Dr. Michelle La Flamme is an Afro-NDN performer, activist and educator who completed a Ph.D. at UBC in English literature (May 2006). In her other life, she is an avid performer and has worked in film and video production. She tries her best to bridge the world of academia and her creative life and she is often asked to speak or perform at Canadian conferences addressing representations of race in contemporary Canadian art and literature. She was born and raised here on the "best Coast" and has had the good fortune of taking her ideas abroad as a guest lecturer in Germany, Spain and The Netherlands. These days she is particularly interested in Native/Black issues as her bloodlines encompass both sides of the 49th and include Métis, Creek and African-American strains. Currently, she teaches Canadian literature, Academic Writing, Introduction to Fiction and Introduction to Poetry at UBC. She makes the time to write, perform and be involved in community activism when she has the energy.
Original excerpts have been published in another essay titled “The Making of Warriors: From Pollock to Pechawis” in Sharon Pollock: Critical Perspectives on Canadian Theatre in English, Vol. 5. Eds. Sherrill Grace and Michelle La Flamme. Toronto Playwright Canada Press 2008.
There are many different definitions of Medicine. As a woman of mixed heritage (Métis, African-Canadian and Creek) I have been exposed to many Aboriginal teachings and ceremonies. My own definition of medicine is based on the teachings of traditional elders who have shared their cultural insight with me regarding the power and meaning of medicine. There are Medicine Wheel ceremonies that involve respect for the four directions and the balance between the physical, mental, spiritual and emotional aspects of an individual. Medicine can be understood in a psychological or philosophical way whereby individuals go through a form of catharsis when they are guided by the teachings. There is medicine involved in seeking advice from elders by way of offering them tobacco. There is participatory medicine involved in being a witness or participant in talking circles, and there is medicine that is physical in the form of tobacco, sweet grass, sage and cedar. There is medicine in ceremony whether these be sweat lodge ceremonies, moon lodge ceremonies, naming ceremonies or longhouse ceremonies. There is medicine in the practice of creating art whether that be carving, weaving or painting. Some traditional languages do not have a word for theatrical performance, so they use the closest word, which is ceremony. These cultural beliefs about medicine and practices which are referred to as medicinal reflect a belief in the power of performance and the possibility of the performance being medicinal for any and all of these cultural associations with medicine. The performances and plays that I examine in this essay can be understood as medicine in that they bring balance to the witnesses through honouring the deceased by way of naming rituals, they bring balance to communities by showing the humanity of Aboriginal women and they provide a cathartic ritual or ceremony for the release of trauma.
The most infamous story of a murdered Aboriginal woman in Canadian history is the story of Annie Mae Pictou Aquash. A version of her story was brought to Canadian stages in Yvette Nolan’s play Annie Mae’s Movement. This play provides an interesting representation of Aquash that can be understood within this cultural context as medicinal. Nolan’s play was first presented as a staged reading at Native Earth Performing Arts’ Weesakechak Begins to Dance festival of new plays in Toronto, February 17-22, 1998, and premiered in Whitehorse, Yukon, September 17, 1998. Nolan’s play has had a number of productions and most recently was staged as part of the 2006 Honouring Theatre event that offered a trilogy of plays by Aboriginal artists from Canada, Australia and Samoa. It was produced again in October of 2007 at the Firehall Theatre in Vancouver. Aquash is represented as one of the “disappeared” warriors in the struggle for Aboriginal empowerment and she uses the character of Annie Mae Pictou Aquash to suggest that the “disappeared” women warriors will not be left on the margins of history. Marie Clements also tells a story of murdered Aboriginal women in her play The Unnatural and Accidental Women (1997). These plays and two performances by Aboriginal performance artists Rebecca Belmore and Archer Pechawis provide important moments of collective grieving and medicinal witnessing for all Canadian audiences. I will start with a close reading of Nolan’s play, compare it with Clements’ play and follow the thread of performance as medicine through an examination of two examples of performance art which achieves many of the same goals. These playwrights have created work that inspires others and, simultaneously, transforms the grief of a community through the ritual of witnessing and naming in commemorative performance.
