neat in this circumstance to be surrounded by Dana’s work while conversing about it. It was a full house with a mixed audience of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, curators, artists, MFA students, and local scholars in the Vancouver contemporary art scene.  I recognized a majority of people from my involvement in contemporary art, most of whom I haven’t previously seen at other Indigenous related events we’ve been going to as part of our course.

The speakers were:

Monika Kin Gagnon, a Professor of Communication Studies at Concordia University who “has published widely on cultural politics, the visual and media arts since the 1980s.”

Richard William Hill, a curator, critic and art historian and is a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Studies at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. “His research focuses primarily, but not exclusively, on historical and contemporary art created by Indigenous North American artists. As a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, he oversaw the museum’s first substantial effort to include Indigenous North American art and ideas in permanent collection galleries. His essays on art have appeared internationally in numerous books, exhibition catalogues and periodicals.”

Tania Willard, who is of Secwepemc Nation and is a curator who “works with the shifting ideas of contemporary and traditional as they relate to cultural arts and production, often working with bodies of knowledge and skills that are conceptually linked to her interest in intersections between Aboriginal and other cultures.” Her curatorial projects have included Beat Nation: Art Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture and BUSH gallery, a conceptual space for land based art and action led by Indigenous artists.

The Moderator:

Catherine Soussloff, a Professor of Art History at UBC, in which I had the pleasure of taking her course on Performance in Art History (Fall 2015). “She is known for her comparative and historical approaches to the central theoretical concerns of European and North American art and aesthetics, including photography and film, from the Renaissance to the present.”


Melanie O’Brian, the Director of the SFU Galleries, opened with an acknowledgement of the panel taking place on unceded Coast Salish territories. Amy Kazymerchyk, the curator, presented some of her questions and approaches she has been considering in her curatorial practice, one of them being: “How can contemporary art fit with Indigenous practices as acts of doing, becoming, and worldmaking that emphasizes the liveliness of presence?”

My overall experience of witnessing:

I felt like I went in to the panel with two ways of seeing, that is through the knowledge I have gained through my experiences of being in the contemporary art scene, and the knowledge I have gained from Dr. Dangeli and our class discussions. As a result, I was able to apply these two ways of thinking to realize that the discussion overall was both productive and lacking in the elaboration of certain points made.

Overall, I found that there were many contrasts between the panel discussion and the way we had approached discussing this exhibition in class. The panel focused more on the theoretical side of applying certain theories and notions to Dana’s work instead of also reflecting on how we may be personally witnessing Dana’s work through our own individual ways of responding in relation to the backgrounds we come from. The majority of the audience was reluctant on expressing the specific meanings and kinds of narratives occurring one may individually draw from the works. Instead, the panel centered around how Dana provides an alternate framework for challenging dominant ways of seeing in the space of a gallery and inverting narratives, which brought out many important points, but also felt lacking. I found that there was little commentary or elaboration on specific cultural belongings and their ceremonial and sacred relations (especially compared to our class discussion), and most of the time, the works were not addressed by their actual titles, and only through their mediums and physical locations. The speakers mostly addressed Uplifting in all of their presentations.

Key topics & terms addressed:

Monika’s Presentation: Monika talked about her personal experiences she has had with Dana in the 90s, a time when Dana began to strongly influence the starting up of creating space for Indigenous works and performances in Vancouver through the Pit Gallery.

Vocalization:  Where complex narrative structures in which multiple perspectives can arise as being unstable and unfixed. Monika stated that the narrative in Uplifting pulls us through to this direction, and that Dana brings a strong positionality that we’re not used to seeing dominantly, in which she uses vocalization as a strategy.

Richard’s Presentation: Richard spoke about associations of Claxton’s work as being inconclusive and indefinite.

Bodies of Matter: As in Uplifting, he stated that the body is both bound and spiritually transcended, oscillating between the two. He described the video as taking on a poetic expression of song and dance, moved by the pace of abstraction. With the video having a quick loop, he asked if the woman in it at the end has either transcended or fallen, has overcame struggle or not, stating that the way of tradition can be both a blessing and a burden.

