Wednesday 20 May 2015

God and The Indian powerful, forceful & sad

Background update : Since last I saw Drew Hayden Taylor's God and the Indian at the Firehall Arts Centre (April, 2013) I have read Thomas King's utterly accessible personal research project about aboriginal folk in North America. The Inconvenient Indian reads like a "letter to whitey" about what life has been like for native cultures both N. & S. of 49 for the past 500 years. King, a descendent of the Central Valley native communities of the Maidu and Yokhut tribes near Sacramento, subtitles his book "A Curious Account of Native People in North America".

As well, I have done touch-&-go peeks at various chapters of the acclaimed novel The Orenda by Joseph Boyden that tells a violent tale from early 17th century aboriginal history in three 1st-person perspectives : a kidnapped Iroquois young woman, her Huron warrior captor and wannabe adoptive father, and a French Catholic priest sent to outposts near the Hudson's Bay region of North America expressly to convert indigenous peoples to Christianity, or die trying.

King cites the 1963 federally-commissioned investigation by UBC anthropologist Harry B. Hawthorn into the conditions faced in the mid-20th century by Canadian Indians (a term King champions for convenience sake over the Canadian preferred idiom "First Nations" and its USA counterpart "Native Americans"). In his report to the Liberal Government, Prof. Hawthorn's primary conclusion was that the difficulty facing Canadian Indians was their unsuccessful assimilation into the dominant Euro-Christian capitalist society that governs this country (sic). He blamed residential schools as a primary contributor to Indians' exclusion from mainstream Canadian life.

Redux info on Mr. Taylor's play :  The plot is simple. Rev. George King, an Anglican priest, has been promoted to Assistant Bishop in an urban diocese. The morning after the party celebrating his annunciation he stops at Timmy Ho's for a cuppajava. There he is spotted by a native panhandler and sex trade worker colloquially known as "Johnny Indian" who follows him back to his office. She confronts King and accuses him of being the teacher from St. Mark's Residential School who forced her to perform fellatio and raped her, repeatedly, when she was just 12. And then stroked her hair because it was so soft and beautiful....

Set in the year 2000, the play proceeds in the manner of an intervention, a kind of informal inquisition : Johnny (Lisa C. Ravensbergen) demands that King (Thomas Hauff) confess to the crimes she accuses him of. The dialogue flips back-&-forth between the two. King rhymes off institutional cant and stock denials of any personal complicity or guilt during his time at St. Mark's.

King : "I know it's in vogue to sue the Church for all sorts of wrongful actions, but there has to be some basis of truth and evidence involved. We're not handing out blank cheques or apologies to whoever walks in the door." Johnny : "I don't want any money. Or an apology. No -- acknowledgement -- that I'm me. Me! I'm Sammy's sister. I am my parents' child. I don't what to be a ghost anymore. I want to exist. To be seen. To be noticed. To be acknowledged. By you, and what you've done." King : "I'm afraid I can't do that."

To encourage a more complicit response from King, Johnny pulls a gun from her purse and whips it about violently. For the balance of the play we see Johnny agonize whether to commit suicide with the pistol and its one bullet she claims is left in its chamber, or to kill King. She agonizes : "There's nothing for me here!" No release, no peace either by suicide or assassination. 

A note from the Director : Indian is directed by Renae Morriseau, herself of native stock, who in 2013 said the play "...takes us on a journey of layered meaning where compassion, reconciliation and the boundaries placed upon forgiveness are explored and developed." In this year's notes she states : "Civilizing Aboriginal children through church doctrine didn't work. Teaching them English through incarcerated ideals broke spirits." 

Appropriately, in just 10 days the next episode in the story of Canada's First Nations Truth and Reconciliation Commission will commence in Ottawa (May 31-June 3) with a Reconciliation Walk and other commemorative activities. The Commission's work in large measure explored how the mandate of residential schools throughout their 140 year history -- the last school didn't close its doors until 1986 in B.C., 1996 nationally -- was to "save the child by killing the Indian".

For his part, Thomas King in The Inconvenient Indian tots up the damage of residential schools to their students : "Canada reckons their [residential school] numbers at about 150,000, so the tally for America would have been considerably higher. But for the children who did find themselves there, the schools were, in all ways, a death trap. Children were stripped of their cultures and their languages. Up to 50 percent of them lost their lives to disease, malnutrition, neglect and abuse -- 50 percent.~ One in two. If residential schools had been a virulent disease, they wold have been in the same category as smallpox and Ebola. By contrast, the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed millions worldwide, had a mortality rate of only 10 to 20 percent." [~Editor's note : This percentage is disputed. As of June 1, 2015 the TRC estimate based on current known records is approx. 6,000 student deaths, or 4%. Importantly, TRC also notes that most record-keeping on deaths ceased in 1920 due, it is thought, to the high death rate among native residential school children relative to the general public school population. It is speculated federal officials did not want the public to find out this information.]

King has noted the direct result of life in residential schools to its children. Extrapolation expands what the collateral damage has been. At approximately 20 years per generation, that is fully seven generations of Canadian Indians since 1850 who lost first-hand knowledge of what family life in villages "should" be like. How normal mother / father / sister / brother relationships might work on a day-to-day basis. What "community" looks, feels, sounds, smells and tastes like when based on an organic homegrown ethos and culture flowing from self-government and self-determination (such as recently achieved by Tsawwassen First Nation just down the road from where I live). 

Production values repeat : As noted two years ago, the set and lighting design by Lauchlin Johnson are very effective for the intimate Firehall stage : Assistant Bishop King's office with backlit projections of a stark residential school bed awaiting innocent sleep that will not happen; large first-growth birch trees; an outsize King James Bible; crates of oranges (used to tempt the children to comply with the priests' demands for sexual favours). 

