First Nation Renaissance

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A lot was happening for Native creativity during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The decade started off with music from the Innu Nation in Quebec when Kashtin burst onto the music scene with their debut album of the same name. The group led by Claude McKenzie and Florent Vollant immediately resonated with the James Bay Cree as many of their songs were sung in Innu, which is similar to our own Cree. I can remember everyone singing along to the refrain of “Chee-na-no”, a phrase we recognized immediately as “all of us”. To my people the northern remote Cree, it suddenly felt to us like a worldwide popular Native group was singing for all of us.

In southern Ontario, an Aboriginal writer Tomson Highway saw his play “Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing” open in 1989 at the Theatre Passe-Muraille in Toronto. In 1991, the production was relocated to the Royal Alexandra Theatre, where it became the first work of Aboriginal theatre on that prestigious stage. The production included the work of Highway’s brother Rene, an actor, dancer and choreographer. The play was a huge hit and brought to life so many wonderful characters.

I was in high school at the time and I can remember seeing and hearing all the news and headlines from the news networks and newspapers that highlighted this new play about Aboriginal people. We studied this creative work in my English class devoted to Aboriginal content. It was a couple of years later that I had a chance to see the actual production when a travelling group of Aboriginal performers known as De-ba-jeh-mu-jig, from Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island, performed it in Timmins, Ontario. The story was fun, tragic and familiar for us Native students. It showed the world a comic view of our lives with all its ups and downs and highlighted how we were able to survive through humour. I felt proud to know that someone out there was bringing our people’s story to the forefront in a more positive way.

Writers such as Tomson Highway helped meet a need for Aboriginal content in education. It was at this time that I began to take part in courses and programs that were Native-based. I was happy to discover that “Dry Lips” was actually the second major play produced by Highway. “Rez Sisters” was his first, and highlighted seven Aboriginal women, and “Dry Lips” was a companion piece that featured seven Aboriginal men.

The blockbuster movie “Dances With Wolves”, starring Kevin Costner and an amazing performance by Graham Greene of Six Nations, was released in 1990. Sitting in the theatre in Timmins, surrounded by other First Nation students, my eyes were glued to the silver screen. We laughed, applauded and celebrated the fact that this Hollywood movie was promoting Aboriginal people. We left the theatre that night with a bounce of pride in our steps and respect and awe for the Native performances of Graham Greene, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Tantoo Cardinal, Jimmy Herman, Rodney A. Grant and Wes Studi.

Up in northern Canada and around James Bay, Native musicians were making history too by singing songs in Cree that talked about our people, culture and traditions. Musicians like Lawrence Martin, Archie Cheechoo, Ron Kataquapit, John Rodrique, The Nakogee Band and Vern Cheechoo did a lot to instill pride in Native people.

I am hoping that there is another renaissance in creativity soon. We need it.

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