i followed her to the station . . . with a suitcase in my hand . . .
Before i go too much further with my stealing of mick jagger’s words, i would like to share a story about doing just what he did: saying goodbye to someone special at the station. But it wasn’t just one special being—-it was many; and i didn’t just say goodbye to them, i also got to greet them—-not just once, but twice. i met the train of thought journey in two prairie cities, amikwaciwâskahikan (aka edmonton) and saskwaton (aka saskatoon).
A year earlier, ruth Howard of jumblies theatre shared her vision with me: a cross-country trek, on the rails and a few Greyhound buses, for a number of artists, including a significant representation of First Nations and Metis artists, a potpourri of community artists, youth, assorted directors, administrators, and dreamers. When I first heard the plan, i could hear the whistle blowing and was especially intrigued by the mix of artists who would be on the train and the excitement that would come with each stop—a kind of never-ending celebrity status. i so wanted to be on that train.
the other realization i had about the train was how the journey could be a kind of reclamation. Historically, the train headin’ west spelled doom to the buffalo hunters and the buffalo, not to mention the demise of freedom of many of my relatives, particularly the metis. there’s also the fact that the major force behind the railroad, john A. mcdonald, aka the Prime minister, hanged louis riel, my people’s hero. But this train was going the other way, carrying all kinds of relatives: artists and movers and shakers, including Indigenous descendants of those whom the train had displaced in the first place. These travellers were finding out first-hand about some history that still hasn’t made it into the history books.
my job was to play host to the voyageurs in both of those prairie towns (1) and i relished the idea and the honour of being on a welcoming committee that, as it turned out, was overwhelmingly indigenous. in amikwaciwâskahikan, joseph naytowhow, myself, and a group of local artists stood in rhythm in the crisp may air at the ViA rail station, munching on onion cakes and playing our hand drums, with joseph chanting an honour song for those dazed and confused but happy artists who disembarked that dark night.
the following day we gathered at the nina Haggerty Centre on 118th Avenue and jigged, flamenco danced, watched theatre and hip-hop magic, learned about the sexual mores of youth with the native youth sexual Health network, and ate east indian cuisine from a local caterer. we never talked about oil or the oilers.
the day after that, we gathered at the ortona Armoury, an old style artist takeover building in the flats of the city, in a counter-colonial celebration: singing songs, playing skits, teaching stories, hearing incredible nêhiyawêwin (Cree) words, and eating cake in “honour” of Queen Victoria’s birthday. that night featured an apoplectic artistic creation of what the future may bring: a grassroots, partially improvised performance sketch incorporating a metis welcoming ceremony framed as an alternative to a citizenship ceremony, and featuring one of our Coast salish travellers, Columpa Bobb, as the Queen, regaled in a cardboard costume creation assembled just the night before.
one highlight of the night was young artist ouske Couchie-Bobb, son of sid Bobb and Penny Couchie of Aanmitaagzi, a professional multidisciplinary arts company from nipissing first nation, ontario. He played himself, a young child, in the midst of the aforementioned tale of the relentless future, sharing the stage with others, including his father sid, and drove the scene so sweetly. the story became a magical dream of what could be when the red people overcome the country we now sometimes refer to as Canada.
i left the City of Champions and drove overland to saskwaton to prepare for another reception, hosted in partnership with Common weal Community Arts of Prince Albert, saskatchewan. Common weal’s Artistic director judy mcnaughton had raised funds to pay artists and share food and space on 20th street, in the hood of one of my favourite places in the world. saskwaton is a place that many in the country are unaware of, still to this day, which kinda suits the locals fine. But it’s also where a boom has been in place for a while, making the charming little city by the river into an economic destination. some from the city have profited, but the rest face big-city curses like rising rents and paid parking and traffic jams that never existed in the past.
despite the city’s changing face, we gathered to celebrate the artists and community within. the train of thought travellers were joined by some students from my grade six/ seven class of Big island Cree nation, who were exposed to new experiences and re-connected with friends who had since relocated to the big city. that afternoon, we all—travellers and students alike—sat in friendship Park under the statue of Gabriel dumont, learning nêhiyawêwin from randy morin and his class from oskayak High school on Broadway Avenue. that evening, we had another red reception at the youth Community Centre on Avenue one, where poets, spoken word artists, singers, drummers, and speakers shared what they had with the train of thought. we ate, talked, danced, and simply enjoyed ourselves, and the evening culminated in a procession to the nearby optimist Park where the round dance singers did their thing and we danced in the fading light with the mosquitoes and artists from coast to coast.
when the train left the station, i went back to the bush at Big island, teaching at the rez school and barely having time to remember the precious moments. But i felt good about the whole thing, and i wondered what would be the next experience for the travellers as they headed to winnipeg, sioux lookout, north Bay, Hochelaga (montreal), and more. i thought, even though i myself never felt the car shaking on the tracks, that the rail had somehow created a new society on steel wheels—that the stories could and would be told many times.
now, i remember the words of another storyteller and prophet from another gathering: mamawi kiyokewin, which means, “we are in the dream now.”
All my relations.
1 The amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton) Train of Thought stop was co-hosted by Ground Zero Poductions, Nikki Shaffeeullah, Brooke Leifso, and Bruce Sinclair. The saskwaton (Saskatoon) Train of Thought stop was co-hosted by Bruce Sinclair and Common Weal Community Arts.