Drum. Singers. Sweat. Song. Moccasins. Beat. Heart. Spirit. Colour. Flow. Energy. Breathing.
These are some of the words that come to my mind when I think of pow-wow. I am a grass dancer and have been dancing since I was about five years old. The grass dance represents the grass blowing in the wind. It is rooted and fluid at the same time. Free expression and tradition embrace within the dance, and I am very honoured every time I get the opportunity to dance in my regalia, which itself is an extension of the movement. Pow-wow is the foundation of my dance. At pow-wows you can hear the MC encouraging people to find their own style within the frame they are dancing in. They always say, “Dance your style. Dance your style.” This is the very first platform we are given at a young age: to express ourselves in front of our audience.
In August 2017, at the Shoal Lake First Nation pow-wow, I participated in a special event called the switch dance, where participants can adopt roles and dance styles from a different gender. Dancers were asked to make their own outfits from materials not used in real regalia; this was the time to get crafty and make it as elaborate as we wanted. I decided to use garbage. I chose pollutants to honour my home community of Grassy Narrows, which is always on my mind, as are my family and community, because of the suffering we have endured from mercury poisoning. I called my outfit the mercury dress.
This was the idea I brought to the Weesageechak festival’s 2-Spirit Cabaret. This unique event, a celebration of two-spirit artists and their work, is the result of two mothering companies – Native Earth Performing Arts and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre – joining forces to create an evening you will not experience anywhere else in Canada.
When Michaela Washburn, the curator, asked me to be part of the 2-Spirit Cabaret in 2018, I built a character named Omaagomaan, which means one who bites really hard.
Omaagomaan is a two-spirit being, a manifestation of the earth and of man-made poisons that have seeped into the earth’s crust. It is man, woman, landscape, and mercury poison interwoven into one being. A fierce shape-shifter inspired by Anishinaabe mythology, Omaagomaan forces us to watch the manaadizi (ugly) and the onizhishi (beautiful) collide.
I say “Anishinaabe” because the word is very specific, unlike “Indigenous,” which is a huge umbrella with many nations under it. If you broke up Canada and the United States by putting borders around all these nations, there would be hundreds across this land, many overlapping the Canada-US border. Within my own family, there are relatives in Manitoba, Ontario, and Minnesota, but the Anishinaabe stretch beyond this. Colonization and the land-ownership mindset have disrupted the Anishinaabe’s caretaker relationship with the land and our way of life. I created Omaagomaan as a fierce land defender. She is inspired by the women in my life: my grandmother, my mother, my aunties, and the community members of Grassy Narrows.
The 2-Spirit Cabaret provided a great platform for an idea that snowballed into a much larger piece in the 2018 Rhubarb Festival. It continues to grow into a full-length piece. I feel the possibilities are endless when these kinds of opportunities are offered to artists who don’t fit the mould of conventional theatre. The MC at the pow-wow always says, “Dance your style. Dance your style!” and it is in that spirit, or two, that we shape the next 2-Spirit Cabaret.
photo by Tanja-Tiziana