value the brain & cut the priviledge
My name is Natalie Sappier-Samaqani Cocahq (The Water Spirit) I am a Wolastoqiyik Indigenous multidisciplinary artist from Tobique First Nation. Much of the teachings carry along the Wolastoq waters and it lead me into art community in Fredericton-where my arts practice is currently based and a place I call home also.
Qey Samaqani Cocahq!
GAG: From the top I want say thank you Natalie, for agreeing to this Q&A with the Gynocratic Art Gallery.
I also want to congratulate you on the creation of Finding Wolastoq Voice, and its current staging with TNB! I saw FWV two weeks ago in Fredericton, and it was incredibly moving.
Natalie: Thank you so much! And thank you for wanting to share the story. I really appreciate it. 😊
GAG: I read in another interview that you always dreamed of bringing stories to life through dance. Can you say more about your relationship with dance as a form of expression? Did you dance when you were younger in Tobique with your family, or otherwise? Did you know, from early on in the process, that Finding Wolostoq Voice would be performed by Aria Evans (Dancer/Choreographer), or was there a point when you thought that it would instead be a monologue performance? How did you decide?
Natalie: As a young girl I did love to dance. I still love to dance. But I don’t dance as freely as I used too. I am working towards tapping into freely moving my body as I did as a child. As I was writing Finding Wolastoq Voice, I was visualizing the character being free. Being free with telling her story in anyway that she can. Early on, I knew there was going to be dance involved in some way. Because dance carry’s so much medicine. Medicine that is important to me. I dance. I dance a lot but I don’t share it to much openly. I really wanted the story to vibrate with music, motion and emotion. When I realized that it was a full dance piece I reached out to Aria Evans to help me bring that dance to life. I knew the first day she began embodying the story that she was going to be the dancer for Finding Wolastoq Voice.
GAG: As an artist who is so well recognized for painting, were you ever tempted to create paintings that would accompany this production in any way? Like you did with The Eight Fire set design that you created for TNB.
Natalie: When I began my mentorship in playwrighting with TNB’s Artistic Director Thom Morgan Jones, I was not confident in my writing. I immediately would enter into my comfort zones of painting, sketching and music to find the words for the writing of the stories. By the end of my first draft, I had a body of music and a body of visual work that expressed the stage atmosphere and movement of the character. During this development of Finding Wolastoq Voice, I discovered a new creative process, a circular motion of chanting, embodying, painting and writing. It’s a very elevated feeling that I am always eager to tap back into.
[Note: Sappier was commissioned for numerous creative projects by the Government of Canada, Sappier created a visual work that reflects the voices of New Brunswick, expressed by the symbolism of the Wabanaki confederation (the family of Wolastoqiyik, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddys, Abenaki and Pentagouets of the East). She also created beautiful large mural Teachings by the River for the University of New Brunswick’s Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre.]
GAG: In reading about Métis artist Maria Campbell’s award-winning play Jessica (1989), as well as Margo Kane’s one-woman piece Moonlodge (1990), I am struck by the powerful and important connections between their works and Finding Wolastoq Voice. [The website Urban Ink describes as Moonlodge as, “Inspired by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women, who continue to encourage and guide her, Margo Kane created Moonlodge to honour mothers, sisters, aunts and grandmothers and to motivate others on their journeys home”.] Are you familiar with these other pieces? If so, could you comment on how your story, which centers women’s voices and is set along the Wolastoq, is similar to or different from these other artists’ important works of theatre.
Natalie: I met Margo Kane a few years ago and I am truly inspired by the person she is. I am so honoured to have the opportunity to know her and reach out to her. There are many stories I have not seen. Many books I have not read. Moonlodge being one of them. With Finding Wolastoq Voice, it was important for me to share with people that we all have a sacredness in us. What we carry is important. We are struggling with a huge disconnect and many of us are yearning for guidance. Most of the guidance is within us. We just need to take the time to listen and not be afraid of what it is telling us. It was important for me to encourage our Indigenous youth to not be afraid to express their stories, and to do so in the ways they feel are necessary. They need to know they play a huge role as teachers also. They are carrying teachings that we need to learn from. Wolastoq waters is breathing. Our language is reviving. New songs are being shared. Our roots are awakening and grabbing hold of us. Are we different? Overall, no. We are all walking the same path of creating a better life for our children, land, water, skies and all beings we share mother earth with. But I feel for a long time we haven’t been heard or been taken seriously. I think that is changing now.. There is strong unity that is being created on turtle island.
