Mandy Len Catron, Congress 2019 guest blogger
All of this year’s Big Thinking events consider how the arts function as a platform to engage with scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. Organizers were inspired by three big questions: Who speaks for whom? Whose stories get told? And who gets left out?
This event, moderated by Dr. Lindsay Lachance, brought together a group of award-winning Indigenous performers, writers and directors to share songs and stories.
Margot Kane, Cree-Saulteaux Founder and Artistic Managing Director of Full Circle: First Nations Performance, opened the event with a Cree mourning song. Kane spoke about how, as a young Indigenous actor working in mostly-white productions, she was inspired to create the Indigenous theatre community she longed for. Full Circle developed from a desire to “tell our own stories” free from Western ideas of storytelling. “We didn’t have any resources,” she said, “so we pooled them.” It worked: her Vancouver-based Talking Stick Festival has just completed its nineteenth year.
Sylvia Cloutier, Indigenous artist in residency at the National Theatre School in Montreal, spoke about learning her Inuit musical and storytelling traditions from community elders. “I’m the daughter of someone who went to residential school,” she said, emphasizing how completely colonialism alienated an entire generation. Cloutier described her family’s throat singing tradition as a means of expressing intimacy with the natural world: “Nature isn’t in our back yard. We are nature.” For her, storytelling and performance are essential ways of manifesting pre-colonial values and community. “It’s so important to have a voice and to feel heard,” she said, explaining how theatre welcomes everyone from throat singers to musicians, storytellers, and seamstresses.
Corey Payette, Artistic Director of Urban Ink in Vancouver, found that his early love of musical theatre inspired him to try playwriting: “I started writing because there were no roles for me, unless it was chorus member number two.” Now he works to help other Indigenous actors and playwrights find their place. “My work as an artist really has been shaped by the reclamation of my Indigenous self,” he said. “Just because the stories we’ve been told have positioned us in a certain way doesn’t mean those are the stories we have to keep telling.”
Kane encouraged non-Native audience members to think about how they might support Indigenous work by simply stepping aside and making space for Indigenous folks to lead the way.
Mandy Len Catron is a writer and a faculty member in UBC’s Optional Residency MFA program in Creative Writing. Catron is the author of How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays. The book was listed for the 2018 RCB Taylor Prize and the Kobo Emerging Writer Award. Her writing can be found in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and The Walrus as well as literary journals and anthologies. She teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia.