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Clearing a Path for Indigenous Artists

/By / Oct 12, 2017

“It’s like we’re grass dancers,” says Falen Johnson, comparing herself and Cole Alvis to the contemporary pow wow dancers. “They do this move with their foot”—she taps her foot in a semi-circle as she speaks—“and what that’s about is clearing a path. I think in a lot of ways we’re trying to clear a path, making this a place that feels more accessible to Indigenous artists.”

Johnson, a Mohawk Tuscarora playwright, is speaking about programming the Guswenta Gathering—a week of theatre, dance, music, storytelling, and art—alongside Métis theatre creator Alvis at one of Toronto’s biggest theatres: Soulpepper.

Guswenta is the Mohawk word for the Two Row Wampum, a beaded belt created in 1613 as a treaty between the Haudenosaunee people and the Dutch settlers. Woven onto the belt are two rows of purple beads, representing the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch, travelling side by side but not interrupting each other’s path.

Both Johnson and Alvis felt it was symbolic to name the weeklong gathering after the Two Row Wampum. “This is the first large-scale event with Indigenous leadership at Soulpepper,” says Alvis, “and having these values threaded through this event, I hope, will set Soulpepper up in a good way to keep moving in this direction.“

Everyone involved agrees that it’s a first step for Soulpepper. And Johnson and Alvis hope that the Guswenta Gathering will help lay the groundwork for more Indigenous artists to engage with the company—and other large institutions—in the future.

Santee Smith (NeoIndigenA). Photo by David Hou

Soulpepper is known for putting on quality shows with high production value, something that Johnson and Alvis kept in mind as they programmed the gathering. But they also wanted to present work that Soulpepper audiences might not see otherwise. One group that came to mind immediately was Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, run by award-winning producer and choreographer Santee Smith.

“Santee’s work is stunning, it’s crisp, it’s beautifully packaged,” says Johnson. “I can see it working well within this space and helping to bridge what a subscription base here might be interested in seeing, but it’s also rooted in her Mohawk self, and her Mohawk sensibilities, and her Mohawk aesthetic.”

This kind of approach speaks to Johnson’s deep interest in education through art, in a way that doesn’t feel educational. Another way they’re doing this is through a partnership with First Story Toronto, an organization that provides bus and walking tours for individuals to explore the city’s history as told from the perspective of Indigenous communities. The bus tour designed for the Guswenta Gathering will bring participants around the city, and will be filled with the history and stories of Toronto’s lands and waterways.

Johnson and Alvis hope the First Story Toronto bus tour will help rewire people’s brains to think about places in the city differently. “Maybe somebody will be driving out of town and will go by the Don Valley and think, Oh, well, this body of water that I never paid much attention to before, I now have this memory of this artists doing something on this piece of land,” says Johnson.

And, just as importantly, the partnership will give profile to an organization that has been doing strong community work for over twenty years.

Cliff Cardinal in Huff. Photo by Jamie Williams

Making sure the Guswenta Gathering shines a spotlight on existing culturally specific organizations—like First Story Toronto, and like Native Earth, whose show Huff, starring Cliff Cardinal, is also part of the gathering—has been hugely important for Johnson and Alvis. They’re conscious of the fact that these smaller organizations have been doing the work for years and want to ensure that, as part of this new chapter for Soulpepper, the company is supporting that work.

“So, again, first steps,” says Johnson. And both she and Alvis are hopeful and optimistic about the future of the relationship between Soulpepper and Indigenous communities and artists.

Though they’re both feeling good about this first step, that doesn’t mean the process has been easy. “There’s a lot of pressure and challenges to be one of the first Indigenous artists in this type of role,” says Alvis. “And that’s what we accept when we come into a space that’s known, and so if we can make this a little bit easier for whoever is coming after us, that makes it worthwhile.”

Johnson and Alvis say their own work has been made a bit easier because of the leaders who came before them—the Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble, playwright/director Yvette Nolan, poet/playwright Daniel David Moses, and others. These teachers and mentors made it possible for them to be in this position, as artistic leaders of the Guswenta Gathering, as bridge-builders, as grass dancers.

“And as grass dancers,” finishes Alvis, “hopefully we’re making it easier for others.”

The Guswenta Gathering was at Soulpepper from October 16 to 21, 2017. Events included Cliff Cardinal’s award-winning HuffSantee Smith’s dance piece NeoIndigenA; solo performances by Annie AkavakAmy DesjarlaisHilton HenhawkeRhonda LucyMaria Montejo, and Teddy Syrette, all directed by Tracey Erin Smith (SOULO Theatre); a First Story Toronto bus tour; a dance workshop from Justin Many Fingers called Niitsitapiisin; a cabaret with Ansley SimpsonCliff CardinalJustin Many FingersKristi Lane Sinclair, and Lacey Hill; a speaker series; and a marketplace.

May Antaki

May Antaki

May is the co-founder and former co-editor-in-chief of Intermission. She edits everything from memoirs to cookbooks, loves maple syrup and boy bands, and is a pretty good first baseman.



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