7th Annual New Sun Conference on Aboriginal Arts
Reaching Back + Reaching Out
Carleton University, March 1, 2008

 

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P r e s e n t a t i o n s
 

Tracey Deer

            Mohawk documentary filmmaker Tracey Deer explores Indigenous identity and the struggles of youth on reserves in her work. Deer has collaborated with Ernest Webb from Rezolution Pictures International as well as the National Film Board (NFB), and she recently formed her own production company entitled Mohawk Princess Productions. Growing up in the community of Kahnawake, Deer has aspired to filmmaking since her youth, during which she took pleasure in movies as an escape from difficult realities and as a means of imagining different possible futures for herself. Beginning in the horror genre, Deer became inspired to make documentaries during her undergraduate degree at Dartmouth College. After graduating, she returned to Kahnawake and secured an internship at Global TV Montreal on a nightly news program. Disappointed by the “disposability” of the stories, she moved on to a position as a production assistant at Rezolution Pictures International for the film One More River: The Deal that Split the Cree, which explored the social and environmental impacts of the James Bay Project on the Cree Nation. Quickly establishing herself, Deer became co-director of the project. Shortly thereafter, she was approached for an original script, from which her documentary film Mohawk Girls originated. In the early stages of the project, Deer was debilitated by fears of offending her community, but she persevered to produce an emotionally powerful exploration of three young women’s experiences growing up in Kahnawake, touching on issues of isolation, discrimination, and violence. In making films about her own community, Deer stresses the responsibility she holds to the individual participants and the greater community. Expanding on notions of identity and membership, Deer’s new NFB documentary film Club Native explores the blood quantum of membership, imposed from without and within the community. Deer interviews two women of mixed heritage and two women who have fallen in love with non-Indigenous men, exploring the implications that restrictive policies of membership have on their lives. While her primary goal is to raise issues for consideration by members of her community, she also hopes to open up a dialogue and close the gap between the Canadian public and Indigenous peoples. For her future projects, Deer plans to continue focusing on the issue of identity.

 

Dr. Elaine Keillor and Cle-alls (John Medicine Horse Kelly)

            Ethnomusicologist, pianist, and research professor emeritus Dr. Elaine Keillor and Haida heritage language conservationist Cle-alls (John Medicine Horse Kelly) collaborated to produce the Native Drums and Native Dance internet databases, devoted to preserving and celebrating traditional and contemporary Indigenous music and dance. The first person to create a university course devoted to Canadian Indigenous music, Keillor conducted in-depth research into traditional Indigenous music using accounts of explorers and travellers. From this research, Keillor and Cle-alls created the Native Drums database, which brings together thousands of songs from Indigenous peoples across Canada. The database is designed to be accessible to a broad audience that includes Indigenous people, educators, scholars, and members of mainstream society. It employs video, text, and photography to showcase the diversity of Indigenous music and demonstrate the prevalence of music in all aspects of Indigenous life. To maximize the presence of Indigenous voices in the database, Indigenous writers have contributed essays and descriptions of how different instruments were made. The site also provides teaching kits for secondary school educators. Cle-alls highlights the importance of the website as a vehicle to bring individuals together and heal, for in communities in which language and culture are strong, the youth suicide rate drops rapidly. The preservation of language and music is therefore integral to creating positive identities and self-esteem in Indigenous youth. Similarly designed, the Native Dance database focuses on nine communities across Canada, demonstrating how dance plays an important role in cultural identity. Keillor accessed research compiled in the 1920s on Algonquin music, asking Beverly Souliere (a Justice of the Peace and the force behind the musical group, Women of Wabano) to record some of the songs for the database, including the lullaby, “Song of the Black Bear,” the “Beaver’s Work Song,” and “The Rain Man’s Dance Song.” Anger is not part of healing, stresses Cle-alls, which is reflected in the positive voices that are included in the databases. To conclude the presentation, Cle-alls performs a traditional Haida drum song.

 

Taqralik Partridge

            Inuit lyric-performance artist, throat-singer, and writer Taqralik Partridge blends traditional art forms with contemporary Inuit experience. Originally from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, Partridge grew up in Nunavut, Rankin Inlet, and Haida Gwaii, and currently resides in Montreal where she works for the Avataq Cultural Institute. Partridge started writing poetry in spoken form because “she had something to say about Inuit experience” in the north and south.  She writes for and about Inuit people, “not to judge or draw conclusions about how life should be, just [to offer] observations.” While some Inuit people are successful living in the south, it is “easy to fall down the drain,” Partridge emphasizes. In her spoken-word poem “Charlie Adams,” she commemorates the Inuit singer Charlie Adams who recently passed away. Adams was popular when Partridge was growing up, but he met with hardship and ended up homeless on the streets of Montreal in a state of great physical and spiritual pain. Adams’ son also came to Montreal and ended up dying of starvation on the streets, which angered Partridge deeply and inspired her to reflect on parallels between the difficulties of Inuit life today and in the past. About her poem “Annie Says,” Partridge states that “in Inuit communities there is always someone to call to find out anything,” and her step-cousin Annie always seems to have the answers. Living in the south for a long time, Partridge has always felt like a stranger in a foreign land, focusing on her culture to ground her. In “What I Love,” she reflects on the fond memories she has of her life in the north. Her poem “Auntie” celebrates the strength and resourcefulness of her aunt, with whom she lived for a period in her youth. In “Eskimo Chick,” Partridge commemorates her best friend, playfully exploring identity as an Inuit woman. At first, Partridge was afraid to perform in front of Inuit people, but she is less reticent now since she has received a positive response from Inuit communities. Partridge expects to release a spoken word CD in the near future.

