Art leads, again.
Politics, language, history: all play a part in playwright and actor Quelemia Sparrow’s Skyborn: A Land Reclamation Odyssey, but this innovative interdisciplinary undertaking began with time for quiet reflection, dreaming, and the act of putting pen to paper.
As the part-Musqueam, part-settler artist tells the Straight in a wide-ranging telephone conversation from her Kerrisdale home, her new play began some years ago, when she embarked on a writing retreat on the Sunshine Coast. There, Sparrow says, she first conceived of putting what she now calls “a spirit-canoe journey” on-stage—but, as she also notes, she didn’t quite know what to do with the concept. Some of this personal odyssey factored into her 2016 project O’wet/Lost Lagoon, but she feels that production was never fully realized. Now, with the support of a primarily Indigenous crew helmed by the brilliant Syilx, Tsilhqot’in, Ktunaxa, and Dakel director Kim Senklip Harvey, Sparrow is revisiting her original vision with a newfound appreciation for what it means.
Following O’wet/Lost Lagoon, she explains, she met with a protocol officer from her nation, and through their conversation Skyborn took wing.
“He said to me ‘Oh, you wrote a spirit-canoe journey,’ like it’s a thing,” Sparrow recalls. “I was like, ‘What?’ And he said ‘Yeah, you know, it used to be a practice that when someone had some sort of spirit sickness, a medicine person would guide them on a spiritual canoe journey in order to retrieve their soul. It was said that their soul had left their body, and it was the practice of calling that back, bringing their soul back to them.’
“When that happened, everything just opened up,” she continues. “The whole project just flew after that, because I had taken the time to figure out what this was that I’d actually written, and then who I needed in order to support that journey. And then it was finding an Indigenous director, finding an Indigenous producer, and…having the right Indigenous artists on board, which ensured that it just blew open.”
With Skyborn, Sparrow and Harvey are collaborating with singers, puppeteers, visual artists, and costume designers in a process that’s more consensus-based and less rushed than what most stage productions enjoy. Sparrow is also drawing from family memories, especially those imparted by her father and paternal grandfather, who—despite having endured the destructive impact of the residential-school system—kept Musqueam language, cosmology, and geographical knowledge alive for future generations. And, of course, she’s incorporating aspects of her own journey, through art, to recover, heal, and nourish her own soul.
How does she feel now that her šxʷhəli is in its rightful place?
“Oh my god, I never thought I’d have that question asked to me,” Sparrow says, laughing. “This is just such a hard question to answer, because the soul retrieval, the šxʷhəli retrieval, in my piece is very specific to intergenerational trauma that needs to heal….But I feel I’m coming to a point of resiliency and joy. I often think that I’ve discovered down to very simple choices in my life: do I choose fear, or do I choose love? For me, love is the ultimate truth—and if I can just keep remembering that, that’s part of my šxʷhəli retrieval.”
Savage Production Society, the Cultch, and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival present Skyborn: A Land Reclamation Odyssey at the Cultch Historic Theatre from January 23 to February 1.