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Tomson Highway and Witi Ihimaera: “Distance be damned”

Tomson Highway (Cree, Canada) and Witi Ihimaera (Maori, New Zealand) are two of the most prominent voices in Indigenous literature. They were here last week as guest faculty in our two-week Indigenous Writing Program, and I met up with both of them to talk about the closeness of their cultures, and the writers and stories that are shaping the landscape in Indigenous arts.

Tomson Highway and Witi Ihimaera on a sunny September day. Photo: Rita Taylor.

Tomson Highway and Witi Ihimaera on a sunny September day. Photo: Rita Taylor.

AA: Tell me about the cultural and artistic landscapes in Canada and New Zealand — how do they relate, and how do they differ?

WI: Canadian authors are so well-known in New Zealand that we actually think of them as belonging to the same literary tradition. I don’t think that would be the same for New Zealand authors in Canada. As far as indigeneity is concerned, we are absolutely similar — in terms of our histories and in terms of what’s happened to us as Maori and First Nations peoples. There are similar texts about young native men trying to find a way in the world. My books are actually a reflection of similar conflicts — personal and political—that I have had to go through in New Zealand, just as (Tomson’s) characters go through in his Canadian novels and plays.

TH: The principle difference is the sheer size of Canada. I say that with great passion, because I come from one of the most isolated parts of the country, the Manitoba-Nunavut border. That affects the way you think, the way you feel, the way you write, and the way you imagine the vastness of a place. The similarities are much more notable. When the native people of Canada and the Maori people of New Zealand get together, it is fantastic. This is the story I wanted to tell you, Witi: I hosted a party at my house in Toronto for a Maori group that was passing through. The party went on until 10 o’clock the next morning, and it ended up at the airport.

WI: It’s really great to come to Banff in particular. At least 25 Maori have been here just this year. I come to find out what the situation report is for our two literatures. Also to party, because we like to party.

TH: We come from joyful cultures. We laugh a lot, our languages laugh a lot.

WI: Tomson was invited to come down to New Zealand to play the piano; there are these exchanges all the time.

TH: Distance be damned, we’re still together.

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Tulugak: Tracking the raven’s flight

Hans Henrik Poulsen, Kimmernaq Kjeldsen, Beatrice Deer, and Natashia Allakariallak in Tulugak. Photo: Don Lee.

Hans Henrik Poulsen, Kimmernaq Kjeldsen, Beatrice Deer, and Natashia Allakariallak in Tulugak. Photo: Don Lee.

“In the north we have humans, dogs, and ravens, we’re always watching each other,” says Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory. “Ravens live in our communities because humans are there, and they mimic us.” She describes how caribou hunters will look for ravens flying over herds, to pinpoint where the caribou are wandering. “But you can’t always rely on the ravens. You can’t always trust them.”

There are a million stories to be told about ravens – about their intelligence, their mischievousness, their reflection of human society, and adaptation to the environment. Bathory and her co-creator, Sylvia Cloutier, have picked a few of those stories and layered them together to create a new type of stage performance. Their show, Tulugak: Raven Stories, was finished in creative residency at The Banff Centre in April before it opened at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, one of the showcase performances of the Northern Scene festival in May.

“We’ve always dreamed of having a circumpolar, multi-disciplinary cast, and blending contemporary and traditional art forms,” Bathory says. Over the course of two years, she and Cloutier have built the show from the ground up, with dozens of collaborators from northern Canada, and now Greenland. They began with an early version of the show, developed for the Iqaluit Summer Festival in 2011, and took about a third of that cast to further workshop it and perform in Nuuk, Greenland. Continue Reading →

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Tulugak: A raven-themed residency lifts off

There are a bunch of different levels of collaboration in Tulugak: Raven Stories – between actors, musicians, and dancers; between Greenlandic and Canadian Inuit artists; between traditional and contemporary art forms – but I was most intrigued by the working collaboration between the show’s two creators. Sylvia Cloutier and Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory both live and work in Iqaluit, and Tulugak is the result of their close friendship.

TulugakThe Banff Centre

Actor and singer Miki Thomsen in Tulugak: Raven Stories. Photo: Don Lee.

