With international attention focused on the Idle No More movement, Canadian aboriginal performers are more visible than ever. This year’s 11th annual Talking Stick Festival brings a wide selection of those performers from across Canada to Vancouver for 16 days of dance, theatre, poetry, music and roundtables that aim to connect and inspire artists and audiences alike.
Highlights of this year’s festival include the first visit to Vancouver by Sagkeeng’s Finest, a trio of young dancers from Manitoba who are best known as the winners of the first and only season of Canada’s Got Talent.
Marrying traditional powwow dancing with European jigs and reels, the group’s signature Red River Jig is a traditional part of Manitoba’s Metis culture.
Sagkeeng’s Finest manager Arnold Asham, himself a dancer with a group called the Asham Stompers, believes introducing traditional dance to young people on reserves like Sagkeeng First Nation can have a healing impact on the communities.
“Our mission is to help recapture and preserve the history of the people through the Red River Jig,” he says. “Our purpose is to help bring hope to the young children in aboriginal communities. Most of these communities already do the Red River Jig, and there’s a lot of fiddling in our communities. So we’re taking something out of the community and taking it to the world stage.”
That strategy certainly worked for 18-year-old Vince O’Laney, who started dancing about five years ago to get in shape, but stuck with it because he was having fun.
“I was chubby and when I started dancing, I started to lose weight,” he remembers. “It got me away from negative things like drugs and alcohol and really made me stay away from that because I was so busy with dancing. It’s always like, ‘I’m going to go dance! I can’t wait!'”
But he had no idea that it would take him into the national spotlight and win him and his dance partners, Dallas and Brandon Courchene, a $100,000 prize.
As the confetti rained down during the final episode of Canada’s Got Talent, the joy on the young men’s faces was unmistakable, but O’Laney says that the victory didn’t feel real until they arrived back at the Winnipeg airport to a hero’s welcome.
“The whole airport was full of people from Sagkeeng, just cheering us on and everything,” he said.
Asham was less surprised. He believes that the Red River Jig could be as big as River Dance, and that Sagkeeng’s Finest make great ambassadors for the art.
“If you see these young kids dance, you really understand how it’s built their self-esteem,” he says. “They’re performers. They don’t hold back. They do their thing up there. They leave it all on the floor.”
Meanwhile, Ontario’s Waawaate Fobister brings a whole other layer to the Talking Stick discussion with his one-man play Agokwe. Loosely based on his own experiences with homophobia as a young man in Northern Ontario, Ago-kwe tells the story of two young men whose ill-fated romance sheds light on the struggles of LGBT aboriginal people.
Through the play’s narrator, the spirit Nanabush, Fobis-ter shows that in traditional aboriginal culture, people who were gay, or “two-spirited,” were revered. “Back in the day, two-spirited people had roles and responsibilities in the community so they weren’t ostracized,” he says. “They were the spiritual leaders for the community.”
Since its launch in 2009, Fobister has been criss-crossing the country with the play, visiting communities large and small, and even did a TEDx Talk. He hopes that his work inspires future performers, just as artists such as Tom-son Highway and Daniel David Moses inspired him.
“We have all these queer native artists already that have paved the way for us,” he says. “So now there’s another wave of queer artists coming through and starting to create work and have a voice. I think that helps inspire younger aboriginal artists.”
He points out that as the community grows, so does the quality of the work.
“With my peers it’s like, let’s make the work stronger,” he says. “Let’s push it. Let’s witness each other’s work and then let’s push each other. We see where the bar is raised and let’s raise it even higher than that.”
Talking Stick organizer and artistic manager of Full Circle Productions Margo Kane sees each festival as an opportunity to encourage that kind of growth. But she notes that there are still some challenges. “We don’t have a place to gather,” she says. “We don’t have our own performance space or theatre space. We need to come together more regularly.
“What I’m hoping is that by having this conversation with Vancouver aboriginal artists across disciplines plus some guests, we can begin to think about the future.”