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Indigenous theatre productions celebrate grandmothers

Michelle Thrush's Inner Elder leads the dancing. Image: Penney Kome

Calgarians had a chance to see two pieces of Indigenous theatre on consecutive nights recently. Arts Commons features works by Indigenous artists fairly regularly. These two pieces show that in the two or three generations of theatre artists since the 1974 founding of the Centre for Indigenous Theatre (then called the Native Theatre School) the community has developed significant depth and breadth.    

"It takes a great imagination to survive," says Michelle Thrush's little girl character in her one-person show, The Inner Elder. Clutching a small suitcase, Thrush turns into a small child who wishes a UFO would float down and take her away.

Her little girl was glad when her parents separated. "I don't think I could have raised two alcoholics," she says. But she and her dad moved around often, as he looked for work. She found role model families on television, and tried to pretend she belonged to one of them. Except, of course, with her straight, thick black hair and dark skin, she didn't look like the families on TV.

Actually, Michelle Thrush is drop-dead gorgeous. She is nationally known as an actress and a Cree activist for Indigenous rights, with a Gemini award to her credit, and major roles in shows like Blackstone and North of 60. Whether or not the play's story exactly mirrors her life, her age (50), suggests that some of the events unfortunately were very likely to happen to an Indigenous child.

One story in The Inner Elder is about a school spelling lesson, where the teacher produces this racist mnemonic for "arithmetic" -- "A Red Indian Thought He Might Eat Tomatoes In Class." When the little girl objected, the teacher called her people "savages."  

"I imagined my Kookum (grandmother) as a super hero, flying in on her broom," said the little girl. Kookum could always protect her. Then, later in the show, after her story about winning the Gemini, Thrush said that she rose from childhood turmoil "on the shoulders of grandmothers" and that "I've carried these women inside me for a long time."   

"Those women" the grandmothers, also guided the next evening's offering -- a world premiere of Kiitistsinnoniks (Our Mothers) from the newly revived Making of Treaty 7 (MT7) Cultural Society. Prairies First Nations revere their treaties. "Treaty 7 paved the way for the peaceful settlement of the Province of Alberta," says MT7's website. "Making Treaty 7 tells the story of that historic agreement, and investigates the results and implications 141 years later."

"Our treaty, Treaty 7, is one of a family of numbered treaties that were intended to define how two very different cultures might agree to coexist," the website continues. "But, to most people, Treaty 7 is an obscure, misunderstood historical artifact. This misunderstanding leads, in turn, to false assumptions, confrontation and distrust. A greater understanding of what Treaty 7 means, to each and every one of us, would be of great benefit to anyone who wishes for a better understanding of Calgary, its immediate history, and its potential as a truly great city."

Founded by impresario Michael Green (Elk Shadow) of One Yellow Rabbit, and Narcisse Blood (Middle Bull) of the Kainai First Nation, the original MT7 company produced an engaging student show that is still revived every year with a new student cast, and that tours Alberta schools teaching about First Nations history. There is also a full-featured multimedia adult theatrical production with live music, brightened with First Nations humour while putting a different perspective on settler history.

Michelle Thrush was involved with the creation of Making of Treaty 7. After the tragic deaths of the company's founders in February 2015, she stepped in as director for the annual performances and also, for the first time, took the show on the road, to Winnipeg and Ottawa.  

Now new Artistic Director Justin Many Fingers aims to build on the existing repertoire. He has landed solid funding from Blackfoot Crossing, the Siksika museum built on the site where Treaty 7 was signed. MT7 premiered Kaahsinnoniks (Our Ancestors) at the southern Jubilee Auditorium in early September, and Kiitistsinnoniks (Our Mothers) on October 23-25.  

Kiitistsinnoniks features an ensemble of four experienced actresses who created skits around the topic of Canada's estimated 2,000 murdered and missing Indigenous women, under the leadership of director Alanis King. As usual with an MT7 piece, the group worked closely with an Elder Knowledge Council -- this time 10 women -- to find ways to bring the missing women alive for an audience.

One skit has two little girls playing together, chasing each other around the stage, while one wonders aloud whether she will ever find out why her sister disappeared. A judge in a robe and fuzzy white wig calls for stereotypes of Indigenous women and the other women shout them out, from "stupid" to "slut." Women bond in a beauty shop over mani-pedis and rape stories. Women share a traditional song.

A rapper wanders through the scenes with rhymed insights and new claims, such as, "Abraham Maslow stole the hierarchy of human needs concept from the Blackfoot!"  

So what did the Elders bring to the MT7 creation? Knowledge, experience, ethics, and, perhaps, playfulness. At least, that's what Michelle Thrush found with her Inner Elder. For lack of Kookum swooping down in a cape, her little girl opened her small suitcase and pulled out clothes and a blanket to cover her while she donned them.

When the blanket dropped, out popped a wizened, wise-cracking Elder full of pep and peppery comments, bustling around, teasing audience members and eventually pulling three of them up on the stage. Her Elder skewered sacred cows, saying solemnly, "I acknowledge that we are all -- "then a twinkle -- "on Eighth Avenue!"

Stooped over, her Elder taught her audience volunteers to step this way and that way together and announced they were her backup singers. Then she pointed to the sound booth and yelled, "Hit it!" Ba-da-bom! Ba-da-pow! Aretha Franklin's "Respect" filled the hall. Thrush's Elder launched into a raucous, raunchy, hip-swinging dance, twirling her short-handled purse around one arm. 

Here was the exuberant spirit of a fearless, proficient performer having fun with an audience's expectations. The two evenings back-to-back showed Calgarians how much Indigenous theatre has evolved in (some of) our lifetimes.

Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column for four years. She was Editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004 - 2013.

Image: Penney Kome

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