From the opening remarks by Don Speidel, cultural resource liaison for the Indigenous Ensemble, the tone was set as the young students from various schools through the Saskatoon Public Schools system enthralled a capacity crowd at the Robert Hinitt Castle Theatre.
As Speidel said, and the subsequent performers confirmed, this was meant to involve as many people from Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures as possible.
Aside from the lively up-tempo opening provided by the Creeland Dancers and the heartfelt singing of the Métis National Anthem by educator Crystal Pederson, this was also a poignant example of the resurgence of Métis culture in the province.
The main performance was Kimimila, written by Aaron Tootoosis, which utilized song, dance, storytelling and traditional arts to bring the story to life about the transformation of a cocoon to a beautiful, free butterfly.
Throughout the performance, there were purposeful examples of the importance of eschewing testosterone-laced combat to win the favour of the young maiden as opposed to a more respectful return to the roots of Indigenous culture. According to Tootoosis, that was his intention from the start which turned out to be an 18-month journey.
“Most of all, I wanted to remind people of the duty and obligation we have as men and women culturally, and the message would be to remind men and women [boys and girls] of how important it is to mutually respect each other,” he said. Tootoosis also acknowledged that sometimes that can be difficult against the backdrop of the aggressive messages that come across in modern culture.
Tootoosis, though, felt he had a captive audience for 45 minutes and it was his intention to make sure that message came through loud and clear.
“The whole script is up for interpretation but my intent was to have the maximum involvement for high school kids, whether it was those in the play or all the ones behind the scenes. We did a workshop a few months back and gave everyone that broad vision of what we were trying to achieve.”
Tootoosis, who admitted he’s his own worst critic, said afterwards that he was impressed with the passion the young performers had brought to the performance.
“You could see they really believe in it, and they were proud to bring the story to life. This hasn’t been done before and so that was a challenge in itself to bring this message.
“I honestly think we have something here that we can take to a national performance level. That’s my hope at least,” he said.
Speidel, who is also the artistic director of the Indigenous Ensemble, was emotional afterwards backstage as he pondered the importance of mutually co-existing through the arts medium. He cited the case of Elizabeth Wilks, who has had a longtime association with the project as regalia design and mentor, and although not of Indigenous ancestry, he said she has come to feel at home in this setting.
“I think what I have tried to do since establishing the Ensemble is to help young folks gain a greater understanding of community and of self. It’s kind of reclaiming their Indigenous roots, and through that, to have greater confidence and self-awareness and to feel good about themselves.”
Speidel noted that being part of this troupe can fill the same role as traditional sports teams and extracurricular activities at schools.
“It’s a great way for these students to feel affirmed and valued, and they feel a part of something. For a lot of these kids it’s the first time they have put on the regalia and the moccasins maybe, and to get up on stage and perform like they did–something amazing comes over them and it’s transformational for a lot of them.”