 

Michael Greyeyes

            Michael Greyeyes is a Cree dancer, choreographer, filmmaker, educator, and actor. His screen credits have included such films as Dance Me Outside and The New World, as well as the television production Skinwalkers and the series Numb3rs. Greyeyes choreographed and starred in A Nation is Coming, which addresses the effects of the introduction of technology and disease on Indigenous communities. He created the film Triptych for the international showcase series, Dancing with Spirit, using dance to explore residential school experience. Emphasizing that dance is highly personal, unique, and idiosyncratic, Greyeyes struggled with creating a more universal format from which to address the topic. He commissioned an original score from Miquelon Rodriguez that combines Christian hymns with hip hop beats. The film is divided into three sections to mirror the tripartite division of Christian altars, individually titled “Revive thy work, oh Lord,” “Alas, did my saviour bleed,” and “Man of sorrows,” which are the names of hymns from a Cree hymnal. For the first two chapters, the main character and residential school survivor, John Prophet, is isolated in a state of spiritual and psychological illness. In the final chapter, he reconnects with his community after addressing the memories of his abuse, which is also a metaphor for a wider cultural abuse. Prophet is able to reclaim his identity, whilethe other residential school survivor in the film is unable to do so, having taken the violence he experienced and acted it out on others. Once Prophet begins the process of healing, he recognizes that the people who tormented were human beings themselves and they were also trapped by the codes of silence in the Church. The film was created using a non-hierarchical methodology, blending images offered by members of his community with improvisational dance, which Greyeyes then shaped into a narrative. In response to the film, residential school survivors often express that they understood it, that it spoke to their experiences.

 

Santee Smith

            Mohawk ceramicist, dancer, choreographer and artistic director of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre Santee Smith comes from a family of ceramic artists. Growing up on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, Smith began ballet classes as part of the rehabilitation process after injuring her legs in two separate car accidents. She attended the National Ballet School in Toronto, after which she pursued a degree in kinesiology and psychology from McMaster University. Asked to choreograph two pieces for Gary Farmer’s film The Gift, which explores Indigenous peoples’ relationship to corn, she created “Sky Woman” and “Corn, Beans and Squash.” She was involved in the Aboriginal Dance Project for the Banff Centre for the Arts, which brought in traditional indigenous dance teachers and singers to explore the creation of new forms of dance. In 2000, Smith choreographed her first major piece entitled Kaha:wi, meaning ‘to carry’ in Mohawk, after researching traditional dance and music within her community. The research for the project also became the foundation for her Master’s degree in dance from York University. Smith’s artistic process begins with a broad mental image which she then distils into a more focused structure, developing the characters, bringing in dancers, and working with singers and songwriters to create the music. Each piece has a life of its own, organically growing and changing in the process of creation and performance. In Here on Earth, Smith explores the idea of transformation, taking dance into the realm of ceremony. Smith emphasizes the importance of telling stories in her work; in A Story Before Time, she adapts the Iroquois creation story for children. Smith collaborated on a project called The Fragmented Heart for the Canada Dance Festival, which includes “Tripped Up Blues,” “The Threshing Floor,” and “A Constellation of Bones.” Smith recently re-interpreted Igor Stravinsky’s L’histoire de Soldat to chronicle the life of a Mohawk soldier after returning from WWI. Kaha:wi Dance Theatre has also presented the three-day international Living Ritual: World Indigenous Dance Festival, which highlights the diversity of Indigenous dance expression. Smith is currently working on TransMigration with Odawa composer Barbara Croall, which is inspired by Norval Morrisseau’s murals and examines the creative process and the notion of spiritual transformation.

 

Synopses by Anna Eyler

 
Please note: All presentations have been archived on DVD and can be borrowed individually from the Carleton University MacOdrum Library.  
 
 
A presentation of the New Sun Chair in Aboriginal Art and Culture
with the support of the Dean of Arts and Social Sciences and the New Sun Fund
administered by the Community Foundation of Ottawa .