Vancouver Moving Theatre (VMT): Vancouver/Coast Salish Territories, B.C.
SAVANNAH Vancouver Moving Theatre co-produced with multiple partners TRACKS: the 7th Canadian Community Play & Art Symposium (In Vancouver and Enderby, B.C.) and—-within the symposium—-The Big House, a community gathering and cultural feast (1). From day one, the symposium focused on collaborative community-engaged art that builds relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities. From day one, the focus of The Big House was to honour founding Coast Salish, urban Aboriginal, and immigrant communities of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The symposium was born over ten months in one try. The Big House was born over five years via a series of community-engaged investigations. Both involved developmental processes new to us. Both involved a mix of new relationships and relationships of trust established over many years. Both were immensely affected by transformative events taking place in Vancouver. Its city council proclaimed June 2013–2014 as a Year of Reconciliation: a time to acknowledge the impact of Canada’s residential schools upon our communities and begin the work of building new respectful relationships between Aboriginal peoples and the city. For three days in September 2013, Vancouver was host city to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: the sixth of seven national events to educate Canadians about the history and legacy of residential schools. Nine months later, city council voted unanimously to acknowledge that Vancouver was founded on traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations: ancestral lands never ceded through treaty, war, or surrender. Council directed staff to work with representatives from the three nations to develop appropriate protocols to use in conducting city business that respects the traditions of welcome, blessing, and acknowledgment of the territory.
Residents are grappling with our history as Canadians and how to be part of healthier change. As Big House collaborator Paula Jardine said, “History is not just the past. The past is erupting all around us and showing it is very much present.” How do communities repair damaged and broken relationships and forge new ones where none existed? Events such as the Talking Stick Festival’s symposium on “protocol in the arts” are helping Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to better understand these changes and ways we situate ourselves in the traditional territories. For over a decade, VMT has been collaborating with, presenting, and learning from Indigenous cultural presenters and artists: among others, Bob Baker, Mike and Mique’l Dangeli, Rosemary Georgeson, Renae Morriseau, Woodrow (Woody) Morrison, and Wes Nahanee. They are helping VMT learn about honouring indigenous cultural protocols and acknowledging the land on which we live and work. We have successes, missteps, and new challenges.
As the partners embarked upon TRACKS symposium, we brought Renae Morisseau (Cree/Saulteaux) onto the organizing team and engaged Damara Jacobs-Morris (Squamish) as coordinator. We consulted with artists and cultural advisors from the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations to hear their response to our symposium plans and help us understand how local protocols should happen and respectful ways to incorporate other nations coming onto this territory. These questions were especially important to the producing partners given the history of our relationships with Coast Salish artists and presenters, and the reality that the City of Vancouver now has an intergovernmental relationship with these three local First Nations. From these conversations emerged an offer from Damara Jacobs-Morris to undertake a more formal approach: to enact Coast Salish protocol to open and close the symposium. The partners accepted this offer, which we understood would take us into new, uncharted territory and deepen existing
DAMARA It was our honour to share with TRACKS Symposium delegates the ancient protocols of the Squamish peoples, who have similar cultural practices with the Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam. As the local First Nations, we welcomed delegates to our shared unceded traditional territory. The Vancouver TRACKS Symposium Family after much negotiation decided to enact protocol instead of simply discussing it. Therefore the entire Vancouver portion of the symposium was treated as ceremonial Work. We followed the rigours of ceremony and in keeping with our tradition we called Witnesses. Being “called to Witness” is a great honour, for you become a part of the ceremony and carry the responsibility of being a record keeper. We respectfully asked that delegates honour our ways while on our territory as we were creating history through oral tradition. Throughout the symposium, the traditions of the Coast Salish peoples were honoured. During the opening ceremony, traditional speakers conducted an Acknowledgment of Place, Calling of Witnesses, and official welcome to visitors.
I was in charge of protocol. I acted as the family matriarch, and my family, in this case, is the steering committee (jil weaving, Marie Lopes, Renae Morriseau, Savannah Walling, and Terry Hunter). Through my role within my own community, Squamish Nation, I have been honoured with the teachings and assist in “running the floor.” I hired the Traditional Speakers: Wesley Nahanee (Squamish), Gabriel George (Tsleil-Watuth), and Shane Pointe (Musqueam). All three of these men have been trained in our longhouses. After discussion with them and given the spirit of the symposium, we decided this is the best way to enact our protocol.
