Indigenous Theatre and the Climate Crisis
Ko Taranaki tōku maunga / My mountain is Taranaki
Ko Hangatahua tōku awa / My river is the Hangatahua
Ko Kurahaupo tōku waka / My canoe is the Kurahaupō
Ko Taranaki me Ngāti Pākehā tōku iwi / My tribe is the Taranaki Māori Nation of Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pākehā (non-Māori settler/colonial nations of England, Ireland, and Scotland; and I’ve been a Canadian citizen since 2008)
Ko Ngā Mahanga tōku hapu / My sub-tribe is the Ngā Mahanga
Ko Etahi Taputai me William Geary tōku tīpuna / My ancestors are Etahi Taputai and William Geary
David Geary taku ingoa / My name is David Geary
“Ua Tawa ! Ua Tawa! / “Purple Rain! Purple Rain!”
This pepeha is how I introduce myself on formal occasions. When asked by Chantal Bilodeau (co-founder of Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA)) to write about the intersection of Indigenous issues and the climate crisis in relation to theatre, my pepeha was my first thought. It’s a monologue Māori perform to embody our place in the world wherever we might go. We introduce our mountain and river first because they are the natural world we all come from. They are part of Papatūānuku, the Earth Mother. In Te Reo, the Māori language, the word for land and placenta are the same: whenua. Some words just don’t translate and the poetry is lost.
A disclaimer: I’m aware of the dangers of speaking for other Indigenous artists in writing this article. However, here goes. I feel that for many of us the land we belong to is where all our art comes from. The climate crisis is just the latest effect of colonialism disrupting our relationship to our land. How we respond to that depends on the individual.
One of the most visible responses in early 2020 was the blockades set up across roads, railways, and city streets in Canada. They were in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who didn’t want a gas pipeline across their land. I see this as street theatre. The barricades are the set. Drum songs and dance celebrate the people of the land. Speeches are made to the audience (the public, via the media), and also to the reluctant audience (the police). It serves as educational theatre for Canada to learn the difference between the elected band council chiefs who approved of the pipeline, hereditary chiefs who don’t, hereditary chiefs who do, and how the Indian Act continues to divide nations.
In my pepeha I also acknowledge my great-great-grandmother, full-blooded Māori Etahi Taputai of Taranaki, and my great-great-grandfather, William Geary. He was an Irish labourer convicted of stealing two bushels of wheat in a Nottingham court in 1834. His punishment: eight years transportation in Australia. Once released he became a whaler in Otago, New Zealand. After some shady transaction with a sack of spuds (potatoes), William and Etahi shacked up, and here I am. They are part of my whakapapa, my bloodline.
For many of us [Indigenous artists] the land we belong to is where all our art comes from. The climate crisis is just the latest effect of colonialism disrupting our relationship to our land.
The whakapapa section of a pepeha can go on for some time as we acknowledge many ancestors. But it also gives listeners a chance to see if we are related or if they know our relatives. There is a legend that a visitor once asked a Māori Elder who he was, and the old man started to trace his whakapapa back seventeen generations to a Polynesian canoe that had arrived from the Pacific, then back to the islands, and eventually up into the stars. He was still telling his story the next day… Maybe you feel a bit like this now?
The point is that after our land and our canoe, our whakapapa and whanau, family, is of greatest importance. Our tīpuna, ancestors, are with us all the time. They are woven into us as part of our Indigenous DNA. So how can we honour them? And if the climate crisis threatens what our ancestors were guardians of, how are we defending Papatūānuku now?
Ko tuatara toku tipuna. The tuatara, an ancient reptile, is also my ancestor. A tuatara was the lead character in my first short play for Climate Change Theatre Action, Morehu and Tītī. The gender of tuatara is dependent on the temperature of the ground in which they bury their eggs. Global warming has meant more males are being born than females. It’s put the tuataras’ world out of balance.