GAG: Native Earth Performing Arts wrote that you, “are standing in the Wolastoq waters, witnessing the language being lost, the lands hurting and the waters crying. [And that you] want to share the stories expressed with Indigenous heart on stage for the world to see.” Finding Wolastoq Voice emphasizes the pain and the hope of the main character, in some ways, through her relationship to the Wolastoq River. How did you think about representing the natural world in the piece? Do you understand it as a setting or a character? Or some other kind of force?
Natalie: The Wolastoq awakens me. It reminds me of who I am. It is very much Living. It takes me to a whole new universe when I am close to it and, more so when I am in the Wolastoq. It is where our prayers live. Past stories. Dreams. Tears. Songs. Dances. It’s a very spiritual, ceremonial place for me. It is where many of the teachers live.
GAG: The audio soundtrack of the show consists of songs and narration in your voice, in addition to some portions delivered by the esteemed local elder Imelda Perley. The recordings are beautifully performed and clearly painstakingly produced. What was that part of the production process like? Did you consider performing that narrative live? Will the production change in the future, perhaps be read and performed by others?
Natalie: Imelda is a very important teacher in my life. It was such an honour to have her voice in Finding Wolastoq Voice. Especially hearing her speak the language. The chants were naturally created by searching for the words of the story. I began recording myself while in studio as I would be painting and embodying the character. It was a very meditative place. I never thought I would be doing the music for the entire show it just happened by tapping into that process of creating the story. After I had demos, I would go and professionally record the music with Nate Miller and Mike Doherty.
Creating the music was by far was my favourite part of the process. I hope to someday share all the music live for a performance with the friends I created the music with, such as Nate, Mike, Maggie Paul and the Acquin Sisters.
There were a few small performances where I read a few scenes from the play and shared a couple songs from the play. I will probably continue to do that.
GAG: CBC reported that, in addition to Finding Wolastoq Voice being your first play, it is also the first time that Theatre New Brunswick has debuted a work by a New-Brunswick-based Indigenous artist. That’s quite an honour, despite the fact that it was too long in coming. For people with outdated ideas or cultural stereotypes (conscious or otherwise) about what Indigenous theater or Indigenous music looks or sounds like, can you say how they might be surprised by this production? How much did these issues affect your creative decisions?
Natalie: As I grow and I as I continue to learn and understand the spiritual element that lies within the work that I do, it is important for me to have the creative space to share stories the way I need to share them. In my own way. For me, when I am in performance I am in ceremony. It’s a very vulnerable place. I am learned that. I am also learning to protect myself during that time. Theatre New Brunswick has been amazing with providing me the space that I need and the support that I need. We created a very sacred circle. We continue to learn together. Openly and honestly. And I am unable to work in any other way and I compromise less because I don’t have too. I enjoy collaborations. I want to continue collaborations. But its important for me to have my freedom in sharing the way I feel the story needs to be shared and the everyone is treating in a respectful way. It is important for us as Indigenous artists to create the way we want to create. Not to create with what may “Fit” in the box.
GAG: Is there anything else that you would like to share with GAG readers about Finding Wolastoq Voice? Maybe something about what it’s been like, for you personally, to witness audience reactions to your work, now that it is travelling?
Natalie: It has been an amazing journey. It is always nice to have the opportunity to traveling around New Brunswick and connect with the communities and meet the audiences. There has been many great stories shared in the theatre spaces during the tour. I am constantly rediscovering new elements about the dance, story and staging from the questions and comments being shared and it has been truly an honour to be able to share this story with so many.
Finally, Samaqani Cocahq, thank you again for all of the work that went into the creation of your new piece Finding Wolastoq Voice, and for taking time from your extremely busy schedule to sharing your thoughts with our readers. I likely speak for many others when I say that I hope you do continue to do this kind of work.