SAVANNAH In contrast to this, we took a more informal approach with VMT’s community feast. In the words of First Nations rapporteur Kwasuun Sarah Vedan, ”The Big House (VMT), like local traditional Aboriginal “Big Houses,” is a gathering place where Coast Salish Protocol and acknowledgement of the territories takes place; it is a place where special honour is given to guests and local individuals for work in the community; it is a time to listen to Elders, Artists, Teachers, and other leaders; it is a time to visit, laugh, learn, and network; extending one’s neighbourhood reach.(2) The Big House involved rehearsed elements, unrehearsed ceremonial elements, planned elements, and spontaneous elements. Its creation involved negotiating communication protocols, performance protocols, culinary protocols, cultural protocols (Coast Salish, urban Aboriginal, Ukrainian, Chinese), and social and cultural divides within the community. It took several tries to figure out a respectful inclusionary strategy within a context of limited seating. Each Big House feast was successful, but none was perfect and all came with learnings.
Aanmitaagzi: Nipissing First Nation, Ontario (Treaty 9)
COLUMPA You can’t colonize a faction of country: you colonize a whole country. We’re all colonized. We all have colonized thinking. We’re all institutionalized peoples inside this country. You cannot colonize a piece of a country. That’s impossible. You can’t remove entire nations from the rest of the citizenry for 150 years and not create an unconscious belief that we are to be removed. So when we talk about decolonization and reconciliation, reconciliation has to first happen with self. In order to do that, every colonized person in this country has to understand where they are situated inside the system of colonization, how they’re being used, and how they’re using others: as a colonized citizen of this young country.
In terms of protocol, there’s a political issue here that is an internal issue for our peoples. That is a reconciliation that has to happen internally. We haven’t had time to approach this philosophically with each other as nation, community, or family. This has not been a reality! So how can we, with any confidence or truth, tell others what protocol is and what it means between us—-as native people and as native people with non-native people-—when we haven’t had an opportunity to talk about, re-learn, accept, amend, or even throw it away if need be? If we have to name it before we reclaim it, we’ll never know. And all of us will move forward in broken cultural pursuits in a timeline dictated by colonial pressures.
SID The initial experience I had with protocol was preparing to go to Vancouver. The framework I put it in for myself was “best practices.” leading up to arriving in Vancouver, there was a great focus on things related to protocol and reconciliation, but they were being put into a project and a time frame that really didn’t have the space or capacity to meaningfully engage with those two things. It was definitely very meaningful to see my cousin at the TRACKS symposium and to hear our songs and dances. I brought my son. For him to be there and then to be sent off by the dancers and singers that came out to the train station was very meaningful.
SAVANNAH This was the TRACKS symposium leaving-taking ceremony. We invited cultural groups from the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish Nations and the Downtown Eastside to gather at the train station. Cultural speakers gathered at the Marker of Change Monument, to send the travellers off in a good way—with words, songs and dances—-to feel supported in working to connect communities across Canada.
SID But there are gaps between contemporary practices. I come from a fractured family that is coming back together. We got to see my cousins dance [Gabriel George and the Children of Takaya]. To bring my son was a chance to situate him within his ancestral land, people, and art forms. This narrowed the divide between myself, my son, and our family and dances.
But there were also aspects that felt like little bombs were going off, and all these intentions and outcomes didn’t always match. During the witnessing ceremony, I felt alienated from my family and traditions as I watched other non-Aboriginals participating in a ceremony with my family. I was happy for the community, but the disconnect between myself and my family and culture was exacerbated and was a painful reminder of the alienation within my own life and community. I think there’s a lot to be considered when carrying out this type of work.
COLUMPA Penny and Sid, the artistic directors of Aanmitaagzi, left the journey partway so that they could prepare for when Train of Thought arrived in their community. It was good that they were on Train of Thought first, because the project in Nipissing really was responding to the journey they’d been on with the rest of us. It was the first time where Train of Thought travellers had responded to the travelling in their home community.
SID When we were thinking about Train of Thought we had this opportunity to engage with the Dream Big Conference [organized by Clayton Windat]. We invited people into an exploration and investigation that we were doing with the community.
PENNY When we got to Nipissing and were bringing people here, I didn’t focus on protocol. It was really important to both Sid and me that we sought out a forum for the greatest degree of inclusivity. Sometimes the avenue of protocol has barriers between nations and those who are disenfranchised. When we got here, there was real desire to say, okay, this is what we are doing here, this is what we are doing in our family and place. This is what we do here in the studio: invite people into an exchange of what we do here. And to play-—there was a desire to play for a few days.