In order to evaluate the impact of Nolan’s play, we need to engage in a close examination of the ways in which she characterizes the central figure of Aquash. Whereas some playwrights address transnational and transhistoric feminist struggles, Nolan investigates feminist struggles within the American Indian Movement itself. Nolan delves into the patriarchy of the American Indian Movement by documenting the complex position Aquash was in as a woman in the largely male-dominated organization. Nolan’s Aquash offers her own perspective on her political views and feminist ideals in the opening monologue:
ANNA. You gotta stand up, you gotta fight for what's important, no matter who wants you to shut up. We have to fight, even if it seems like we're fighting ourselves. Or else we will disappear, just disappear. (4)
The Aquash character in Nolan’s play is given an interiority and first-person perspective on the need to resist erasure within the organization itself. In this respect the play is emancipatory for women because it documents the culturally specific contours of patriarchy within the American Indian movement and, by extension, other Aboriginal community contexts.
The character “Anna” in Nolan’s play re-enacts her murder on stage and this allows the members of the audience to express their grief over her murder. These two objectives are finely balanced in the staging of the story surrounding this important Canadian Aboriginal woman. In Annie Mae’s Movement, Nolan stages the murder after this prophetic speech:
ANNA. My name is Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, Micmac nation from Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia. My mother is Mary Ellen Pictou, my father is Francis Thomas Levi, my sisters are Rebecca Julien and Mary Lafford, my brother is Francis. My daughters are Denise and Deborah. You cannot kill us all. You can kill me, but my sisters live, my daughters live. You cannot kill us all. My sisters live. Becky and Mary, Helen and Priscilla, Janet and Raven, Sylvia, Ellen, Pelajia, Agnes, Monica, Edie, Jessica, Gloria and Lisa and Muriel, Monique, Joy and Tina, Margo, Maria, Beatrice, Minnie, April, Colleen...
You can kill me, but you cannot kill us all. You can kill me.
There is a gunshot. She falls, curls into a foetal position. Blackout. (41-42)
There are four aspects of Nolan’s choice that deserve attention here. By pairing this hopeful speech with the dramatic murder of this character on stage, she implicates the audience as witness to this murder. She also allows the audience members, understood here as witnesses in a ceremony who are grieving the murder of many Aboriginal women, to have some commemorative moment throughout the duration of the play. The importance of community and the bonds that exist in the seven generations of Aboriginal women is a traditional element in this play expressed through the power of naming. By naming family, friends, and Aboriginal playwrights and claiming that “You can kill me, but you cannot kill us all” (42), the character suggests the powerful and enduring effect that her life has had, and will continue to have, on Aboriginal women.
The figure of Aquash becomes more than an individual in this moment in the play; she reminds the audience that the struggles are not over for Aboriginal women in this celebratory speech. In Nolan’s play, Aquash is prophetic in that she has a first-person perspective on her existence before her staged death. This first-person perspective enables the actor and the audience to consider the possibility of Annie Mae’s conscious awareness of her role as a martyr for a larger cause. After an intense interrogation, when her death becomes inevitable, Aquash reflects on the power of women to make change and ruminates on the effect that her death will have on other activists. In addition, this final speech extends the life of Aquash beyond the point of her physical death in order to suggest that her martyrdom was not in vain. Nolan’s narrative documents the playwright’s own refusal to accept the silencing of women and the audience is positioned as witness to the Aquash murder. Her death is a marker and political touchstone of feminist resistance in a way that provides both a defiant and a tragic example of some of the consequences of being an Aboriginal woman warrior.
The second contemporary Canadian play that can usefully be compared to Annie Mae’s Movement is Marie Clements’ The Unnatural and Accidental Women. The play was written in 1997 and a staged reading was given at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in the same year. It premiered in 2000 at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver and was first published in 2001. Clements’ play, like Annie Mae’s Movement, offers a vision of Aboriginal women whose influence extends beyond the point of death. Clements, like Nolan, has managed to write beyond the death of these women by employing specific narrative techniques. They have also managed to provide a healing ritual for the audience members through these commemorative acts that are based on colonial trauma, the act of witnessing and the power of naming. Although Clements’ play is not about Aquash, the murder of Aboriginal women is the focus of the drama and it is this point that I want to use to draw a comparison between these two plays.
In The Unnatural and Accidental Women, the tragedy of the women’s deaths is transformed by Clements’ use of a fictional revenge plot in which the murdered Aboriginal women, who appear as ghosts, execute the man who has murdered them. Although the basis of this play is factual, Clements takes creative license to extend the power of these murdered Aboriginal women to affect change beyond the grave by giving them an embodied and active presence as ghost murderers. The “truth” about these murdered women is that the killer, Gilbert Robert Jordan, was only sentenced for one of the eleven murders, served six years, and was released. However, by choosing to construct a play in which the murderer is killed on stage, Clements effectively rewrites the events in a way that empowers the Aboriginal women who were murdered.