Cathy Elliott is an artist educator with DAREarts’ First Roots program. Once a month, Cathy shares her stories and experiences working with our First Nations youth in remote northern communities such as Webequie (ON), Marten Falls (ON), Sioux Lookout (ON), Attawapiskat (ON) and Indian Brook (NS). It’s an honour to be able to share these stories with the ArtBridges community and I want to thank Cathy and Marilyn (the founder of DAREarts) not just for their amazing work, but also for their willingness to share. I hope you enjoy!
- Cora, Indigenous Community Arts Coordinator & Communications Assistant, ArtBridges
January, 2015 – Mangilaluk School, Tuktoyaktuk, NWT
Tuktoyaktuk means “resembling a caribou” and is the first place in Canada to revert to its original name. It’s a mix of Dene, Inuvialuit and Non-native people, which was used as a vanguard against Communist Russian invasion in the 40’s to the late 70’s. It had seen a large swath of its population wiped out by influenza. The children here were submitted to “day schools,” an attempt by government to assimilate them into Canadian society. Today, they work very hard to process the changes to their community and pave the way to a good future for future generations.
Laura MacKinnon and I had never been to a Hamlet before, never been north of the Arctic Circle and never spoken Inuvialuktun. All the same, the minute we landed in Inuvik and drove up to Tuk, we had a familiar feeling. The warmth of welcoming hugs and oh, that cold Northern air!
The first thing we did after leaving the Inuvik airport was to buy a pizza for the road. We hadn’t eaten for hours, and knew that it would be another two and a half hours on the ice road to Tuk before we could find food. You’d think we were in the Tundra or something. Wait, we were in the Tundra! That’s not such a long time on Highway 400 from Toronto to Barrie, but in the North West Territories, it’s a big deal. As a matter of fact, our cab driver, Hester, insisted that we have snacks in the car “Just in case.” She gave us a quick tour of town and then, on to a road that dipped down onto the river, and off we went. We were taking a cab to Tuktoyaktuk.
We followed the ice road down the Mackenzie River Delta as the light began to fade. It took a little while to realize that those hills on either side of the road were actually the banks of the river. When Hester said, “… you want to step out for a picture? It’s going to get dark soon.” We got out and gingerly walked on the slippery black ice a few feet from the van. It wasn’t necessary to be so careful. The ice is stories thick. But we were acutely aware that this was no ordinary selfie. Imagine our amazement, filtered through days of sleep deprivation, delayed flights, disorientation from lack of light, as we realized that we were standing on the Beaufort Sea.
Our Ice Road Warrior/driver, Hester
The light disappeared and the road became a neon blue ribbon in the darkness. We saw, in the drifting snow, the hazard lights of a vehicle in the distance. Hester slowed down to see if there was need of help. We approached the truck and saw that the snow that was being kicked up behind it was the result of a log on a chain. Firewood. All good, wave and pass and take note for later reference. Just in case.
Hester told us that just recently, two men had been driving too quickly. The road is full of crevasses, pressure cracks and seeping water. Sometimes, walls of ice rise up from the sea and become frozen pylons, which can tear out the bottom of an SUV. Those guys barely survived after their truck flipped and ejected them out into the frigid -45C environment. I had almost forgotten how brutal this part of the world can be. I’d spent a bit of time in the Yukon and heard many stories of ordinary circumstances turning deadly in an instant.
Imagine living this way all the time.
I guess you get used to it. But.
Gas is ridiculously expensive. We’d been enjoying low oil prices in Southern Ontario. It’s very dear up North. Over half of a family’s salary goes to keeping the home warm and lit. In winter, the lights are on all the time. Not a lot of money left over to feed your kids. And the price of food is ridiculously high. Yes, there are some mechanisms in place to ensure that government funding is passed on to consumers here in the NWT, but it still doesn’t make up for the fact that fruit and veggies are still expensive on top of the cost of getting it there.
Laura and I were lucky to have good fleece and feather parkas for this trip. Skin freezes very quickly here, in -40 temps at 8:00 am. We walked the short, black distance from our Bed and Breakfast to the school across the open field, and believe me, those parkas were a lifesaver. A walk to the store was an adventure. I looked at the little sleds in the store and wished I had one to carry my guitar and other heavy things. But, like a silly tourist I dragged everything in a wheelie suitcase over frozen, washboard skidoo tracks. Ka-bump, bump, bump…
The Elders came to us in a meeting on our first day together, introduced themselves and during the week, at every opportunity, they spoke to us about their life experiences, the lessons they learned from their Elders, and I wish I had more than a week to actually visit with them. They brought their guitars and stories and watched the kids work and play, and it was so good to have them there, because their guidance helped the students focus and decide what they wanted to say about their community.
The kids in the Arctic are like kids everywhere. Curious, bored, energetic, friendly, angry… they need ways to explore who they are. There are sports. But they don’t have much in the way of regular arts in their school. So many resources are being spent on other things, like heat and light. So, no art classes, no theatre arts, no culinary arts, no music class.
But they do have something of value. Their culture.
They took to our theatre and singing games and warm-ups like fish to water. They worked hard on the stories and the sound effects. They listened to us with respect. When they spoke, it was with conviction. When the Drum Group appeared one day to practice the Drum Dance, we understood why they were so eager to jump in and participate. A kind of intensity filled the room and they moved. They started dancing, their hands telling stories as they moved, their eyes shining. What a wonderful thing to witness, the older teens and nine year olds dancing together. It was like a button had been pushed. They took a great delight in showing Laura and me how to dance. It was a strange echo of Maori or Hawaiian dancing, gentle, waving, with a little pulse of energy. A gift.