LEE I was telling Sid, “oh, that looks like our story you guys are doing.” And he says, “Well, it should, you told it to me.” So it became a source of great pride and dignity. To be included from 3000 miles away in an art production with two nations of people and artists and a whole community that’s Anishinaabe was so beautiful for me. I think it has to do with that we have an understanding and we talk about things and we gain a deeper understanding to make sure that the human soul and the human heart are always the first considered.
SAVANNAH The place I felt culturally “at home” on the trip was the experience at Aanmitaagzi. Although Penny and Sid did not use formal cultural practices in the traditional way, their clarity of intention and their process of inclusive, recurring circle conversations were close in spirit to The Big House. There was time and space to include the whole circle of travellers in a way that just wasn’t possible on so much of the trip and became less and less possible the further east we went.
PENNY How much intelligence there is in a strong circle. Sometimes the first time the circle goes around… the surface. The second time goes to a deeper level. The penny drops and keeps dropping… and then continues with each round. You let questions hang in the air, let others answer, let an answer exist in the space, taking from our experiences, values, and ideas. You allow people to have their own world views and paradigms, connect heart and head. It’s happened for hundreds of years.
SID When we came to North Bay, we tried to simplify the agenda and set up achievable goals. At this moment, I am not focused on historic cultural protocols. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done internally, as an Aboriginal First Nation. There is a web that needs to be untangled: a history of exclusion, and a loss of our representative inclusiveness within our community. We had three days and we ate together, made together, and dreamed together and investigated and explored these ideas, then created an event that the audience could witness.
COLUMPA In two days we put up this show [beneath us (3)]—-37 minutes of dance and theatre and puppetry. I think working that quickly is something every artist should do whether they work in community art or not, because it’s a good reminder of how much time we waste doubting ourselves and others in any artistic practice. It was a brilliant piece of performance that day one was animated and day two was performed.
LEE In building [Aanmitaagzi], Sid and Penny had their elders’ support in the family. I think that makes the young people really sovereign in their territories and sovereign in their relations with others, and able to make decisions like these. When the youth are supported by the elders to make all those decisions and be supported in those decisions, things go well.
COLUMPA It was very clear that we were using arts practices to build community between, through, and among us. And everybody felt like they belonged to Big Medicine studio by the end of it.
LEE Even the children.
COLUMPA So it was very clear [in putting up beneath us] “this is what art can do”… Although I enjoyed The Big House, it felt like the culmination of work they’ve been doing over time. Whereas here, we built the show, right? In Vancouver, it was the witnessing of the work that had already been done: a totally different process, but just as valuable. ‘Cause it FELT good to see all the different kinds of people involved in the same ceremony: to see the Ukrainian people and the West Coast people and the Asian people and the settler-Euro people and to be brought to this fun, peaceful method of feasting. But it’s a different process. We’re witnessing the declaration of the work that’s already been done, whereas in North Bay, we did the work together.
You know what I thought was a highlight during Train of Thought? There was a lot of talk about sharing, which to me was mostly how to be more respectful about using Aboriginal culture. The only two times we had cultural sharing from non-Indigenous people was the Vancouver event at The Big House and Kelty [McKerracher] sharing a story [from the Selkie people] in Toronto. In the entire journey across the country, it allowed me to see that there was a very skewed perception of sharing when it comes to Indigenous people working with non-Indigenous people. But it made me feel really good because I know it CAN happen, because it happened twice. And Kelty only did it because of conversations I had with her and she says, ”You know, I’ve heard a lot of native stories but I haven’t actually shared.” Because I told her, “You know, I want to know your stories too. We’re curious people. I don’t know any Scottish stories. And I have Scottish blood in my ancestry!” So there’s something disturbing about settler people not valuing their own selves, culturally speaking.
Packing for a Future Train of Thought
COLUMPA [Indigenous people] haven’t had a chance to talk to each other across the nation about protocol: Is it useful in this time? If so, how is it useful? To me, the most important thing is relationship-building: in building those relationships, we garner an inter-cultural understanding of one another, even if it’s small. But if we’re just concerned with the intellectual rules of engagement, we can’t crack the surface of that small, yet significant heart knowledge we all bring to the table in our own way.
Before invoking activities of protocol, you need to learn the laws and governance principles of the place. Do you agree with them and want to follow them? You gotta know why you’re doin’ it. You gotta keep the steering wheel in your hands. If you intend to do these things, you need to know more about the context and history to know how this came about. The foundation needs to be laid as to why the ceremony is taking place so people can really understand its purpose and what a witness is: that it’s a lifetime to recall in case someone goes asking. You always have different kinds of witnesses—so they will witness different things.
