Storyweaving: Weaving First Nation Memories from the Past into the Future
Over two weekends in May (May 11-13 & May 18-20), the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre on East Hastings Street played host to a remarkable theatrical/cultural experience—Storyweaving: Weaving First Nation Memories from the Past into the Future.
Storyweaving, which involves a large cast of First Nations actors and community members, along with members of the Git Hayetsk and Spakwus Slulum dance and drum groups, was produced by Vancouver Moving Theatre & the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival in partnership with the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre.
In keeping with concept of the circle, which runs through many (if not all) aboriginal cultures, Storyweaving is not linear in either its narrative or its execution. Instead, it is performed “in the round,” with the audience surrounding the small performance area, bisected at four points by podiums manifesting the four directions that are common to the First Nations belief system. The script also stays away from the strictures of conventional narrative. Instead, as the title implies, it weaves snippets of stories and memories into a multi-textured fabric that requires the audience to not “follow the story” but instead immerse themselves in a state where laughter and tears share a space with hope, anger and the possibility of reconciliation.
Storyweaving is heartbreaking in its emotional nakedness, but at the same time heartwarming in its determination to laugh in the face of what sometimes feels like near-certain defeat. The story of First Nations people in Canada is one of near genocide and almost unthinkable cruelty and neglect, yet the message that Storyweaving delivers is one of moving forward into the future with determination. It is a message that all Canadians need to hear and witness, regardless of ethnicity or where our ancestors came from.
by John Endo Greenaway
My response to Storyweaving
by Grace Eiko Thomson
As the title, Storyweaving, suggests, the performance was about the weaving of memories from the past into the future, honoring the First Nation ancestral and urban presence in Greater Vancouver. But these are not only First Nation stories, they are Canadian stories—the good and the bad shared by all Canadians.
I went to this performance on Sunday May 20, urged by Terry Hunter of Vancouver Moving Theatre. This was the first time I had gone to a performance held at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre (though I often visit the shop located here, especially when I am looking for gifts to take to Japan as there is an incredible array of Aboriginal arts and crafts and even special tea and of course t-shirts). It was also the first time I had ever sat so close to the performers, as chairs three to four deep were arranged around the edge of an oval circle stage. The storytellers at four directional locations, the speakers and actors both young and old, and the dancers and drummers overwhelmed the stage with their energetic presence as they revealed “memories of what was, and what is.”
Today, we acknowledge the injustices perpetrated on the First Nations communities and individuals since foreign empires laid claim to their lands as early as in the 18th century, and are aware more particularly of recent events, such as the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Missing Women’s Commission Inquiry, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Community Hearings, which are finally working at dealing with longstanding issues. Undoubtedly no one can live in Canada today without such awareness.
But there is no doubt also that many among us grew up in a Canada which offered biased interpretations of First Nations’ histories and colonization in classrooms, and in books and museum displays, which have only very recently in this history begun to include the viewpoints of First Nations’ experience and memories. Such mythologizing of peoples induced generations of Canadians to marginalize on the basis of `difference.’
So it was that I sat as one of the audience at this performance and, halfway through, found myself weeping. While I tried, I couldn’t stop weeping. I was not alone. All around me, men and women were blowing their noses and wiping tears from their eyes. We are of course all aware of the stories behind the script, the script written for this performance. But the script is not a play script but a real life script, felt and grieved by each of the performers, who with spiritual and bodily languages and with great faith and courage and optimism fight the fight, knowing they are succeeding.
Why was I crying, amid all this optimism and courage? Was it feelings of guilt? What had I done in my lifetime to show I cared about the conditions under which First Nations communities were living, already moving into three centuries of upheaval and injustices? I had lived my life self-centredly dealing with my own issues of identity, of belonging to a community and to a family racialized. When, during the performance, White Lunch was remembered as a restaurant in the East Side which had a sign to keep out natives, this struck a chord in me, as I recall my father telling me about this cafe, that ‘orientals’ were also not allowed entry.
While I had spent most of my adult life studying art and curating contemporary art exhibitions, and had worked with various cross-cultural communities, including Baker Lake’s Sanavik Cooperative printmakers, Regina’s artist Bob Boyer and Saskatchewan Federated Indian College (co-curating an exhibition of Saskatchewan Aboriginal artists), and at the Burnaby Art Gallery (i.e., Tracing Cultures), I believe in retrospect that I was dealing with issues within each of these social and cultural communities as related to my own history of being a Japanese Canadian, which I was not yet prepared to face.
I have since retired from contemporary art work, focusing more and more on researching and studying Japanese Canadian history, about my own heritage, which had affected the way I had been living my life of not admitting to feelings of marginalization. I began focusing on injustices perpetrated on Japanese Canadians through curatorial projects, and have been moved to speak out on other human rights issues more generally, through the Japanese Canadian experience, to the end that no one or no group should ever be treated in this way on account of their appearance or condition…that we must, each of us, take responsibility to be vigilant and work toward a better Canada for every one of us.
The program guide I received when I entered the Aboriginal Friendship Centre’s Chief Simon Baker Room is invaluable. In 40 pages it explains aspects of Aboriginal historic and current cultures and experiences, through various voices, and I wish this could be made available to school teachers and students. For instance, before the performance began, I quickly read through the ten pages of historical chronology, beginning with 10,000 years ago, and moving into recorded history since 1763 with the Royal Proclamation of King George III of England claiming land through negotiations, recognized in Section 25 of Canada’s 1982 Constitution Act. The last entry announces a National Truth and Reconciliation event to take place in Vancouver from September 18-21, 2013. It is my sincere wish that the next entries will be about joyful events, and to this end, we will share in this history.