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Five Protocols of Theatrical Indigeneity

An Audio Essay and Sound-Ceremony for Reciprocal Action

The multitudinous stars are dulling. In these moments just before dawn, Listeners stand outside under a big sky, as close to water as possible. Listeners face East and enter into the world of this audio essay: a convergence of Time and Place: a city, a remote and wild place where horizon and land meet, and deep inside the Earth. When they’re ready, Listeners hit play on their device.


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This… is a dance for survival.
A manifesto of resurgence.
A story-seed that begins with ceremony at the water.
Four, seven, seven thousand women gather to remember what is coming.
Their bodies dream the sacred and with you—listener, audience—prophesize the future we need.

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Turn now to face East. We begin here in the eastern doorway.

The first round of the sound-ceremony begins. A song. A dance with what was, what is, and what may yet be. Biidaaban. The light comes.

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Biidaaban (dawn)

Let us acknowledge how “theatre” is a state apparatus that dispossesses sovereign Indigenous creative presence. Theatre as we know it on Turtle Island not only privileges white bodies and their stories in an imaginary, performative space, but it also requires bodies to re-colonize themselves in order to gain access to these spaces. This dispossession or, as Cree writer and academic Billy-Ray Belcourt calls “unbodiment of Indigeneity,” results from the way whiteness enforces a form of orientation, creating a very real risked and unsafe space, particularly for Indigenous theatre makers, performers and audiences.

While every body may have access to the same theatre or performative spaces, how each individual might be included or othered in nation-state theatre structures will be different. It’s no secret that the colonial project known as “Canada” and its theatre privileges non-racialized bodies. Indigenous and radicalized bodies are risked in theatre spaces and the presence of our bodies necessitates an absolute need to respond to these spaces differently than white bodies for whose success the structure has been designed for.

Gdi-nweninaa (listening with our whole bodies)

Who is “other” and “othered” in theatre spaces is largely shaped by white supremacist ideologies along with the cultural politics of emotion, which is my way of noting who is allowed to feel, express, emote, utter; meaning, some bodies are marginalized while others are included and ensconced within a locus of heteropatriarchal normativity and coloniality. Viewing one’s self through a veil of whiteness and embodying it produces a fallacious consciousness. This reimposes colonial standards of self-evaluation, threatens Indigenous knowledge systems, and obliterates pathways to connectivity. The settler gaze on Indigenous bodies leaves us hidden in plain sight.
 

Dibaajimowinan (stories)

In order to survive or become successful in theatre environments, Indigenous theatre artists must, among other things, code shift; adapt notions of time, story structure, hierarchy, and language; relinquish matrilineal and ancestral agency; embody archaic Indigenous tropes; and/or erase our otherness by “playing white.” To what extent is it possible to decolonize theatre in “Canada” by raising critical consciousness and relationality between heart, mind, and soul? Is change possible without further displacement, possession, or dispossession of an other?

Time is tender. It lives in all of us as we enact the stories of our inheritance, past and future. We seek what we want often at the expense of what we need. Our hunger is insatiable. We lay claim to what is not ours. We are small inside our potential, beside what we think we know. To be human is to be humble. To be awake is to be lost. There are no guarantees, only the stories we tell ourselves.

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Turn now to face South. We are here at the southern doorway.

The second round of the sound-ceremony begins. A song. A dance with what was, what is, and what may yet be. Biidaaban. The light comes.

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Aanjigone (people being responsible for themselves)


Our survival as Indigenous people has always been radical, but if we are going to embody ceremonial space in performance practices, any future story bundles must be resurgent. They must reject dispossession along with any colonial storying that turns us away from the “Good Life”/Mino Bimaadiziwin. Just as our ceremonial spaces have done since time immemorial, our theatre spaces can reckon with and defy artistic nation-state apparatuses that perpetuate white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy.

As Indigenous theatre artists, we can presence ourselves at the center of every telling with generosity, care, and a radical investment in an effort to collectively re-story theatre spaces on Turtle Island. As renowned Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer, and artist, Leanne Simpson, asserts, decolonial insurgence is necessary:

we need to join together in a rebellion of love, persistence, commitment, and profound caring and create constellations of coresistance, working together toward a radical alternative present based on deep reciprocity and the gorgeous generative refusal of colonial recognition.

Figure with bulbs of fire

An illustration by Silent Fox inspired by the essay.

Naakgonige (purposeful consideration)

We, as humans and as artists, must generate memory-space to illuminate the Teachings of ceremony. My people, the Anishinabek, think of knowledge as Teachings. Women carry water knowledge. Others carry knowledge of the land. Of songs and dances. Of names... and more. We wait for our teachers to arrive. The purpose of all knowledge is to pass it on. Those who are knowledge-keepers are only so for a time. Tremendous power lies in bearing witness, in being a witness. Witnessing empowers change.

My son’s arrival was lodged in me for years but I only recognized that the feeling-he-had-been was gone six months after he was born. I didn’t know he was coming; I didn’t know how much I needed his knowledge. I am his witness. He is teaching me to be a keeper and, in this space, I am learning to create. Such teachings tie to the land and to bodies past, present, and future for the gathering of our minds, hearts, and bodies. This is the activation of the “Good Life”/Mino Bimaadiziwin, which ultimately disrupts a paradigm of disconnect and difference. Reciprocity and listening become required conditions in order for Indigenous and settler-ally artists to activate collective belonging and change.

