In an oral culture, tales handed down from time immemorial are more than just myths and legends: they’re also maps for living.
“Traditional stories contain our laws and our moralities,” explains N’lakap’amux actor and playwright Kevin Loring, on the line from the Fraser Canyon community of Lytton. “They’re all parables, right?”
Uncovering the truths embedded in those parables is part of the mandate of his Savage Society theatre company’s Songs of the Land project, which looks at First Nations language and culture through the prism of the wax-cylinder recordings made by ethnologist James Alexander Teit almost exactly a century ago. And it was during one of those sessions that Loring first heard the story that has since become the centrepiece of Savage Society’s new production, Battle of the Birds.
It wasn’t on the Teit recordings, but listening to those artifacts led N’lakap’amux elder Jimmy Toodlican to recall the tale, as it was told to him by his own forebears.
“That was pretty remarkable,” Loring says, pointing out that some researchers consider “The Battle of the Birds” to be one of the four core narratives of the Interior Salish.
“It deals with power abuse and domestic violence and how the community deals with that—at least traditionally,” he explains. “And it’s set in the Bird Nation, in this mythical time, this legendary time, when animals were like people. And so in the Bird Nation, Eagle is hosting a slahal game, a gambling game which is also known as the bone game. He’s being really abusive to his wife in front of everybody, and so Golden Eagle gets all the other birds together to rescue Eagle’s wife, and they steal her away to Golden Eagle’s house.”
The intervention does not go well.
“Eagle is very upset, so he goes and he challenges all the birds to battle to the death for his honour and his wife,” Loring continues. “And they come out of the house and he slaughters them all; he decapitates them all, from the littlest birds to the biggest birds, including Golden Eagle. And then at the very end this little Red Hawk comes in, sees the devastation that has been done to his community, challenges Eagle, and defeats him. And then he sings his medicine song, which heals all the birds—except for Eagle, whose head he leaves completely white, to remind him to be humble and kind to his wife.”
Abuse and resurrection: there’s a clear parallel to First Nations life under colonialism, and Loring readily admits that there’s a political side to his work.
“As aboriginal artists, we’re like warriors, right?” he says. “We’re constantly having to standard-bear, right? Wherever we go and whatever we do, we have to hold the flag—and not the Canadian flag, but the aboriginal flag. We have to represent our people, and we have to do it in the best way possible.”
With Battle of the Birds, Loring and Savage Society have assembled a strong cast of singers and actors, including Sandy Scofield, Sam Bob, Nyla Carpentier, and Mitchell Saddleback
. Seven original songs, inspired by Teit’s cylinder recordings, have been composed to accompany the script, which will be presented in N’lakap’amux’tsn and English. And 30 Lytton residents will also be on-stage, making this battle as much of a celebration as a cautionary tale.
“What this play is saying is that the community needs to rally around the victims, and that the community has to address these family-violence issues, just as much as the family itself has to,” Loring says.
With a little push from an ancient legend, the N’lakap’amux are clearly on-side—and there’s no reason for the rest of us not to follow.
The Talking Stick Festival presents Battle of the Birds at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Friday and Saturday (February 19 and 20).