Tricksters on Stage: Contemporary First Nations Theater and Drama in Canada

Posted on May 26, 2009 by Birgit Däwes, University of Würzburg, Germany

“Where do you get these things?” I says.
“I read a book,” says Coyote.
“Forget the book,” I says. “We’ve got a story to tell. And here’s how it goes.”

—Thomas King, Green Grass, Running Water

When Tomson Highway’s play The Rez Sisters was produced at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1988, most international critics encountered a form of artistic expression that had been entirely unknown to them. Even though indigenous theater is-next to storytelling-the oldest literary genre on the North American continent, and even though there are currently over 80 published and far over 180 unpublished plays by First Nations playwrights on the market, most critics and scholars have never heard of Native theater in Canada. Widely absent from anthologies of Canadian literature and drama, and even from collections of multicultural, ethnic, or Native texts, indigenous performance has been effectively excluded from the canon. This displacement has various reasons: for one, the performances of Canada’s First Nations were suppressed and prohibited by the colonizers for the longest time. In an 1885 amendment to the Indian Act of 1876, ceremonies and potlatches were officially prohibited in Canada. For another, there has been a crucial methodological and terminological diffusion of the genre: Even in the twentieth century, scholarship classified indigenous performance inaccurately as ‘ritual’ rather than as ‘theater,’ thus relegating a diverse and vibrant art form into the fields of religious studies or anthropology. Even more significantly, there has been a crucial confusion over authorship and authority. Many libraries’ listings of “First Nations performance” include works about, not by, Canada’s indigenous people; ranging from the nineteenth-century Wild West Shows to Ralph Connor’s lasting depiction of the “savages” in his novelThe Patrol of the Sun Dance Trail (1914). The place of the indigene on U.S.-American and Canadian stages has thus been occupied by controllable images; and once the indian simulacrum has successfully conquered the cultural imagination, the market clearly favors such simulations over the complex and much less popular diversity of authentic performances.

Fortunately, this misrepresentation is currently changing: since 2001, three major anthologies of First Nations plays have been published in Canada (DraMétis: Three Métis Plays [2001], The Great Gift of Tears: Four Aboriginal Plays [2002], and Staging Coyote’s Dream: An Anthology of First Nations Drama in English [2003]); and the second volume of Monique Mojica’s and Ric Knowles’Staging Coyote’s Dreamis presently being prepared in Toronto. Most recently, in 2008, Robert Nunn edited a volume of critical essays exclusively dedicated to Drew Hayden Taylor’s plays.

Although Native theater first re-emerged (in its contemporary format) in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, the genre has had a much better position and visibility in Canada. The “Six Nations Forest Theater” in Ontario has produced annual historical plays and festivals since 1948, and it was in the 1960s and 70s that the Civil Rights movement lastingly began to change the public perception of ethnic minorities, helping mainstream audiences to reconsider common stereotypes of primitivism, exoticism, or noble savagery. One play in particular served as a contribution to this process: The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1967), by Ukrainian-Canadian writer George Ryga, was one of the first theatrical works to draw serious attention to the exploitation of indigenous people in a contemporary urban setting. Soon, First Nations playwrights brought their own work to the stage: Mohawk writer Nona Benedict’s The Dress was published in 1970, followed by George Kenny’sOctober Stranger (1977). The latter presents a young Ojibway man trying to establish his identity among the different influences of his tribal traditions, the political activism of the American Indian Movement, and an assimilated life in the city.

In 1974, another stepping stone was set with the foundation of the Association for Native Development in the Visual and Performing Arts. From here, one of the most influential training centers for First Nations theatre professionals-the Native Theatre School (later renamed as the Centre for Indigenous Theatre) emerged. The Canada Council for the Art’s generous support triggered a whole wave of initiatives in the 1970s and 80s, including a number of new theaters and companies run by indigenous people. 1982 saw the establishment of “Native Earth Performing Arts” (NEPA) in Toronto, Canada’s oldest and, to the present day, most influential First Nations theater company. In its twenty-six year history of active productions, NEPA has not only brought forth a renowned annual festival of its own (“Weesageechak Begins to Dance”) as well as a remarkable number of internationally successful plays, but its list of members over the years reads like a “best of” guide to contemporary aboriginal playwrights, including Tomson Highway (Cree), Monique Mojica (Kuna/Rappahannock), Daniel David Moses (Delaware), Drew Hayden Taylor (Ojibway) and Yvette Nolan (Algonquin). Closely linked to NEPA, another theater group has contributed significantly to the present success of First Nations drama: “De-Ba-Jeh-Mu-Jig” (named after the Ojibway word for “storyteller”). Founded in 1984 against a completely different (rural) background, “Debaj” is a community-based organization operating from the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters, for example, which presents seven Cree and Ojibway women who travel from the fictional reserve of Wasaychigan Hill to the “biggest bingo in the world” in Toronto, was developed by Debaj and first produced by NEPA before it set out on its international tour of successes.