The theatre is often credited with being a space of transformation for the real and the imagined—to suspend time and space—a “sacred space” where the performance therein transcends the every day. Yet the notion of “theatre” is also part of antiquity, embedded in an imperialist history that demands theatrical structures, forms, language, and aesthetics uphold Euro-derived parameters of storytelling and performance. Aristotle, anyone? Like the relics of saints laid to rest under glass, the unspoken cultural norms of theatre remain sacrosanct; it is sacrilege to denounce or defy their holy worth and authority.
 

Debwewin (listening to the sound of your heart/your own truth)

What the apparatus of “Canadian” theatre fails to recognize is that, in its preoccupation with the stories and structures of imperialist acquisition, it has been pre-occupied by a sacred connection to the sky, the land, and the waters that carry the most ancient of memory, bundled up in ceremony. Anishinabek teachings understand that our world is alive and stones are our grandfathers and grandmothers. Their wisdom is ancient; they are the bones of Mother Earth.

My father taught me this is the oldest knowing. The narrative of such ceremonies has been passed down through memory, story, and practice, performed in the sacred spaces beside water, under trees, and in our medicine lodges and tents. This story lineage declares Indigenous sovereignty, not colonial loss. Carrying ceremony and its embodiments into a theatre activates sacred space that already is reuniting place, land, body, and memory in all time for all bodies. As ancestors, the land, the stones, are our most ancient of witnesses, bringing forth memory—the oldest of stories.

These old, new stories can call out darkness and loss; they inspirit promise. To enact an unfamiliar truth rings a bell; it harkens a new day. This is our beginning, our radical resurgent present, as Simpson calls it, made possible by the seven generations of artists before us, activating for the seven generations of theatre artists, visitors, and witnesses to come.

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Turn now to face West. We are here at the western doorway.

The third round of the sound-ceremony begins. A song. A dance with what was, what is, and what may yet be. Biidaaban. The light comes.

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Oshkimaadziig (the new people of the seventh fire prophecy who will pick up the things left behind and light the eighth and final fire)

New story bundles can “disrupt the noise of colonialism” through what I call protocols of theatrical Indigeneity:

Lineage reconnects to ancestral ways of knowing and being, which inherently disrupts the way colonial memory manipulates what is “fact” and “truth” in performance spaces.

Kinship resists colonial rigidity and (re)imagines artistic reciprocity that is intersective and connective, and that affirms an Indigenous artistic renaissance.

Listening is the embodied practice of activating ceremony with one’s heart in order to attend to the necessary colonial unlearning of our collective minds and spirits. As protocol, listening with our hearts reconnects us to the decolonial immanence of land and spirit.

Memory/Space-Time interrogates and unsettles linear and hierarchical ways of carrying knowledge forward. It recognizes the revolutionary futurity for Indigenous artistic renaissance through reclamatory acts of artistic, political, historical, spiritual, and community-based practice.

Witnessing invigorates how words will perform the future by acknowledging the interconnectedness between ancestor and future ancestor as the past and future weave through a body occupying a theatre space in the present.

These five protocols that I’m proposing (lineage, kinship, listening, memory/space-time, and witnessing) can evolve and compel artist, visitor, witness—Indigenous, settler, and arrivant bodies—into a deeper personal and theoretical investment into the ways we might intervene and disrupt the imperialist apparatus of theatre on Turtle Island. Embodying these protocols invites us to share knowledge of our own lineage and experiences—artistically, culturally, politically, socioeconomically, and ancestrally—to works of the stage and live performance.

The five protocols potentially activate our collective ability to reflect, compare, research, analyze, and write about our own biases as it relates to (re)conciling our complicity to a colonial lineage of theatrical art practice. They address the fact of our complicity in the colonial apparatus of theatre and identify and discuss the experience of a colonized body decolonizing. These protocols help restore us to an artistic life inside Mino Bimaadiziwin, investigating how Indigenous ways of being, knowing, and relationship to land are expressed and activated through performance processes and decolonial theatrical practices. These five protocols carry the bundle of Indigenous ceremonial story spaces through the halls of theatre training in the “academy” and into theatres across Turtle Island.

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Finally, we turn to face North. We have arrived at the northern doorway.

These artistic resurgent actions are Biskaabiiyang, or a “returning to ourselves,” as Simpson defines. Biskaabiiyang deliberately disrupts the process and reality of living as a colonized body or Zhaaganashiiyaadizi. My elder and Anishinaabemowin teacher, Mishiikenh (Vernon Altiman), describes Biskaabiiyang as “going somewhere and back again together.”

Muh! (stop. listen.)
Gimikwenden ina? (do you remember?)
Biskaabiiyang (returning to ourselves)
Niigaan Gdizhaami/Giwiizhaami(n) (we’re moving forward together)

Aho.

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The fourth and final round of sound-ceremony begins. A song. A dance with what was, what is, and what may yet be. The sun has risen. Our future has arrived.

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It's 2021 and we're amid multiple pandemics that are revealing the structural failures, challenges, and opportunities facing the nonprofit theatre. Where do we go from here? What are we bringing with us through the portal, and what are we making anew? The Devising Our Future series asks theatremakers to consider a future theatre field where resources and power are shared equitably in all directions, contributing to a more just and sustainable world. This series is curated by HowlRound Theatre Commons as part of our tenth anniversary celebration.

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