Tuatara are some of the oldest creatures on Earth and only exist in Aotearoa, New Zealand. They whakapapa back to a reptile species that flourished 240 million years ago. The cats, dogs, and rodents of colonisation almost wiped them out, but a few hardy populations survived on offshore islands. I include them as my ancestors because they were of the world humans evolved from, and my Taranaki iwi, my tribe, includes them in our stories and carvings on wood and stone. They can be messengers of death and disaster. They can also indicate tapu, the border with the sacred and restricted. For example, there are stories of wahine, women, having them tattooed near their genitals.
The tuatara’s name means “spiny back” but to hold them they feel like vinyl. I had this privilege only after I had convinced some breeding program scientists that I wasn’t a rare species smuggler. One of the tuataras’ most remarkable features is the remnants of what might have been a third eye on top of their head. Some speculate this was to detect birds of prey above, but other stories say it was an eye to see the future.
One thing they do have an eye for is for free room and board. A tuatara is the worst sofa surfer you could ever imagine. They gatecrash and move into the burrow of the sooty shearwater bird, crap everywhere, and if peckish eat an egg or chomp the head off a chick.
In my play the tuatara and bird are a slob and a neat freak, in a parody of the ancient American comedy The Odd Couple. They’ve had to abandon their island due to rising tides and temperatures. They make a raft to travel to Antarctica so the tuatara can lay their eggs in colder ground and restore the gender balance. In a madcap musical moment, Al Gore floats by on an iceberg to say, “I told you so!” then sings an operatic agitprop remake of “Let it Go” from Disney’s Frozen.
My approach to the climate crisis is a satiric one. I see it as honoring the tradition of tricksters who are essential to the survival of Indigenous Peoples. Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi, who won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Jojo Rabbit this year, is the latest and greatest trickster manifestation. Taika started in theatre with comic and satirical shows. He likes to be known as a filmmaker first and foremost, one who just happens to be Māori. (When I first met him he was Taika Cohen, his mother being Jewish.) In Jojo Rabbit, he brings the trickster’s cheek and chutzpah to his portrayal of Hitler as the imaginary friend of a naïve Nazi youth. He whakapapas back to Mel Brooks’ Hitler in To Be Or Not To Be, and in Jojo Rabbit Taika is set on mocking and exposing a new generation of wannabe white supremacists. Where does the climate crisis fit into this? Well, let’s start with the white supremacist idea that Indigenous traditional knowledge isn’t up to the level of Eurocentric science.
Not that I don’t respect Western science. In fact, my second play for CCTA was Science Is Dead!, which lampoons those who deny that there is any science behind the climate crisis. In a brainstorming meeting, modern Madmen-type spin doctors jam ideas on how to discredit science and scientists. It ends in a tribute to playwright Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist with the “scientist” being thrown out a skyscraper window. When the underling questions how they’ll explain this act to corporate, their superior quips, “We’re downsizing.”
There was nothing ostensibly Indigenous about Science is Dead! However, I saw it as the work of the trickster to mock and expose those who refuse to see the facts even when they’re right in front of them. Those people who then construct a whole new reality where anything goes in the name of progress, including murder, and Indigenous Peoples understand that all too well.
My approach to the climate crisis is a satiric one. I see it as honoring the tradition of tricksters who are essential to the survival of Indigenous Peoples.
My third play for CCTA was OWN NOW! It went a trickster step further to imagine a future where a righteous self-help guru and author considers climate change a God-driven natural process. “We’re going to capture the rapture in my next chapter,” he rejoices. He goes on to demonize those who bring foreign diseases into his homeland, celebrates that journalism is dead, and looks forward to the day Jesus returns. When he’s confronted by the actual return of Jesus, it turns out to be his stooge of a wife, and it all ends happily ever after with more ebook sales and everyone dancing to Blondie’s “Rapture.”