LEE The time to talk about protocols would be before leaving for something like Train of Thought. It would be a discussion between Canadians who are on the train and how they are going to be received and to receive First Nations people as they travel along on the journey. And they would have to talk with a person from each of the communities. And the first question would be: Do we need to follow specific protocols? That literally means: Does that community consider us foreigners?
SID I often imagined what this trip would look like if an Indigenous organization headed up this project.
SAVANNAH One of the thoughts that came forward during Train of Thought emerged out of conversation with Columpa and Eliza Knockwood: the idea of a Canoe of Thought—-Train of Thought being the inhalation, and the exhalation being a Canoe of Thought led by an Aboriginal organization.
COLUMPA I wanted to retrace our steps across the country, so that I could record the sounds of silence in all its geographical changes and images of the landscape. Eliza suggested the canoe.
SID The initial spirit of the project—-bringing us together as community members, as artists, as organizations, as practitioners, as humans of this country—-was absolutely incredible. Many of the initial goals of seeing each other, hearing from each other, working together-—I think a lot of those were met, exceeded.
PENNY Like Sid, for me some of my most memorable times were when we were being received by someone, and when we were being sent off. We got to Edmonton and it was so late at night. And they were singing hand-drum songs outside when we pulled up. And offering us bread when we first came in: it was such a nice receiving. There were lots of those moments-—it was in the way that you invite someone into your home. It was those moments that were so very great.
SID I am in a process of re-connecting to my family, to my communities, to my practice. In terms of a barometer, what it brought to light was that there is much work to do to reintegrate who we are into the way we live. And how to connect all this—-community arts with some of these long-standing practices. I think as I move closer toward integrating these, the impacts will be far-reaching.
COLUMPA Regardless of all or any of the hardships and challenges that we faced, there was a connective tissue constructed between communities across the entire nation. And that is forever priceless and invaluable. And it’s up to us individually to keep those tissues alive so that we can build on that and it will become what it becomes.
The legitimizing of community-engaged art happens because of this trip. It’s huge and we should not take a break from this. I think there needs to be a revisiting of this journey by all participants, and it’s going to take a long time.
The relationships we’ve been able to build with people along the way have been, I think, the most beautiful thing for me: to meet people across the country. I kind of want to calendar the next ten years, just based on people that I’ve met on Train of Thought, to come back together. If I seriously want to do community-engaged art, there are all these communities I can work with. It’s gonna take a couple of decades before I can work with every one of them again. But the beauty in what the trip was is that we created this kind of living opportunity to connect, to reconnect.
SAVANNAH After the Vancouver stop ended and I was no longer acting as a host, I joined Train of Thought as a traveller, pondering on my new role. I came to realize that my task was to witness the journey: to watch and listen and carry in my heart the work taking place around me. My responsibility is to carry the messages back to my home community, and to be prepared—-for the rest of my life—-to recall and share what I’ve heard and seen.
LEE The thing that excited me is that this couldn’t happen at any other time or place in history. All the groups that have now met would not have met at any other period of time than this one. So Train of Thought was the first foray into a new historical period.
COLUMPA Train of Thought: where Indigenous artists and companies stood in solidarity with non-Indigenous artists and companies. Each of us joined together to birth a community of our own; traveling side by side into communities across this great expanse of diverse land and water to meet and greet the creative and critically thinking people who make up a small and significant part of this nation of nations we call Canada. Change is automatic and constant. We can let it happen to us and be swallowed by its ebb and flow, or we can participate in the change occurring and direct the change, carve a path to the future we desire and need. Train of Thought chose the latter.
1 Tracks: 7th Canadian Community Play & Art Symposium (May 10-15, 2015) in Vancouver/ Coast Salish Territories and Enderby, B.C./ Secwepemcúl’ecw) was produced by Vancouver Moving Theatre, Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre and Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation in collaboration with Runaway Moon Theatre B.C. and Jumblies Theatre (Ontario). The Big House (May 8-10, 2015) was produced by Vancouver Moving Theatre in cooperation with the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians, eight community partners, the TRACKS Symposium and Jumblies Theatre (Ontario).
2 Kwasuun Sarah Vedan, Vital Journeys, Report on TRACKS 7th Canadian Community Play & Art Symposium, 10-12 May 2015, Coast Salish Territories/Vancouver, p. 11.
3 beneath us! is a show that was developed and performed by 45 people, including members of Aanmitaagzi, the Nipissing North Bay community, the Dream Big Conference community, and the Train of Thought community. With the collaborative choreography of Penny Couchie and direction of Sid Bobb, beneath us! tells the story of the human and cedar contract, passed down from Sid, via his mother Lee, from the Salish soil and imagination, telling it the same, but different.