Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Theatrical Medicine: Aboriginal Performance, Ritual and Commemoration (for Vanessa Lee Buckner)

Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Theatrical Medicine: Aboriginal Performance, Ritual and Commemoration (for Vanessa Lee Buckner)

Article excerpt

There are many different definitions of Medicine as unique and diverse as the peoples and cultures that create them. As a woman of mixed heritage (Metis, African-Canadian, and Creek) I consider myself fortunate to have been exposed to a diverse range of Aboriginal teachings and ceremonies. My own definition of Medicine has been distilled from the teachings of traditional elders who have shared their cultural insights with me regarding the power and meaning of Medicine.

There is Medicine involved in seeking advice from elders by way of offering them tobacco or other sacred medicinal plants or objects. There are Medicine Wheel ceremonies that involve respect for the four directions and the balance between the physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional aspects of an individual. There is Medicine in the practice of creating art whether that be carving, weaving, canning, beading, drum-making, or painting. Medicine can also be an active process that is understood in a psychological or philosophical way, whereby individuals go through a form of catharsis when they are guided by traditional teachings. There is participatory Medicine involved in being a witness or participant in ceremonies. There are physical forms of Medicine such as tobacco, sweet grass, sage, and cedar. Some traditional languages do not have a word for theatrical performance, so they use the closest word, which is ceremony. There is Medicine that is inherent in ceremony, whether these be sweat-lodge ceremonies, rites-of-passage ceremonies, moon-lodge ceremonies, naming ceremonies, or longhouse ceremonies, or certain traditional performances of dance or song.

These cultural traditions reflect a belief in the power of performance and the possibility of the performance being understood as ceremonial and potentially medicinal, for any or all of these cultural associations with Medicine. I want to apply some of these teachings about Medicine to suggest that the form and experience of four important Aboriginal theatrical events can be understood as contemporary good Medicine involving ceremonial and medicinal elements. The plays I examine are Annie Mae's Movement by Yvette Nolan, The Unnatural and Accidental Women by Marie Clements, Archer Pechawis's performance "Elegy," and Rebecca Belmore's "Vigil." These Aboriginal performances and plays bring balance to the witnesses through honouring the deceased by way of naming rituals, they bring balance to communities by showing the humanity of Aboriginal women, and they provide a cathartic ritual or ceremony for the release of historical and racialized trauma.

In Yvette Nolan's Annie Mae's Movement, the main character, Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, is represented as one of the "disappeared" warriors in the struggle for Aboriginal empowerment. Nolan revises the historical account of Aquash in a way that suggests that "disappeared" women warriors will not be left on the margins of history. Marie Clements also tells a story of murdered Aboriginal women in her play The Unnatural and Accidental Women. These plays and two performances by Aboriginal performance artists Rebecca Belmore and Archer Pechawis provide important moments of collective grieving and medicinal witnessing for all Canadian audiences. I will start with a close reading of Nolan's play, compare it with Clements's play, and follow the thread of performance as Medicine through an examination of two examples of performance art which achieve many of the same goals. These Aboriginal artists have created work that inspires others and, simultaneously, transforms communal and national grief through the ritual of witnessing and naming in commemorative performance. (2)


The most infamous story of a murdered Aboriginal woman in Canadian history is the story of Annie Mae Pictou Aquash. A version of her story was brought to Canadian stages in Yvette Nolan's play Annie Mae's Movement. Nolan's play was first presented as a staged reading at the Weesakechak Begins to Dance festival of new plays at Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto, 17-22 February 1998, and premiered in Whitehorse, Yukon, 17 September 1998. …

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