In 2011 I was contacted by Native Earth Performing Arts (NEPA) (www.nativeearth.ca) in Toronto and asked to do a fancy shawl demonstration for animators that were working on a Sky Woman Animation at Seneca@York. I was told the animation would be used for an online video game about the creation story featuring Sky Woman.
I was totally thrilled about the project. But as a dancer I had no idea what to expect as this was my first time involved in something like this!
Once I arrived at Seneca@York I had to look for the animation studio. I have to admit I had no idea what I was looking for I was even wondering if they would be putting those little stickers all over me (motion sensors).
Instead, I arrived at a small classroom with a small circle of easel desks and some yoga mats laid out in the middle of the room. The four animators were sitting around enjoying a coffee... Uhh, I forgot to mention I was a little late after going to the wrong campus first! (Why me?)
I was welcomed in and needless to say everyone was ready to get to work... I put on the beautiful shawl that Shannon from NEPA had let me use for the project. The shawl was made by dancer and designer Deanne Hupfield (http://www.deannehupfield.com/). The lead animator asked me to do a few poses with the shawl and I started to explain the meanings behind the dance all the while holding up the shawl at different angles for thirty second intervals which was quite the arm workout. The animators were mostly silent and focused on their sketches. Every now and then asking questions about me, Native dance and powwows.
During a break I got to take a look at some of the sketches. I was amazed at the amount of talent in the room. The sketches were varied in color style and medium. Some used watercolor, pastel, pencil crayon or charcoal.
Wanting to get some movement into the images I was asked to do a few dance steps, stop and hold a pose and repeat.
To get the movement of the shawl I was asked to spin for as long as I could then stop and spin the other way!
I know, sounds like torture right? (Maybe it was punishment for being late?) Regardless of how dizzy I got and how tired my arms were from holding up the shawl hours on end there was always that greater purpose that kept me going. This meaningful aspect of art allows us to willingly endure uncomfortable and sometimes painful situations. Knowing that this would be one small piece to a larger picture - a website dedicated to Aboriginal stories and culture! - was inspiring and humbling at the same time. The project fit perfectly with my vision and dedication to the use of dance, art and culture as a means of healing within Aboriginal communities. Being a part of the Sky Woman animation is just one of the many ways that this dedication has manifested itself in my life.
I was thrilled to find the link to the game (www.turtlesback.ca) on NEPA's website. Instead of playing the game you could watch the video of the creation story BUT if you want to see the drawings from my day in the animation studio you have to play the game from the beginning to unlock the next level of the story. And, yes I did play all four levels AND I had a blast playing them too... the last level was like an Aboriginal version of guitar hero! And I totally jammed out like Nehiyaw (Cree) rockstar!
I think the most significant thing is that seeing myself in the role of Sky Woman (even briefly) has got me thinking of the role of women in creation stories as well as traditional roles of women and the degree to which we maintain this central position in our communities today. I am thankful as an Aboriginal woman to be able to play another small part in the role of creation. This time a digital creation. Hiy hiy!
Native Earth Performing Arts (NEPA): http://www.nativeearth.ca
Play the game or watch the video here: www.turtlesback.ca(A partnership between NEPA and Seneca College)
Last week Canada Arts Connect (http://canadaartsconnect.com/) asked the question: Should artists/ musicians/ actors/ writers be role models?
The answer to this question may depend on a lot of factors such as culture, medium, purpose/intention and audience. I want to tackle this issue using one aspect of good role modelling- being drug and alcohol free. I will also be 'lumping' all artists together - dancers, musicians, actors, visual artists - Carelessly, yet gladly! For I believe artists SHOULD work together more as a cohesive lump :)
From my own life experiences (fifteen years experience n ten international styles of dance) I know that being drug and alcohol free can be one of the major differences between Western and Native art forms. In Western art forms, especially in mainstream and popular cultures, it may be the opposite with the most ‘successful’ artists being those who many parents dread their children become fans of (myself included). But, is that the purpose of art? Financial gain and popularity? Surely, there are more efficient ways of achieving this.
For many Native artists cultural values such as respect, equality and responsibility (hence, role modelling) are part of their practice.
This has been the case for myself as a hoop dancer. When I first began to learn the hoop dance from my teacher, Jerry First Charger (Kainai), one of the first things he taught me was that once I start dancing people will start to notice. He was saying that I would become a role model. My mother and older sister later told me that when you are doing Native dance you should be drug and alcohol free... again, they were saying that Native dancers are role models. Responsibility is actually a key teaching in the hoop dance and is represented by the hoop itself- whatever you put out comes back to you.
Today, I have been four and a half years drug and alcohol free, even though, I started hoop dancing seven years ago... What can I say it was a work in progress! At least I tried, never gave up and was, eventually, successful!
... So basically all I did so far is stereotype artists into non-Native alcoholics and drug addicts V. romanticized Native warriors. Fortunately the world of art is not as black and white as this, or maybe red and white? What about Native people who use contemporary art forms? OR Native people who practice traditional art forms yet continue to abuse drugs and alcohol? OR Non-Native sober artists who practice Native art forms? (Okay, maybe I was getting carried away with that last one)...
Just because a Native artists uses contemporary art forms does not mean they use drugs and alcohol... and just because a Native artist uses traditional art forms does not mean they are sober... Although a Native artist may not be sober it does not mean that they do not respect, honor and embody their culture. They may simply choose to express their identity and culture in different ways, highlighting different values and teachings.
In the end, as Native artists we walk a fine line between traditional and contemporary... Although I am drug and alcohol free I regrettably do not live in a tipi (except for during Driftpile Powwow!) I drive a car and I go grocery shopping, we've heard this one before.
The beauty of being an artist is the ability to create... This is what art is regardless of culture, medium, purpose/intention and audience... It is creating beautiful/ ugly, funny/ boring, vibrant/ dull... yet ALWAYS (or mostly... or hopefully?) creating new and evolving ideas. Whatever stage we are at in our own growth and process as Native artists we can say that we are creating something new (new interpretations, forms, techniques, designs, patterns...). This new 'thing' is often the result of the ongoing negotiation between the traditional and contemporary. Artists themselves are part of this ongoing negotiation so it is reflected in our everyday life. We make our own choice of where we draw the line between the traditional and contemporary. Or even how we define traditional and contemporary (that's a whole new blog).
So, should artists be role models? I think we are all role models and there is always someone watching us... But the definition of what a role model is may be totally up to the individual.
'Cree Woman Speaking' is a space to share my voice. My goal is to spread awareness and share wisdom as I learn and grow as a dancer, choreographer, and woman. My passion is to show the healing power of dance and culture. I love learning from elders, experience, and research and being able to synthesize Native and non-Native ways of knowing!
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