Cloutier is a former dancer, and a katajjaq throat singer, and Bathory is an Inuit mask dancer. “We’re best friends,” Cloutier says. “We’re working together whenever we have coffee. We cook together. We have home office parties. The collaboration and the friendship is totally knit together.” Bathory was at the birth of Cloutier’s second child, three-month-old Inuapik, who was at The Banff Centre with the Tulugak company for a two-week creative residency earlier this month.

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Joseph Boyden: fiction & fact

Joseph Boyden soaking in Banff in front of his Leighton Artists' Colony studio. Photo: Kim Williams.

Joseph Boyden in the Leighton Artists’ Colony. Photo: Kim Williams.

Earlier this week, Joseph Boyden opened his public reading here by confiding to the audience that he wasn’t supposed to read from his new work, but he was going to anyway. Then he dropped us right into a graphically violent scene involving his three protagonists, a scene he describes as, “a car chase from the 1600s.” The Orenda, Boyden’s newest novel, is set in the 1600s at the intersection of First Nations and Canadian history. The book is expected to be out in September, and I know that everyone who was in that room with me will want to know what happens to the three characters we were briefly introduced to: a Haudenosaunee, a Huron-Wendat, and a Jesuit.  

Boyden won the Giller Prize for his second novel, Through Black Spruce, and he’s been in our Leighton Artists’ Colony this week on a Paul D. Fleck Fellowship through Indigenous Arts, editing his new novel. I met him the day after his reading. For one thing, I wanted to know what he felt standing in front of us and reading from The Orenda. “It was fun to read but it was a little nerve-wracking,” he tells me.  ”You feel like a brand new writer again. Despite any little success I might have had, it’s all new again.” He’s clear that The Orenda stands alone (it’s not the third book in the trilogy that includes Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce) though fans may find an interesting connection to his previous novels.

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Walter Scott: Cut / Paste / Collaborate

When artist Walter Scott met with students from the Morley Community High School on the Stoney Reserve in late February, he wanted to do more than get them interested in studying art. He wanted to show them what it means to be a successful and professional Indigenous artist. 

Work produced by Morley Community School students during artist Walter Scott's workshop.

Work produced by Morley Community High School students during artist Walter Scott’s workshop.

The Walter Phillips Gallery has offered workshop programming with the school since 2004, bringing students to Banff for hands-on workshops, as well as sending resident artists into the school. During this recent workshop, students explored the Paul D. Fleck Library and Archives for source materials, which they used to create collages at their school the following day.  

While they were in the library, one of the Morley students was drawn to the work of German painter and printmaker A.R. Penck, which he used in his collage. Scott tracked down and emailed Penck’s name to the student the next day. “I know by experience how these little gestures can help a young person cultivate their interests, and make all the difference,” he said.

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“We are all Treaty people”

Making Treaty 7 artists Cowboy Smithx and Blake Brooker at The Banff Centre. Photo: Narcisse Blood

Making Treaty 7 artists Cowboy Smithx (left) and Blake Brooker (right) at The Banff Centre. Photo: Narcisse Blood.

“We ask for your grace and courage to tell our story in the most honest way possible.”

It is a golden winter afternoon at The Banff Centre. I am sitting in the Kinnear Centre dance studio listening to the words of a prayer, spoken first in Blackfoot and then in English. The prayer marks the opening of a workshop presentation of Making Treaty 7, a new theatrical work that examines the legacy of the 1877 treaty between the Crown and the Blackfoot First Nations.

As the setting sun paints the faces of those performing, I am by turns moved, shocked, informed, and, ultimately, inspired.

I am moved by the hardships faced by Alberta’s Indigenous people in the 1870s, and their hope that this Treaty would bring a brighter future for their children. I am shocked by the devastating impact smallpox had on Canada’s Indigenous people in the years before the Treaty signing. I am informed about the historical context of Treaty 7 — the promises made, and the promises broken. And I am inspired by the goal of this ambitious project — to create a renewed understanding of southern Alberta’s collective history and a shared vision for the future, because, in the words of Making Treaty 7,“we are all Treaty people.” Continue Reading →

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