Audience response: In response to this, an artist I recognized (who is based in Vancouver of Chinese origin), spoke up to say that there’s also many other layers in between the video to consider in relation to how it ends, in which she stated that the end is not affirmative and we should consider the in-between acts of what happens (this made me think of Recollet’s discussion on ‘in between’ spaces). This audience member also stated that she is not to speak to specific Indigenous content coming from her own background, so she does not go into further elaboration on what these in between spaces could mean to her, even though it was nice to hear her point out that there’s something more happening in the video than just whatever the ‘outcome’ of it might be.

Location of art & art made for location: Richard states that Dana plays with tensions of the gallery space, questioning what it can be and what it has been. He asserts that landscape is present in gallery’s space through the horizontal axis of film, which allows for it to be a space of speculation on a connection point that is between the earth and sky.

Tania’s presentation: Tania spoke about Uplifting in relation to Indigenous women and principles of living in beauty. She emphasized the insertion of Dana’s generosity in the exhibition space, which is filled with provocation and beauty. She has previously worked with Dana on curatorial projects before.

Intuitive navigation: Tania states that Dana helps us to arrive at an intuitive way of navigating relations between culture and institutions, but also denies us. As we consume her work, her work consumes us: it has obstacles that interrupts how we usually consume materials and beauty.

Internal ways of seeing: In reference to this, she also states that Dana makes us rely on internal ways of seeing through her cultural belongings, as they carry things that which we remember ourselves and our families in.

Space of slowness: Another point Tania makes is how Dana gives us gift of time, stating we’re gifted to be here and exist with its recorded performance for a period of time, to understand it as a ‘tool of way finding’. She discusses how Dana offers us spaces in-between that we start to fill ourselves with and read into these subtleties so that we can begin to see other paths and avenues that are filled with dignity and potential. But again, I found that these possibilities of ‘potential’ are not elaborated on in terms of how we can take action of our responsibilities as witnesses.

Side note: At this moment when talking about space of slowness and reflection, a little girl sitting in front of me who was playing a video game during the discussion looked up for the first time and took a moment to pause and watch the crawling woman in the video. It was a neat moment to see this happen at this time when we were all silent and really giving our attention to the struggling pain the woman was undergoing in the video.

Catherine’s discussion: Catherine began by introducing herself as an outsider (has been living for 6 years in Vancouver), and describes Dana, her colleague, as an art warrior for her people, being on the inside (of her Lakota culture) while operating on the outside (the art world). She states that Dana is made to be ready to teach meanings and ways of knowing the world from both sides.

Towards the end, she asked us how do we find the right kind of language to use that justifies this work? She stated that to her, the theoretical is the right kind of language for herself to use as an outsider.

Strategies of indirection: Catherine referenced Gerald Vizenor’s notion of ‘indirection’, of which she stated that Dana uses the gallery space indirectly by having an active presence asserted in it, but without having a live performance happening. The idea behind having this indirection is to mean that there is no direct way of knowing.


Reading Relation: Monique Mojica, “Verbing Art” (Me Artsy)

“Indigenous cultures recognize the need for performance and repetition.” (17)

In addition to Dana’s intentions to disrupt ways of seeing in the gallery space and inverting standard narratives, I feel that she is also reminding us or making aware, especially to an audience who who may be unfamiliar with, of how much performance and repetition has always been and still has a profound presence at the core of Indigenous cultural practices. I think this point Mojica makes could have contributed nicely in thinking about performance in the panel discussion.

Mojica’s notion of ‘auto-biological’: the performances Mojica creates “lives organically in her body”, “as a continuum of embodied stories (from her immediate elder generations, her ancestors, and from ancestral land) is what “connects her to the temporal space of performance”, which then “evaporates, held in memory until it is repeated”. (17)

Without having the temporality of a live performance, I think that this idea of the ‘auto-biological’ can be lost a bit through the mediated representation of the woman’s movement in Uplifting, but the idea of repetition is emphasized to remind us of ancestral continuation. Perhaps one of the reasons that this discussion may have lacked consideration of a personal way of responding and internal witnessing of the exhibition is because it exists as a space of performativity without having the temporal experience of moving bodies performed live.