This brings us back to the pepeha. Mine ends with: David Geary taku ingoa, my name is David Geary, and Ua Tawa!, “Purple Rain!” The big waiata, song, at the end honors both the Western musical but also how we finish a pepeha. It comes after you finally tell everyone your name, right near the end to emphasize your lowly place in the order of things. Your land, ancestors, tribe, and family are far more important than you. Their needs come before yours. You must serve them, whether it be by doing the Marae committee accounts, cleaning the toilets, or writing plays that lift community spirits. The song is to support your pepeha and hopefully add entertainment value. A traditional waiata is usually used, but I like to mix it up, hence Prince or….
Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think… I’ve said that community comes first, but a lot of what I’ve done here is talk about my work and myself. I would like to do some shoutouts.
Reneltta Arluk, the Inuvialuit, Dene, Cree director, playwright, actor, and artist, who is also the director of Indigenous Arts at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, made one of the biggest splashes for Indigenous theatre and the climate when she directed The Breathing Hole at the Stratford Festival in Ontario in 2017. The play is an epic saga of a polar bear named Angu’juaq, born in an Inuit community in 1534, who encounters the doomed explorer Franklin in 1832 and lives on to experience global warming today. Though the play was written by Colleen Murphy (a well regarded non-Indigenous playwright), Arluk and Murphy worked with Qaggiavuut!, the Iqaluit-based theatre collective. Hailed as a breakthrough for its use of four different sorts of puppetry (and extensive consultation and collaboration with Indigenous theatre artists), it is also darkly satirical in the spirit of the trickster.
Kim Senklip Harvey premiered her play Kamloopa in 2019 at the Cultch in Vancouver. It’s a riotous celebration of matriarchy and the search for Indigenous identity, but doesn’t mention the climate at all… Or does it? Kim became exhausted as an actor performing in Indigenous productions where she was always having to “cry or die”; several Canadian plays about the intergenerational trauma from residential schools, and the tragedy of murdered and missing women, fit this bill. They’re important in terms of witnessing, but, like Kim, I’m interested in the evolution past “trauma drama” to the transcendent.
Truth and reconciliation are big buzzwords in Canada, and the telling of “the truth” will be an ongoing project. These stories need to be told, heard, and held, but there needs to be healing. As Kim says: for every tough truth-telling story, there also needs to be a celebration of Indigenous resilience, survival, and humor. Kamloopa has this in spades. It’s ultimately also a story of going back to honor the land, with ceremony, as the three young women leave the city to journey back to participate in a powwow.
Reneltta and Kim have both worked with a leading light in Indigenous dramaturgy, Lindsay Lachance. She is the Artistic Associate of Indigenous Theatre at Canada's National Arts Centre. Lindsay's dissertation for her PhD at the University of British Columbia, The Embodied Politics of Relational Indigenous Dramaturgies, features land-based, place-based and community-engaged dramaturgies. It provides a foundation and inspiration for all those working in Indigenous theatre.
Lindsay, Reneltta, and Kim are examples of a new generation of Indigenous artists making theatre that engages all our humanity, including our relationship to the land. They prove we’re not sitting back being victims—people can save their white tears for poverty porn. We Indigenous theatre creators want to tell hard truths but we also want to celebrate the power, passion, and humor of our people (for more trickster satire, check out Walking Eagle News). We want to tell the full story, to laugh, sing, and dance on and with the land that created us and that we will one day return to. Yes, the climate crisis is real, but we are strong and our theatre can help the people and Papatuanuku heal.
As the Indigenous rapper JB the First Lady sings: “We’re still here!” despite multiple attempts to erase, assimilate, murder, and muffle us. So any time an Indigenous artist represents, in any way, it’s an act of artistic resistance. Climate change began as soon as colonial ships arrived to survey our lands. It was decided our forests would make great masts for more ships, our lands were ripe for extraction and fine real estate for the tide to follow, but we’re still here. Kia Kaha! Mauri Ora!