Embodying Power and Place opens needed space for healing at Vancouver's Talking Stick Festival

Indigenous artists offer their interpretations of the chapters of the report by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

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      This has been a colossally emotional week for millions of Canadians as they absorb the news that 215 Indigenous children were buried in unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

      This May 27 revelation from the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc has once again driven home how devastating—and deadly—colonialism was to Canada’s First Nations.

      This is far from the first such horror story to emerge. In 2019, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls delivered a damning final report, Reclaiming Power and Place, describing what happened as “genocide” and delivering 231 Calls for Justice.

      However, not many Canadians will read a document this large. So Native Earth Performing Arts, Nightwood Theatre, New Harlem Productions, and the Cultch have teamed up with Indigenous artists to present 12 audiovisual works created to respond artistically to each chapter. It’s titled Embodying Power and Place.

      “We have different Indigenous artists from coast to coast to coast with all different backgrounds and different lived experiences,” Native Earth Performing Arts artistic director Keith Barker told the Straight by phone.

      According to him, the common denominator across all of them was an idea or understanding that they could be next. The production, which will be streamed at the Talking Stick Festival’s Summer Sojourn, offers these artists space to express their response.

      “It wasn’t necessarily about feeling the weight of the report but how can we engage people with what is being spoken about?” Barker said.

      Each of the pieces has a director and visual component, according to Nightwood Theatre artistic director Andrea Donaldson. The project was the brainchild of playwright and theatre director Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, artistic director of New Harlem Productions.

      “So Nightwood did a workshop in September without the public, just so the creators can hear their work voiced by actors, and with some witnesses present—invited witnesses,” Donaldson said on the same phone call with Barker.

      The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was a response to relatives’ pain; now artists have offered their interpretations of its chapters.
      Amanda Siebert

      St. Bernard unveiled the first iteration of Embodying Power and Place at Ontario’s Groundswell Festival in November. The version at the Talking Stick Festival will feature creators Janet Antone, Reneltta Arluk, Tara Beagan, Yolanda Bonnell, Darla Contois, Deborah Courchene, Aria Evans, Eekwol Lindsay Knight, Jessica Lea Fleming, Falen Johnson, Émilie Monnet, Yvette Nolan, Michelle Olson, Natalie Sappier, jaye simpson, and Aqua Nibii Waawaaskone.

      Donaldson said that one of the powers of an artist is to encourage empathy in others as well as to help bring about transformation. “We have to keep creating acts of engagement and empathy,” she added. “That’s one of the powerful things we can do.”

      Barker pointed out that all of the directors and the sound designer were Indigenous and either female or nonbinary. Multimedia interpretations and the artwork were also done by Indigenous creators.

      “It’s not just the writing; it’s not just the acting,” Barker emphasized. “It’s the designs that were really quite strong, and we’re really quite proud of it.”

      Margo Kane is artistic managing director of Full Circle: First Nations Performance as well as the Talking Stick Festival.

      She told the Straight by phone that it’s “marvellous” to see so many women stepping forward to do something so powerful, artistic, and necessary.

      “We need to hear from our artists to heal and to come together,” Kane said.