I thought this quote (below) from Mojica’s piece of writing is a nice way to end this post off with. I feel it reflects the other way of seeing I have come to experience through our Indigenous performance course that could help to bridge the discussions that took place in the panel and our thinking about how we each can relate to the living force in the exhibition space that Dana generously presents us with:

“Living as an artist has required me to be fearless in search of cultural recovery and to reclaim those missing pieces with fierceness in order to put unspoken language in my mouth and unpracticed rhythms in my feet, to literally put myself back together.” (16)


Thanks for reading on, see more on our presentation slides!


Circadia Indigena’s “Resolve”: Hidden clear messages

“REsolve is a courageous perspective of an individual, exploring thoughts and feelings, emotions and actions confronting corporate corruption and the destruction of our biosphere. In this dance we are observing from political cultures the perspectives and personal experiences of hopes, dreams and fears; exploring the thoughts, feelings, emotions and actions when confronted by an increasingly authoritarian system. However, with peace we share the insight of the internal thoughts and decisions of the individual forced to confront losing, one’s human rights and freedoms; participating with nature and fighting back or becoming the oppressors’ to death. But, also REsolveis to be at peace to overcome our present slavery physiological bondage; where you have no choice but to stand up for freedom; inspiring and moving at many levels, politically, culturally, regionally and intercontinental. REsolve inspires to address issues of de-colonisation of self, our tribal dances of spirituality, enhancing the bio connection to landscapes, plants, wildlife above and water, shape shifting and confinement, sexual abuse issues, racism and classism, and the codification of slavery, consumerism, and rural lifestyles, incorporating traditional and contemporary dance in solos, duets and quartets and original music for 30 minutes.” (From the Vancouver International Dance Festival performance catalogue.)


On Thursday the 3 March, I witnessed a 30-minute contemporary dance performance by the Ottawa-based Indigenous dance group Circadia Indigena, entitled REsolve. The piece was the opening performance for the 2016 Vancouver International Dance Festival (VIDF) and the preceding piece for the performance of Compagnie Virginie Brunelle (which played around 30 minutes after REsolve finished). The performance was held at the Roundhouse Exhibition Hall in Yaletown at 7.00 PM.

At around 6.30 PM my partner and I arrived, paid the $3 membership fee for the VIDF and entered the Yaletown Roundhouse Exhibition Hall. Blue lights illuminated a raised stage, in front of which were around thirty little round tables covered by black tablecloths and fake candles. Sushi, vegetables and dip, crackers and cheese, and profiteroles were available for free consumption. I observed the audience: they were mainly Caucasian (as far as I could tell) and over the age of 40, mingling and chatting as one would at an art gallery opening. I wondered how this chic soirée setting, surrounded by the VIDF’s annual art and photo exhibition, would contribute to how the witnesses were to view and absorb REsolve.

After introductions by Amanda Parris (host of CBC’s Arts & culture Program Exhibitionists) and the Co-producers of the VIDF, Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi, the performance began. Byron Chief-Moon* slowly entered onstage and faced away from the audience, holding a position that resembled shooting a bow and arrow and, twitching, crumpled to the ground. Jerry Longboat*, Luglio S. Romero*, and Olivia C. Davies* slowly entered from the sides of the audience and crept upon the stage. All four performers were wearing zombie-like make-up (white faces and dark eye sockets), and the men sported ripped business suits while Olivia wore a dress with red fabric cascading down the front. Olivia, Jerry, and Luglio squatted whilst Byron made motions of picking things up and dragged himself across the stage by his hair and clothes. The others then rose to join Byron in a circle dance, which was followed by a catwalk-like segment in which the dancers seemed to impersonate monster-fashion models. During most of the first half of the piece, the music was overlaid with a creepy voice performing an often-unintelligible monologue about exercising control over others. At one point, one of the dancers assumed the position of the standing cross, and the other three laid him down on the ground. This was repeated by two more of the dancers. At this point I could hear snippets of the monologue saying “we will guide them” and “we shall extinguish them”.

