JL Whitecrow and Yolanda Bonnell are both full time artists and Anishnaabe kwe from northwestern Ontario. They are also both featured in this year’s Rhubarb Festival at Buddies in Bad Times theatre this February 14th to 25th, Whitecrow with Jiisakan – installation, and Bonnell with White Girls in Moccasins – theatrical performance. While their works differ in many ways, they both address the harm caused by the policy-driven attack on Indigenous culture in North America, and they both aim to strengthen their communities by illustrating the value of traditional knowledge. Whitecrow uses the power of dreams to imagine the past into the future. Bonnell reflects Indigenous women’s experiences back to them to provide healing validation. The following are from the artists’ individual conversations with Sarena Johnson:
JL WHITECROW, Jiisakan
MM: Can you tell us about your journey to becoming an artist?
JLW: It’s been one year since I started taking art seriously. I had been working full time and I realized how precious my time is. I don’t want to work for other people anymore. In choosing and living this path, I don’t think I can have a ‘regular’ life anymore. Now, I rarely take projects for others unless they’re special and have a positive impact on the community. I do work part time for Hot Docs, so I don’t die, but most days I put in 12 hours of my own creative work. I’ve found myself connecting more with other artists and entrepreneurs because they have this sense of fearlessness – they’re not afraid of life. It’s about having the courage to do what you want – it takes more effort but you’re so much happier.
MM: So what can you tell us about Jiisakan?
JLW: This concept came to me in a dream about my Grandfather’s shaketent. I had never even seen it, but my family had been practicing this tradition for over 200 years. There was an interruption in practice with the divide between Mide and the white man’s way, including alcohol. The installation is absent of ceremony because many Indigenous rituals and symbols have lost their meaning and purpose with the impact of colonialism. People are forgetting what the spiritual tools like Jiisakan are used for.
MM: Is that why you’re using futurism?
This is a push to the future, a call out to future generations to carry forth our traditions.
The materials are sourced from local hardware stores since it’s futuristic. I don’t know how I would feel about using traditional materials for this project. A real shaketent would be sacred, with nothing but that ceremony happening in the space, and should open to the sky. Shake tent is a communication tool that can tap into so much – like the internet, but not the internet.
MM: So what can folks expect?
I do set design for film but most people can’t experience being in a set. When I create a world I want people to experience it, to be IN it. The Jiisakan that I’ve created is straight from my dreamworld.
Biography: JL Whitecrow is an emerging Ojibway multi-disciplinary artist from Seine River First Nation, Treaty #3 and lives in Toronto. Her practice includes writing, filmmaking, visual art, music, comedy, and performance. She is also a member of Manifest Destiny’s Child —an Indigenous female comedy collective, and fronts an art-punk band called SLUTCODE.
YOLANDA BONNELL, White Girls in Moccasins
MM: Where are you from and how does that inform your work?
YB: I grew up on Fort William reserve, which is adjacent to Thunder Bay. So I feel like I’ve always had access to opportunities that those in remote communities might not. I came to Toronto and took the Theatre Performance program at Humber College. My family had taught me how to succeed in life regarding finances, Etc. but they weren’t able to teach me the culture because it had been taken away. Those teachings were inside me but I didn’t know it. But I wonder if I would be where I am, doing what I love in Toronto if I hadn’t at least partially subscribed to colonial culture?
MM: Is that the white-washed world you refer to?
YB: Yes, and the show is about search for identity, being an Indigenous person in a whitewashed world. For example, white girls can wear moccasins, use sage, buy dream catchers from Ardene and nobody says anything but if we do we’re a ‘dirty Indian’. It can be seen as either just fashion or a whole identity laden with negative beliefs depending on who’s wearing it. That’s my problem with appropriation.
MM: Can you explain more about appropriation?
YB: Indigenous peoples are finding ways of sovereignty through reclaiming traditions like tapping maple trees and making traditional items again. So for big business to mass manufacture such important items to our Indigeneity, it’s like another form of colonization. They are taking again. So the point is if you want those items, don’t buy them from mass retailers like Walmart, SoftMoc or Ardene. Buy them from actual Indigenous people. Plus, you’ll be able to find out what they actually mean. The stores have no idea what they really are or what their symbols mean.
MM: How do you think the audience will respond to this show?
YB: It’s going to be different between people of colour/Indigenous people vs white settlers because our experiences are different. The main theme is the effect of a whitewashed society on Indigenous people and what that does to us, the loss of our cultural identity. It’s also about my inner white girl. About how to pull yourself apart and examine what’s left when you take away this thing that’s been forced on us – what do we have? It gets answered for the main character.
MM: Is this show personal for you?
YB: It’s based loosely on my identity story – my own experiences – so it feels more personal. The other two pieces I’m working on are still about me but not as raw. The solo show I did, ‘bug’, was about Indigenous women and addictions. The protagonist struggles with different types of addictions and their dangers and repercussions. I also play her mother, a street woman and alcoholic, to demonstrate how the cycle of colonization keeps going down the generations. And also that we’re the same as the people on the street. We could have easily been those people because the system was designed for us to be. They get under-represented the most.
The main character was in the foster care system, which I didn’t grow up in. But I had other difficulties. I had teen angst and anger towards my mother until I could see her as a kwe and recognize that she’s also five times more likely to experience violence. As Indigenous people through colonization, all we’ve known is violence so of course it will seem familiar to us.
MM: So would you say that White Girls in Moccasins is also about these issues?
YB: We had to shorten the play for this festival since Rhubarb shows are all 25 minutes. The script was reviewed by several other Indigenous performers who recognized their own experiences in parts of the story. So we didn’t cut those parts. It’s important for Indigenous women to feel that they’re heard, seen, that they’re not alone. We don’t experience enough of seeing ourselves. There is power in representation. When you see your story, it begins the process of feeling like you’re not alone, so you feel less lonely. You can know this in your head but a feeling is different. When you see someone, they feel validated. Which helps with healing.
MM: Was this healing for you?
YB: Writing these plays helps me heal. And when you heal yourself you can help others to do so as well. I hope the work can spark beginnings of healing in others – that they can grab onto something in the work and being their journey of healing.
Yolanda Bonnell is a Queer Anishnaabe/South Asian performer and playwright from Fort William First Nation in Thunder Bay, ON. Her solo show bug, directed by Cole Alvis is currently set for a premiere in 2018, followed by a tour. She was also a part of Factory Theatre’s The Foundry, a creation program for new career writers, where her play, Scanner continues to be developed. Select theatre credits include: Femi in Cake (Theatre Passe Muraille/New Harlem), Ipruq/Atugauq in The Breathing Hole (Stratford Festival), Fanny/Robert in Treasure Island (Stratford Festival), Roe in Two Indians (Summerworks 2016), Theresa in The Crackwalker (Factory Theatre) yolandabonnell.com
Rhubarb Festival, February 14-25, 2018
Wed-Sun – $20 Evening/Day Pass
Emerging Creators Unit Presentations – PWYC
Box Office 416-975-8555 or buddiesinbadtimes.com/rhubarb
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander Street, Toronto ON
WHITE GIRLS IN MOCCASINS
Wed. Feb. 14 – Sat. Feb. 17, 8pm. Sun. Feb. 18, 2:30pm
Yolanda Bonnell, Elizabeth Staples + Binaeshee-Quae / performers
Clare Preuss / director
Wed. Feb. 21 – Fri. Feb. 23, 7-10pm
JL Whitecrow / artist
Louis Esmé / production support