First Nation Renaissance

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Northern Lights, Polar Bears, and Food... RAW:Churchill
Northern Lights, Polar Bears, and Food...

by Xavier Kataquapit 

ATTAWAPISKAT – The late 1980s and early 1990s represents a memorable period of my life. A lot was happening in North America that developed a trending in Native creativity.

The decade was started off with music from the Innu Nation in Quebec when Kashtin burst onto the popular music scene with their debut album of the same name. The group was led by Claude McKenzie and Florent Vollant and their music immediately resonated with  northern James Bay Cree as many of their songs, which were sung in their Native Innu language, was very similar to our own Cree. I can remember everyone singing along to the refrain of ‘Chee-na-no’, a phrase we recognized immediately as ‘all of us’. To my people the northern remote Cree it suddenly felt to us like a world wide popular Native group was singing for all of us.

In southern Ontario, an Aboriginal writer by the name of Tomson Highway had his play ‘Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing’ premiere in 1989 at the Threatre Passe-Muraille in Toronto. Soon after the production was relocated to the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1991, where it became the first work of aboriginal theatre on that stage. The production included the work of Highway’s brother Rene, an actor, dancer and choreographer. The work was a huge hit and brought to life so many wonderful characters.

I was in high school at the time and I can remember seeing and hearing all the news and headlines from the news networks and newspapers that highlighted this new play about Aboriginal people. We studied this creative work in our English class devoted to Aboriginal content because of the new play. It was a couple of years later that I had a chance to see the actual production when a travelling group of Aboriginal performers known as De-ba-jeh-mu-jig, from Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island, performed in Timmins. The story was fun, tragic and familiar for us Native students. It showed the world a comic view of our lives with all its ups and downs and highlighted how we were able to survive through humour. I felt proud to know that someone out there was bringing our people’s story to the forefront in a more positive way.

Writers such as Tomson Highway, promoted a need for more Aboriginal content in the education of young Aboriginal people and for non-Native people as well. It was at this time that I began to take part in courses and programs that were Native based. It seemed like this period was developing for us in so many ways. I was happy to discover that ‘Dry Lips’ was actually the second major play produced by Highway. ‘Rez Sisters’ was the first, as it highlighted seven Aboriginal women and the second play ‘Dry Lips’ was a companion piece that featured seven Aboriginal men.

During the same period, the blockbuster movie ‘Dances With Wolves’ was released in 1990. It starred Kevin Costner and an amazing performance by Graham Greene of Six Nations.  I recall sitting in the theatre in Timmins, Ontario, surrounded by other First Nation students glued to the silver screen. We laughed, applauded and celebrated the fact that this Hollywood movie was promoting Aboriginal people. We left the theatre that night with a bounce of pride in our steps and respect and awe for the Native performances of Graham Greene, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Tantoo Cardinal, Jimmy Herman, Rodney A. Grant and Wes Studi.

Up in Northern Canada and around James Bay, Native musicians were making history too by singing in the Cree language in songs that talked about my people and our culture and traditions. Musicians like Lawrence Martin, Archie Cheechoo, Ron Kataquapit, John Rodrique, The Nakogee Band and Vern Cheechoo did a lot to instill pride in Native people.

I am hoping that there is a another renaissance in creativity soon. We need it.
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