Soon afterward, Byron ran upstage and stared at the audience. The music stopped, and Byron proceeded to make a speech. He was echoed visually on a screen at the back of the stage on which was projected a live video of him (the cameraman of which was positioned in the audience)—this was reminiscent of the multiple-angle videos of people performing speeches on television. Ironically, the essence of Byron’s speech was “Turn off your TV!” “Television is not the truth,” he exclaimed, it is a circus, or rather a freak show. He advises us to “go to yourself; there you will find truth.” Throughout his speech the other three dancers approached Byron slowly, looking incredibly annoyed and threatening, whispering viciously. After a while Byron noticed them and yields his cause: “Okay. I said okay!”

The music resumed with a fast tempo and the dancers resumed their dance, this time echoed visually on the background screen, which multiplied their images and outlined the dancing figures with radiating colourful contours (perhaps reminiscent of the sensory overload of television). The lyrics of the songs spread clear messages: “We want your soul” and “America, your government is in control again”. Suddenly, each of the performers revealed some sort of sparkly or otherwise outrageous garment or accessory, and guest artist Su-Feh Lee entered the stage. She was dressed in a sparkly corset, fishnet stockings, and high boots, and she whipped an enormous bullwhip. Jerry longboat held out a large dark feather (as one may imagine a Medieval priest held out a cross to a person assumed of witchcraft). Nevertheless, all of the performers made beckoning movements accompanying the lyrics “We want your soul”. All of a sudden, the four dancers slumped to the ground. The music stopped and the lights turned off, and only the repeating crack of the bullwhip remained. When the lights were raised, the four dancers rose quickly and scattered to the opposite end of the stage from the bullwhipper. The five dancers then reassembled in center upstage and, smiling, took a bow.

REsolve was an incredibly confusing piece to witness, riddled with metaphorical imagery and hidden meaning. Possible interpretations that I had were as follows:

  • The crosses laid on top of one another may symbolise the indoctrination of Christianity upon Indigenous Peoples and the consequent deaths of some Aboriginal cultures, traditions, and communities.
  • “Turning off the TV”, in addition to an act of rebellion toward the accelerated and over-crowded superficialities of contemporary society, is also an act of decolonisation and Indigenous resurgence.
  • The “circus” imagery painted in Byron’s speech is reminiscent of the old act of turning Indigenous people into side show attractions. This phenomenon inspired Monique Mojica’s play Side Show Freaks & Circus Injuns (produced by Native Earth Performing Arts), which she discusses briefly in her essay “Verbing Art” (in Me Artsy, page 27).
  • The violent hushing of Byron’s speech by the others is an act of oppression against movements of resurgence and decolonisation.
  • Su-Feh Lee’s bullwhip figure may represent an authoritarian system; this is emphasised by the others slumping to the ground, jumping up and scattering toward the opposite corner as they become overrun by the oppressor.
  • We can spot small acts of resistance throughout the piece, such a Jerry Longboat’s feather and Byron’s more-or-less constant spirit of defiance.

As the audience was left to ponder over the meaning of REsolve, my partner and I exited the Exhibition Hall. Although confused and still digesting, we were certain that we had just witnessed a strong act of Indigenous resistance toward oppressive systems.


*Byron Chief-Moon is a Two-Spirit dancer and actor and a member of the Kainai Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Southern Alberta. He was born in Carlsbad, California and now lives between Vancouver and Los Angeles with his family. His dance choreography combines traditional Blackfoot stories, dances, and songs with contemporary themes, dance, and music.

Jerry Longboat is the artistic director and founder of Circadia Indigena. He is Mohawk-Cayuga, of the Turtle Clan, from the Six Nations of the Grand River in Southern Ontario. He is a visual artist, graphic designer, actor, storyteller, dancer, and choreographer and has performed with professional dance companies across Canada.

Luglio S. Romero was born and raised in Costa Rica and studied Dance &Latin American Studies at Simon Fraser University. He has performed as a professional member of ballet companies in Costa Rica and BC, and he now teaches Zumba in Vancouver.

Olivia C. Davies is of Aboriginal heritage and studied dance at York University. She co-founded the MataDanZe Collective, a project aiming to empower women through movement. She is an Apprentice with the Dancers of Damelahamid and has choreographed performances for numerous festivals around Canada.