Caring became the theme of their play. Four stories about things they cared about and for. Tradition. The land. Their families. Their futures. All of these words came spilling out of them onto paper, and into the stories.
Story #1: “Shaman.” A Shaman was transformed from being a “bad” man to a man with a job as an RCMP officer.
Story #2: “Seal” A Seal does his part to preserve the Circle of Life by letting the Bear eat him in order to save the fish.
Story #3 “Caribou Man and the Hunter” A Hunter realizes that what motivates the Caribou Man to act out in anger is caused by one thing – hunger.
Story #4 “Mangilaluk” After many years of a mysterious Sickness, Chief Mangilaluk prays for the Dance to return, in order to heal his community.
The stories were transformed into puppets made with refrigerator tubing, zip ties and cardboard. They built a screen out of PVC pipe and white material and hung it on a volley ball net stand (our gym teacher’s innovation). They took pictures of the entire process; gorgeous shots of the sun-set/rise over their community and those images were projected on their drum-shaped screen. They got pictures of Inuit tattoos and rimmed the screen with drawings. They rehearsed the stories as shadow plays and in a very short time, were ready to present their work to their community. They created sounds for a musical sound scape that accompanied each story. The Elders heard their children’s voices making animal and nature sounds, and smiled. “They sound like summer.”
Left: Laura MacKinnon, Centre: Julie Donohue, Right: Cathy Elliott
The Offering was wonderful. The Elders brought out their fiddles (which had been rescued from the Kitti Hall Community Centre before it burned down) and our wonderful gym teacher set up the sound system. I was able to scratch on a fiddle along with the Delta Fiddlers as long as they stuck to a country waltz. Then, after a bit of music and two stepping, the speeches and show began.
It was a crazy, by the seat of your pants show, with one of the little ones running over to my table, “Which house?” holding up two different cardboard houses. I point to the one on the right. She runs back into the fray and gets in to the scene just in time. The stories unfolded, the sound effects and Teachings rolled out to the response of applause and laughter from over one hundred community members.
The show ended with a story about “Mangilaluk” a respected Elder and Chief who prayed that his people would have their culture back, that the Drum would speak, and that his children would dance again. That’s when things got real. The music started up, and the children began to sing and dance. It was electrifying. Beautiful. Moving.
In a couple of years, there will be a huge impact when the road from Inuvik to Tuk is completed, opening up the hamlet to outside influences on a much broader scale. There will be more tourists, more opportunities to open businesses and stay home while making a living. But the cars and trucks that only come in the winter now will also be here in the summer. Some of them will be bringing in drugs, alcohol and other bad influences. How will these kids deal with these impacts? How will they take advantage of the opportunities that will come their way?
Our single week with the kids is still on my mind as I sit in Southern Ontario, relishing the -17C blowing snow and sunshine. I wonder how much of what we all created together will remain in their memories. I know they and their Elders taught Laura and me a lot, and we’re the richer for knowing them.
DAREarts First Roots Tuktoyaktuk thanks our Lead Sponsors, Northbridge Insurance and Noront Resources as well as Tuktoyaktuk DEA, Government of NWT, and the Beaufort Delta Education Council. We also thank Julie Donohue for entrusting DAREarts with this project partnership.
DAREarts First Roots was invited by the Beaufort Delta Education Council and grade 2 teacher Julie Donohue to collaborate on a public feast and show on Saturday, January 24. Julie Donohue: “It was so enjoyable to watch each student unlock and experience their own potential.”
Over 100 people gathered to support grade 4 – 12 students as they performed four stories built upon the theme of caring – in a shadow play called, “Nations Creations.”
Marilyn Field: “We at DAREarts are humbled by the invitation from this creative and strong community to come work with their youth, elders, artists and teachers. Together, we shared the power of the arts to ignite positive change in us all.”
This project involved 4 Elders, 40 students, DAREarts Lead Teacher Laura MacKinnon and First Roots Program Associate Cathy Elliott. Cathy Elliott: “The kids are ground zero for healing and growth in our communities. They reach out to the Elders. Then everyone in the middle is pulled into the circle.”
The children photographed production shots of their project, wrote four stories, built puppets and created soundscapes for the play, designed posters and wrote a radio commercial to promote “Nations Creations” and finished off the presentation with traditional Drum Dancing – all in five days.
Read Cathy’s previous posts:
12/15/14 – You’re Gonna Save the World: Stories from a DAREarts Artist-Educator
10/30/14 – Thunder Bay & Rexdale – Too Much in Common: Stories from a DAREarts Artist-Educator
07/04/14 – Excellence is Earned: Stories from a DAREarts Artist-Educator
05/23/14 – Introducing – DAREarts Atlantic: Stories from a DAREarts Artist-Educator
04/29/14 – DAREarts Out on the Land in Attawpiskat: Stories from a DAREarts Artist-Educator
03/24/14 – My Drum’s Journey: Stories from a DAREarts Artist-Educator
02/16/14 – It Starts With a Circle: Stories from a DAREarts Artist-Educator
Read DAREarts’ profile on ArtBridges’ Community-Engaged Arts Directory and Map
All photos courtesy of DAREarts