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Gloria Miguel in Material Witness | Image source: Spiderwoman Theatre

Kaha:wi Theatre presents Living Ritual Festival at The Fleck Dance Theatre, 207 Queens Quay West, from July 25th to 27th. The festival will feature performances from renowned Indigenous theatres across the globe, including Spiderwoman Theatre and Aanmitaagzi’s Material Witness. The production highlights stories of Indigenous women from North Bay and New York City who have experienced violence in their lifetime told through an all Indigenous ensemble cast. Spiderwoman Theatre is best known as the longest running Indigenous women’s theatre in North America that was founded in 1976. Artistic Director, Muriel Miguel (Kuna/Rappahannock) spoke with Erica Commanda from MUSKRAT Magazine while she was still in New York about how Material Witness came together and on what it’s like to be a role model for Indigenous youth.

EC: Material Witness’ main theme touches on violence against Indigenous women. What inspired you to take on such an important topic?

MM: Well there was a time when nobody was talking about violence against women and as years went on, things started happening about it, and men started being arrested. I found for us (Native women) it was worse. I kept on thinking, how could this be? For other women there were a lot of things happening, but we were still in the same place.

After touring the production Women in Violence in Europe, I started to think that I would really like to look at this piece again and use all Native women. I brought this piece into Big Medicine Studio with Penny Couchie. I used Penny, her husband (actor Sidd Bob) and her young daughter and we started talking about violence against women. Afterwards, many women came up to me and told me their remarkable stories.

At the same time we were talking about fabric and healing while listening to women’s stories. We decided that we would do fabric workshops, we could take along their stories in a quilt. We created a workshop called Pulling Threads and put together all these patches from women in Toronto and New York. We talked to women as they were making these quilts. We would ask them questions like what piece of material reminds you of yourself? What is your darkest secret? What is your legacy? What do you want to leave behind? We were also talking about being a witness to some of the violence. These women did remarkable pieces. They told their stories in a circle. We took stories and put them on stage with us in this quilt. And that’s why it’s called Material Witness.

EC: Material Witness has been in production for four or five years now. Do you have any stories or memories during this time that have stood out or touched you the most?

MM: There’s a baby blanket on the quilt. [After one show] these little girls came up to us and introduced themselves. The mother told us that this was the first time they ever saw brown women on stage. They were just staring at us, you know. One day the youngest one showed me and gave me her blankey. Her mother said that she didn’t want it anymore and that she was giving it to us. We told her we would carry it with us and put it in our on stage quilt. Before that we didn’t even think of ourselves as role models. We thought of ourselves as actresses that were working hard to put bread on the table. The last thought, at that time, on our minds was that we were role models. We realized we made an impression on those kids, encouraging them to be whatever they wanted to be. That’s what was important. That’s our future. These young people wanting to be in theatre, dance, making art with their hands or creating installations, they can do it.

Material Witness performance at La Mama Theatre in New York | Image source: Spiderwoman Theatre
Material Witness performance at La Mama Theatre in New York | Image source: Spiderwoman Theatre

EC: What do you hope Toronto audiences take away after seeing Material Witness?

MM: That this isn’t normal. We look at these things, laugh at these things, and come to accept that a lot of this stuff [violence against women] is normal. When victims say: “oh I fell down the stairs or walked into the door,” people accept that and laugh at it. We’re not looking for anything scandalous, we’re looking for humanity in these stories and how to heal. How freeing is it to tell your story? Our attempt is healing and understanding.

EC: You’ve used the same quilt as the backdrop since Material Witness debuted, and now there’s a new one. Spiderwoman Theatre’s website states that the new quilt represents the past and the future. How so?

MM: These are all new women that have made these quilts. The future is the healing and being able to come up to say that this is my patch. I think it’s very important that we carry these stories.

The past is when I attended my first Sundance and got gifted all these quilts and material from these ladies. I was working on this piece (Material Witness) and was thinking about anger, rage, feeling less than, self confidence, all that. I took the material, put them on the floor and started to rearrange them. My sister came in and she had a huge mola, which is traditional Kuna women’s wear, and put that in and added more molas. The women that we were working with at that time would bring in more quilts. So now our back drop has on it molas, sundance quilts and different pieces of women’s lives that we were working with.

EC: Why is the Living Ritual Festival so important?

MM: Because its ritual and we’re living. We’re not dead. We’re all Native people. That’s what’s important, you know. We’re all Natives. We’re living and sending things out into the world. That’s what’s important. If could share my work that’s great. There’s so much within Material Witness’ ensemble now. There’s so much to say to so many of these young people. Why hoard it? We have to share this. We have to tell these stories.

Headshot Muriel Miguel

Artist Bio:

Muriel Miguel – Director (Kuna/Rappahannock) is a choreographer, director and actor. She is the founder and Artistic Director of Spiderwoman Theater, the longest running Indigenous women’s theater company in North America. Muriel is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow; awarded an Honorary DFA from Miami University in Ohio; a member of the National Theatre Conference and in 2015 attended the Rauschenberg Residency. She is a pioneer in the development of a culturally based Indigenous performance methodology. Choreography: Throw Away Kids – Banff Centre’s Aboriginal Dance Program; Director: In addition to over 20 Spiderwoman productions including Material Witness – Murielle Borst Tarrant’s More Than Feathers and Beads; The Scrubbing Project – Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble and Evening in Paris – Raven Spirit Dance Company. Acting: Off-Broadway’s Lily’s Revenge; The Rez Sisters and The Unnatural and Accidental Women; One woman shows Hot’ N’ Soft, Trail of the Otter and Red Mother. Lecture: Muriel Miguel: A Retrospective. She facilitates Storyweaving Workshops in the US, Canada and Europe.

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About The Author

Erica Commanda

Born in Toronto, Erica Commanda (Algonquin/Ojibwe) grew up in the small community of Pikwakanagan. From there she moved across Canada living in Ottawa, Vancouver and now Toronto, working in the bar/hospitality industry, mastering the art of listening to stories from her regulars while slinging and spilling drinks (at them or to them). And now through a series of random decisions and events in life she is on a journey discovering and mastering her own knack for storytelling as Associate Editor for MUSKRAT Magazine.

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