Su-Feh Lee is a Malaysian dancer/choreographer and the founder of the Vancouver-based dance company battery opera.

Visit Circadia Indigena’s website here:

Read the horrible review that I discussed in my class presentation here:

Lastly, here are some questions that witnessing REsolve provoked for me:

1)How might the setting (the tablecloths, fake candles, sushi and profiteroles, etc.) have played into how the attendees witnessed the evening’s performance of REsolve?

2)In her essay Verbing Art, Monique Mojica discusses “playing Indian” as a perpetual stereotypical role for mainstream Indigenous performers. She writes, “Our choices are either to put ourselves at the mercy of the artistic vision and politics of non-Indigenous directors, playwrights, artistic directors, designers and public relations machines and to stalwartly try to affect change from within those institutions, or to struggle to create [our] own theatre where our Indigenous artistic visions are in control and we unapologetically hold power over our voices, our stories and our images” (from Me Artsy, page 23). How does Circadia Indigena communicate this issue in REsolve? Additionally, how does the group maintain power over their own artistic visions and voices to change the common view of Indigenous performance art?

Dana Claxton: Made To Be Ready

On January 14th, 2016 I had the privilege of witnessing Dana Claxton’s Made To Be Ready Exhibit opened at SFU’s Audain Gallery. When going through this exhibit I tried to keep in mind what I had just read in the exhibition statement but also what Karyn Recollet discusses in her piece For Sisters regarding layering, and the ways Indigenous peoples and their art have been categorized in “overly simplistic ways.” For my reflection, I will be specifically speaking to the two pieces in Made to be Ready, called Cultural Belongings and Headdress.

As a beader myself, I always feel like I have an extra appreciation and understanding of the time and precision it takes to finish a piece. Often however, I feel like beadwork specifically is incredibly tokenized as simplistic Indigenous garb. Also, mainstream representations of Aboriginal fashion are often grotesque cultural appropriations that do little to represent any actual representations of Indigeneity and lack the recognition of these ‘inspired’ designs.

In Headdress, Claxton is able to move away from this cultural presumption and display beadwork as more than garb, in the form of a headdress. Typically when you see a headdress, one commonly imagines a full eagle feather warbonnet complete with, beaded bands and ribbon, and more often than not, placed on top of a male chief. I am not of Lakota decent and I cannot speak to protocol or teachings around the headdress but when I see this photo, I noticed that it’s quite feminine. Also again, I cannot speak to Lakota headdress teachings, but this headdress hangs in the face of the woman rather than down the back of her hair.

You also see the woman wearing the headdress in Claxtons relating piece, Cultural Belongings. One of the first things I thought about while looking at this piece was the juxtaposition between the contemporary aesthetics along with the representations of Indigenous culture and arts. My eye first drawn to the woman’s dress, her shoes, her buckskin shawl, and I wonder how long it took to make that hide, and where I can find a pair of shoes like that. The woman, mid-step, is lead or guided by a horse staff and following her, on the ends of her shawl are belongings and teachings she physically trailing behind her. Of these items I noticed the beaded barrets, purses, pouches, and what I think might be an arrow quiver. What I hadn’t noticed at first is there seems to be a separate piece of buckskin that show symbols of pictographs, representing a connection to ancestors that claimed space by painting stories, and events on rocks structures.

Immediate news coverage responded to this exhibit were positive in that many of the writers were using interviews with Claxton to promote a narrative that challenges dominate discourses that have sought to dehumanize Indigenous women.

Today Dana Claxton claims the spaces of these gallery walls by placing works of beautiful beading across that space that reclaim Indigenous expressions of past, present and future while centering the image of strong Indigenous women. She displays these items as pieces of identity rather than items created for the purpose of resale as commodities. She centers these pieces as everyday items of contemporary Indigeneity expression rather than relics of an Indigenous past.