Costumes designed by Alex Danard capture well the disconnect between the "man of God" from the church hierarchy -vs- the "woman of spirit" who lives off the street. 

The soundscape of Morriseau and Marcos Amaya-Torres is a clever blend of hymnal backchords set to native tom-tom beats, ghostly whispers of the dead, plus the contrast of innocent children squealing in playtime delight and escape.

Character kudos : The 2015 production brings to the stage two remarkable talents in Ravensbergen (Johnny) and Hauff (King). Their engagement and embracement of their roles was chilling, amusing and profoundly sad all at once. 

Johnny's crook-finger j'accuse! point-point-point at the litho of Jesus and the children and then rat-a-tat-tat back repeatedly at Rev. King was as compelling as her crippled leg, wounded hobble and fractured soul.

Hauff's staccato ejaculative bursts of dialogue were painful and pathetic, e.g. "I am not a monster!" he insists, such lines punctuated by regular face-scratching, eye-squints and hands clasped in mock-confessional arrogant pleas for Johnny's absolution.

Tears literally came to my eyes from the exchange when he reads the Anglican litany of apology to First Nations from 1993 : "We failed you, we failed ourselves, we failed God!" he protests. To which Johnny responds plaintively : "Those are words read wonderfully for the news, but I was there...!" Words don't heal actions. 

Who gonna like : God and the Indian is just one lens on the myriad unresolved issues between Canada's first peoples and the dominant Euro-capitalist society that imposed itself on their aboriginal world, violent and desperate though it, too, may have been on its own, pre-contact.

The play, staged in the midst of Vancouver's DTES with its ongoing history of missing murdered native women, is powerful and forceful and persuasive on a visceral level how much human damage can be inflicted over the centuries that is only just now being admitted to and apologized for, for whatever that might be worth.*

*Background note #1 : 
"Two primary objectives of the residential school system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, 'to kill the Indian in the child.' Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country."
 -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper, official Government of Canada apology, June 11, 2008  

Background note #2 :  From University of Manitoba précis highlighting its Leah Carritt Collection on the Brandon Indian Residential School (1936) :

The Canadian parliament administrated the enculturation of Indigenous peoples across Canada with compulsory attendance for children aged 6 to 15 and Christian based curriculum which forbade traditional knowledge and languages. This process of enculturation has been largely referred to as “Killing the Indian, saving the child”. Due to major under-funding from churches and the federal government, the upkeep and subsistence of the residential school depended on the forced labor of students. The compulsory residential school system lasted until 1948 and official closings of residential schools occurred into the 1990s. Residential schools varied in their corporal treatment towards the students, which has culminated in mixed emotions about individual experiences, though overwhelmingly the residential school program has been condemned by Indigenous people and regretted by portions of the Canadian government. The first official state apology to Indigenous peoples over the abuses incurred at residential schools was made in 1998, followed by an open inquiry into individual and community experience through a Truth and Reconciliation program beginning in 2006.

Background note #3 : From the University of British Columbia's Indigenous Foundation website :

The residential school system is viewed by much of the Canadian public as part of a distant past, disassociated from today’s events. In many ways, this is a misconception. The last residential school [in BC] did not close its doors until 1986. Many of the leaders, teachers, parents, and grandparents of today’s Aboriginal communities are residential school survivors. There is, in addition, an intergenerational effect: many descendents of residential school survivors share the same burdens as their ancestors even if they did not attend the schools themselves. These include transmitted personal trauma and compromised family systems, as well as the loss in Aboriginal communities of language, culture, and the teaching of tradition from one generation to another.

According to the Manitoba Justice Institute, residential schools laid the foundation for the epidemic we see today of domestic abuse and violence against Aboriginal women and children. Generations of children have grown up without a nurturing family life. As adults, many of them lack adequate parenting skills and, have only experienced abuse, in turn abuse their children and family members. This high incidence of domestic violence among Aboriginal families results in many broken homes, perpetuation the cycle of abuse and dysfunction over generations.

Many observers have argued that the sense of worthlessness that was instilled in students by the residential school system contributed to extremely low self-esteem. This has manifested itself in self-abuse, resulting in high rates of alcoholism, substance abuse, and suicide. Among First Nations people aged 10 to 44, suicide and self-inflicted injury is the number one cause of death, responsible for almost 40 percent of mortalities. First Nations women attempt suicide eight times more often than other Canadian women, and First Nations men attempt suicide five times more often than other Canadian men. Some communities experience what have been called suicide epidemics.

Note on the playwright : Drew Hayden Taylor billboards himself as "the blue-eyed Ojibway". Originally from Curve Lake First Nations in central Ontario decades back, Taylor considers humour his primary metier as playwright, essayist and speaker promoting aboriginal issues and causes. Asked at Opening Night in 2013 by this reviewer why he deviated from his usual humour to write God and the Indian, he replied : "As a challenge. A friend asked whether I had it in me to write something serious, so I decided to tackle the most serious subject involving Canadian aboriginal people that I could think of. Residential schools. That's it." 

Particulars :  A Firehall Arts Centre production in partnership with Native Earth Performing Arts. 80 minutes' duration, no intermission. On through May 30th at the Centre on the corner of East Cordova and Gore. Tickets and schedules via or by phoning 604.689.0926.

Production crew :  Written by Drew Hayden Taylor.  Directed by Renae Morriseau.  Set & Lighting Design by Lauchlin Johnson.  Costume Design by Alex Danard.  Stage Managers Emma Hammond and Jillian Perry.  Assistant Stage Manager Victoria Ip.  Sound by Renae Morriseau & Marcos Amaya-Torres. Native Earth Performing Arts Artistic Director Ryan Cunningham. 

Performers :  Thomas Hauff.  Lisa C. Ravensbergen.


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