In geographical terms, Toronto was certainly the center of gravity for indigenous theater in the 1980s, but other locations across Canada have followed suit. Several First Nations theater companies are based in Vancouver, including Margo Kane’s “Full Circle: First Nations Performance” (founded in 1992 as another company that hosts its own festival), “Spirit Song Native Theatre” and Marie Clements’ “Urban Ink”. Next to cities such as Winnipeg (“Red Roots Theatre”) or Calgary (“Sweetgrass Players”), rural communities like the Poundmaker Reserve, Saskatchewan (with Floyd Favel’s “Takwakin Performance Workshop”) host their own indigenous theaters and contribute just as important an impulse to a vivid and Canadian theater scene as the better-known Toronto-based groups.

First Nations theater is one of the most multifaceted Canadian genres, featuring a diverse range of performative traditions and themes. From the Ojibway bear ceremonies to the Makah initiation rites, and from the potlatches of the Northwest coast to contemporary powwows, Native drama has effectively resisted colonization and continuously reinvented itself over the centuries. Accordingly, the topics addressed in contemporary First Nations plays are just as diverse as the cultures that create them. Whereas many plays graphically deal with the consequences of historical injustice and colonial oppression (including dispossession, genocide, the systematic annihilation of cultures and languages, the role of the Catholic church, cases of violence and sexual abuse, the forced removal of children to residential schools in the so-called “Scoop-Up”, as well as the ongoing political, economic and cultural discrimination), these issues do not constitute a defining criterion of the genre. “Before the healing can take place, the poison must first be exposed,” as Tomson Highway quotes Waywayseecappo elder Lyle Longclaws; but the healing force of First Nations drama also includes a large number of comedies (most famously those by Drew Hayden Taylor, including The Bootlegger Blues, The Baby Blues, The Buz’Gem Blues, and The Berlin Blues), parodies of Western stereotypes (as in Monique Mojica’s Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots), mythological topics, questions of contemporary identity (e.g. with regard to gender in Shirley Cheechoo’s Path With No Moccasins or Margo Kane’s Moonlodge), or even science fiction (as in Daniel David Moses’ Kyotopolis). Just as diverse as the topics and issues, a breath-taking formal spectrum shows that First Nations performance is probably the richest and most intriguing form of artistic expression in Canada today. This includes adaptations and subversions of European traditions, operas (such as Tina Mason’s Diva Ojibway) and musicals (Tomson Highway’s Rose), the expressionism of Daniel David Moses’ plays (e.g. Almighty Voice and His Wife), the kitchen-sink realism of Drew Hayden Taylor’s Someday and the experimental and postmodern theater semiotics of Marie Clements’ The Unnatural and Accidental Women or Floyd Favel’s metadrama Lady of Silences.

Although most First Nations plays are written and produced in English for better accessibility, indigenous languages are included, often as single words or phrases, or even longer passages accompanied by translations. Many of these plays share a distinct embeddedness in oral traditions (often featuring mythical characters such as the trickster) and a characteristic sense of humor. In Drew Hayden Taylor’s words, “I look at all the terrible things that have happened to Native people over the past 500 years, some of which we’re trying to document in our theatre. And what has gotten us through those dark and painful periods, in my opinion, is our sense of humor and our storytelling.” Many stories remain to be told-and despite the omnipresent budget cuts for the arts, especially in times of a global financial crisis, First Nations theater promises to continue as one of Canada’s most fascinating and successful art forms in the twenty-first century.