Reel Reservations: the Embargo Project, “Skyworld”

As part of The Talking Stick Festival, I attended the film screening of Reel Reservations: Cinematic Indigenous Sovereignty Series, which is a series of short and feature Indigenous films curated by Colin Van Loon. On Thursday, February 25, I attended the film screening of The Embargo Project, a collection of short films by Indigenous women filmmakers. For this blog, I will discuss one of the films titled Skyworld by Zoe Hopkins.

Biography: Zoe Hopkins

Zoe is Heiltsuk and Mohawk from Six Nations, Ontario. She is a fluent speaker of the Mohawk language and maintains close connections with both her Heiltsuk and Mohawk roots. She received a degree in Film from Ryerson and furthered her studies at the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program. Zoe has screened films around the world at festivals including Sundance, Worldwide Short Film Festival and Berlin. She has won several awards, including the NSI Online Festival Festival’s A&E Short Filmmakers Award and the Best Canadian Short Drama at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival.

Film Synopsis: Skyworld

Part of the Embargo Project is that each filmmaker had a set of restrictions to work with. Zoe Hopkins had various restrictions to work with, including:

  • Had to be surrealist film although her recent work was comedies
  • She had to work with a different crew than normal
  • make a single-shot film
  • Use non-synch sound
  • Use hand-made props/costumes
  • Had to be influenced in some way by Caroline Monnet’s work

Zoe said, “To sum up the rules I was given by the group: I’m scared. Until I remember the point of the whole collective – to experiment without fear of failure.”

The film is an 18 minute surrealist drama about a mother’s journey after the passing of her son’s father. At the beginning, the narrator briefly describes skyworld. In Mohawk teachings, people come from skyworld and return after their passing. She said that when her husband’s passing, part of her went to skyworld as well. As part of her grieving process, the main character moves between the real world and skyworld. She moves in with her parents to help take care of herself and her son and her parents begin teaching the Mohawk language. Through her connection with family and learning the language, she is able to find healing. At the end, a year after the death of her husband, she no longer moves between the two-worlds as she embraces her son.


There are a lot of things that could be talked about from this film but one thing that stood out to me was the role of language. The main character is on a personal journey of grieving and healing but I think it can also be viewed as a metaphor for the colonial damage on Indigenous people and the work that is being done to repair and resist this damage. Zoe’s film can be looked at in Nolan’s terms of ceremony and healing. One of the ways language is used in this film and for Indigenous people is as a tool of healing. By understanding the world around us and our lived realities through our Indigenous language, we create a worldview that allows us to escape from cognitive imperialism. One thing that the main character in the film pointed out is that there is no word for “empty” in her language but rather everything stems from the positive, so it would be “not good” rather than “bad.” Language is a way to return and reclaim Indigenous ways of knowing and being.

Language can also be used as a tool to decolonize the presentation space. Too often, film, theatres, the stage and other performance places are colonial spaces that impose one way of knowing onto the experiences of the audience. This little room for Indigenous experiences to be validated, upheld, and discussed. The use of language immediately challenges and deconstructs that space to make it relevant to the Indigenous performers.

Lalakenis Feast hosted by Beau Dick

On January 15, Beau Dick (Walas Gwa’yam) hosted the Lalakenis Feast in the AMS Great Hall at UBC. Beau is a Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary chief, a renowned artist, and cultural leader. The Lalakenis Feast was a celebration for the opening of Beau’s Lalakenis/ All Directions: A Journey of Truth and Unity exhibit that opened the following day at the Belkin Gallery. This exhibit is in response to and in conversation with Awalaskenis II: Journey of Truth and Unity, a journey that Beau and others took from UBC to Ottawa to enact a copper breaking ceremony. The Lalakenis Feast was a day-long event and had a long list of presenters and performers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, from a diverse array of artistic traditions.

The Lalakenis Feast brought together a diverse community of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. It was a profound opportunity for relationship building and bridging understanding between all those that participated in the event. Beau’s vision of creating a space of unity resonated powerfully with the speakers, dancers, and singers that presented their work.

