The title of Yvonne Wallace’s new one-woman show is ūtszan—an Ucwalmícwts word meaning “to make things better”.
And for Wallace and another Indigenous solo artist at the upcoming Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, reclaiming language has been making things better. It’s helped rebuild identity, the key to finding a way forward amid truth and reconciliation.
Raised in the Líl’wat Nation in Mount Currie, Wallace started relearning her language after being away from home for 21 years. She had to commute to the Líl’wat Nation once a week for lessons.
“I didn’t know how many barriers I would have to overcome emotionally, physically, psychologically, and geographically to learn it,” says the playwright and performer, whose grandmother and great-grandmothers were fluent speakers.
Little by little, Wallace has acquired the language, and tapped the tradition of storytelling in her culture. It’s now led to what she calls her “heart story”: ūtszan focuses on Margaret, who returns home to the Líl’wat Nation after a long absence (sound familiar?), and the older aunt who refuses to speak English and only uses Ucwalmícwts so that her young niece will learn the language.
Writing the play, which works in extended sections of rich and flowing Indigenous dialogue, was as much of a learning process for Wallace as studying the words in school had been.
“I started writing it in English first,” she says, explaining she took it to an elder for early consultation. “For hours, we would talk about ‘What would Auntie say?’ And she would say it and I would transcribe it.”
After workshops at Native Earth Performing Arts and the Playwrights Theatre Centre, Wallace showed it to her mother, who’s also a language teacher. “We would be talking and writing, and she was editing, she was adding things,” recounts Wallace, who plays the various characters in the story. “We were drinking tea and laughing.” Her mother even helped her translate Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” for the show.
Don’t expect the resulting play, which Wallace first developed as her graduating project at Capilano University, to translate all of the Ucwalmícwts for the audience, either.
“The experience of it really fights against the idea that our language is hard,” Wallace says. “It’s quite easy if you pay attention. I also wanted people to hear how beautiful our language is, and to honour people that have learned the language. This story was my way of reaffirming to my ancestors and my elders who had the foresight to develop my language into a curriculum.”
For Wallace, the learning process continues far beyond the show. “Every day I learn one word,” she says.
Language has been a big part of actor-writer Taninli Wright’s journey as well. “We belong to an oral tradition and it’s based on what we remember,” Wright tells the Straight over the phone before her own solo show, Sis Ne’ Bi-Yïz: Mother Bear Speaks, opens at the Heart of the City Festival. “It’s used in how we govern our land. Everything we’ve done, we’ve done in our language. It’s like breathing.”
The Wet’suwet’en artist’s play tells the story of her Messenger of Hope Walk, in which she walked 1,600 kilometres across British Columbia for improved education for First Nations and other marginalized kids. But it also traces her painful past, growing up amid bullying and abuse in Smithers, B.C. In one story, she recounts how a carful of teens whipped a milkshake into her face while shouting racist slurs.
“You need to picture this little Indian girl in this racist town of Smithers, and I kept myself in this little prison in my mind,” says Wright, who opens up about her traumas in the one-woman show. “To the outside world I look like I’m functioning, but I’m really in my own little prison.”
Theatre and acting have offered a way out, she says. Though she has a bachelor’s degree in education, she switched to acting about five years ago, studying at New Image College Film Acting Conservatory. “I always wanted to be an actor, but society punches you and knocks you down, you know?” she says. “It says, ‘You’re gonna end up being pregnant or on welfare.’ ”
That same strength fuelled her through her Messenger of Hope Walk in 1997, a journey she made by flying to Prince Rupert and then walking back to Vancouver.
For her march, she took strength from her tsets, her late grandfather, the ancestor who had fought to protect his kids from residential school and kept the language going.
“I was told lots of stories about my tsets—that he was a community runner to deliver urgent personal messages or deliver invitations to community potlatch,” she explains. “According to my uncle and my mom, he once ran 100 miles in one night.”
She also drew support from community members who walked with her along her 52-day journey. And now, with Sis Ne’ Bi-Yïz: Mother Bear Speaks, which was produced by Instruments of Change (a group that uses the arts as an educational tool), she wants others to know they aren’t alone either.
“There aren’t a lot of survivor stories out there,” she says. “It’s nice to see a story of a person that can draw on the beauty of their culture to help overcome things.”
The Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival presents ūtszan at the Firehall Arts Centre from Thursday to Saturday (October 31 to November 2) and Sis Ne’ Bi-Yïz: Mother Bear Speaks at the same venue on Wednesday (October 30) and from Friday to Sunday (November 1 to 3).