Chief Robert Joseph reflected upon the concept of relationship building as reflected in the Kwak’wala word “Namwayut”. He stressed that reconciliation requires more than dialogue, it requires repairing and strengthening relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. I think that artistic collaborations are an integral component of the broader process of reconciliation, as they epitomize the practice of relationship building. In the words of Anishinaabe artist Emilie Monet,

“Collaborations are entities of their own, that move and evolve as projects unfold and individuals transform. Artistic collaborations nourish inspire and help push boundaries further. They allow space for growth, for new knowledge to be acquired and for new friendships to be born. They can bring people together to collectively envision a different world.”

These endeavors are incredibly complex for they bring together a multitude of people from a diverse range of communities, families and backgrounds each with their own unique set of values, experiences, teachings, and worldviews. Accordingly, collaborations are quite difficult to accomplish as they require the individuals involved to overcome any personal barriers that they may have that inhibit the necessary compassion and understanding as well as the broader societal structures that divide communities to be addressed. In this way, collaboration is a decolonizing act, for the task of working collaboratively necessitates that the parties involved overcome the divisions that colonial violence has torn into our lives. The multiple realities that collaborators weave together have the power to create dialogue and hopefully bring meaningful change and understanding to all those who witness it. Collaborators weave together histories, erase boundaries, and ask witnesses to see connections that may not be obvious. For example, at Lalakenis, Beau and his brother, Gyauustees, worked side by side to host the event, even though they came from very different backgrounds. Gyauustees comes from a background of sundance and Beau comes from a background of potlatches.

My hands go up to Beau, his family, friends, and community that work tirelessly and generously with the utmost humility to host such events with the intention of creating unity among all people.

Negotiating Protocols Within vs without Indigenous Communities

The Lalakenis Feast, 15 January 2016

Before the Lalakenis Feast, I had heard some people refer to it as a potlatch. “Potlatch” is a chinook jargon word, which is used to describe a ceremony where gifts are given. Yet it means something very different depending on where you come from. A Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch follows a strict set of protocols. Every person who attends one must be aware of, and respect the protocol and usually the only people who may attend the potlatch are those who are invited, and most are from the Kwakwaka’wakw tribes. Songs and dances can only be sung and danced by the families who have the hereditary right to them, or whom have been granted permission to use them.

The Lalakenis Feast was not a potlatch and was never called one by the hosts. Yet, there were many elements of a potlatch in it. Initially I felt concern that some Kwakwaka’wakw protocols were being broken. For example, in Kwakwaka’wakw culture it is common for someone to pass on their Kwakwaka’wakw name to a baby, but this is done so with much deliberation and consideration, because the name that goes to that child is their responsibility. Yet at the feast many children were given names, without knowing the child. Another example is that on the tentative schedule that we were sent before the feast the “hamatsa dancers” were listed. This concerned me because the hamatsa ceremony happens during the Tseka ( or Cedarbark ceremony) part of the potlatch, this is considered a very spiritually charged part of the potlatch. This dance cannot be performed outside of the potlatch and should stay within the bighouse. However, the Hamatsa dancers were not part of the feast.

The event was in the AMS Student Nest not a bighouse. It was an open invitation event so many in attendance didn’t know Kwakwaka’wakw protocols. Moreover, Beau involved many other indigenous and non-indigenous ceremonies and presenters in the event. My initial concern about protocol is a result of growing up in a Kwakwaka’wakw community, and having these protocols instilled in me from a young age. Yet, when I moved passed my concern, I was very aware of the uplifting and healing nature of the event.

I moved to Vancouver from my small Kwakwaka’wakw community on northern Vancouver Island to study at UBC. In my two years here, It’s become apparent to me that there is a privileging of western knowledge over indigenous knowledge systems within the institution. Beau’s feast made space for our Kwakwaka’wakw knowledge systems as well as other indigenous ways of knowing. These ways of knowing value relationships, between each other and the natural world.

I think perhaps we need to consider that events that happen within our Indigenous communities for our communities specifically, will have a different set of protocols, or will negotiate protocols differently than an event that is for those from outside communities. So how do we negotiate this respectfully and without creating conflict?

For more information about the feast check out the presentation:

Lalakenis Group Presentation Slides

You can also read Eliana’s blog post on Beau Dick and the Lalakenis feast here:

Eliana’s Post




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.