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Flip the Script Friday: Tomson Highway, Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout

I thought I’d start off 2017 by reviving everyone’s favorite feature, Flip the Script Friday. I’m still in Baltimore until Sunday without access to my script collection, and I only managed to pack one script in my suitcase, so it rather than either pore through online databases or the file of scripts on my computer, I just picked up the book and read it cover to cover. I ended it slightly more confused than when I’d began, despite flipping back and forth several times. I hope that this blog entry can do this quite interesting and offbeat play justice. Heading up north to Canada with Thomson Highway, I delved into Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout. 

Love the title, by the way.

Image result for ernestine shuswap gets her trout

The Basics

Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout premiered at Sagebrush Theatre, Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada on 24 January 2004.

Characters

  • Ernestine Shuswap – Fifty-three years old, “earth mother” type.
  • Isabel Thompson – Forty-three years old, religious, on the snooty side. Older sister of Delilah.
  • Annabelle Okanagan – Thirty-two years old, a down-to-earth foil for Isabel.
  • Delilah Rose Johnson – Twenty-one years old, pregnant, and described by the playwright as “high-strung.” Quite unlike the other three, she is chirpy and chipper to a fault, but there’s something a bit off about her. Younger sister of Isabel.

Setting/Plot

August 1910, Kamloops. Four First Nations women are preparing a banquet, expecting a visit from Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, or as they refer to him, “Lolly-Yay” or “the Great Big Kahuna of Canada.” Delilah is sewing a tablecloth, Annabelle is preparing a boiled beaver, Isabel is baking “624 Saskatoon pies,” and Ernestine is hoping to prepare a rainbow trout. As they perform their tasks, they interact with one another and with the text of “The Laurier Memorial,” a list of grievances about the treatment of their environment – specifically, fishing/grazing/hunting rites – written to Laurier and signed by 14 tribal chiefs. Ultimately, one woman takes her fate into her own hands; one woman reveals a shocking detail about her past; one woman prays and rationalizes her way out of everything, and one woman just wants a damn trout.

My Thoughts

This play is extremely intense, both in its very language-specific dialogue/text and its hard-to-imagine but really cool stage directions. As someone not from the community, I found it hard to connect to the characters at first, until I realized the experimental nature of the piece as a whole. I ended up needing to consult some online sources in order to come to a quicker conclusion for my thoughts, which are still incomplete at this time. But back to the play, I think that it’s highly localized and really gives off a sense of who these four women are and where they come from, with a healthy dose of Canadian folklore and saucy humor about lady-parts. Though the progression can seem confusing, looking at it from more of a performance art perspective rather than a literary perspective gives it a lot more meaning.

Major Themes

You May Call Me…

Even though there are, in hindsight, a ton of themes to talk about, the one that spoke out to me the most was that of identity. Colonialism is front and center in this piece, and the characters are constantly reassuring one another of who they are and where they come from, by rarely ever referring to each other by just their first names despite being close friends, but have a language wherein they refer to each other and themselves by their full name and hometown, which, for all of whom, is “First Name Surname of Kamloops, B.C. Midway through, Annabelle comes in to announce to Ernestine and Delilah that their language has been banned, and instead of being mournful, Ernestine and Delilah take the opportunity to make a joke about periods, a point to which I’ll return in a second. The dialogue between the women is less consequential than their long and frequent monologues, which reveal bits and pieces of their backstories, delivered as if they are racing to preserve them before they become extinct.

George Carlin Would Approve

Despite the play taking place in buttoned-up period in history, the four of them make some pretty dirty jokes, either intentionally or unintentionally, and the sexual innuendos jumped out at me from the page right from the start. For example, Annabelle is preparing beaver, remarking that it’s a meat that the white men consider to be inadequate, Isabel and Annabelle refer to an offstage cow and her udders, and Ernestine talks about tits (the birds). Even though the trout is the item which is prized the most, it’s the beaver that interests me; they all (save for Delilah) have a strong opinion about what it means, and it’s not hard to imagine that it stands for the subjugation of First Nations women and the obstacles that they face in society, including problems such as what Delilah is going through.

Image result for robin sparkles beaver

Strings Attached

One of the most notable discrepancies/oddities that I noticed in the script was the music. Highway subtitles this play as “a string quartet for four female actors,” to which Caroline De Wagter compares the four characters: first violin (Delilah), second violin (Annabelle), viola (Isabel), and cello (Ernestine), in order from youngest to oldest, highest pitched to lowest. Once I read this, it’s easy to see the connections: Delilah has a habit of laughing at random times and having a high-pitched voice; Annabelle often serves as her confidante; Isabel sort of marches to her own beat; and Ernestine’s earthiness is a constant element of everything she does and says. Highway also mentions in stage directions that the underlying music, the “river,” should be the notes of a cello, which to me symbolizes Ernestine Shuswap’s connection to the land, as she has been on Earth the longest of the four. The strains of the cello are heard often, even when Ernestine is not the central focus of the scene, and Highway ends the piece with the sound of Ludwig von Beethoven’s “Cello Sonata No. 3 in A Major, Opus 69.” I thought that this was an odd choice, considering that Beethoven has nothing to do with Canada. After I listened to it on YouTube, it reflected the rhythm of the piece, with frantic zigzags up and down the scale and lack of a distinct pattern, but rather a cycle. Likewise, the four women in the play are seldom in sync, Isabel, for one, seems to go a mile a minute whereas Delilah, for the bulk of the play, is seated in relative quiet.

How I’d Flip It

Given the fact that the stage directions are intense and specific, I didn’t have too much in mind. Originally, my thoughts were more of a black-and-white, simple color scheme, but I saw pictures and video of a production with colorful handmade dresses, which could also be interesting. I think that arena staging would be kind of cool, maybe with the audience waving mini-flashlights or glow sticks for the scene where Ernestine is swimming among the fish in the river. The coolest part of the dramaturgy is in the script itself: a document which Highway instructs should be printed and distributed to the audience members upon leaving. That, in my opinion, takes it full circle and gives the audience the perspective of the women, who spend parts of the play proofreading and editing its contents and have a connection to their land that is palpable, through their daily life and activities.

Works Cited

Mündel, Ingrid. “Troubling Visions.” Canadian Literature 192 (2007): 164-166. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 Jan. 2017.

Percy, Owen D. “Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout.” Canadian Ethnic Studies 38.2 (2006): 211-2. ProQuest. Web. 7 Jan. 2017.

Wagter, Caroline De. “Old Margins, New Centres: (W)righting History in August Wilson’s Radio Golf and Tomson Highway’s Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout” In Maufort, Marc, and Caroline De Wagter, eds., Old Margins and New Centers: The European Literary Heritage in an Age of Globalization L’heritage litteraire europeen dans une ere de globalisation. Brussels, Belgium: P.I.E.-Peter Lang S.A, 2011. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 6 January 2017.

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A Tisket, A Tasket, A Sto:lo Story-Basket

At long last, I have actually finished reading a book. Yes, really. And not even one for school, which is all I seem to be reading lately, well given the fact that I’m in grad school, it’s kind of inevitable. But today, at Michelangelo’s Coffeehouse on State Street, the book was indeed finished, a feat several weeks in the making. In a turn towards nonfiction, I present to you my review of Indigenous Storywork: Education the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit by Jo-ann Archibald aka Q’um Q’um Xiiem.

Also, in an effort to bring more international culture into my life, I’m officially counting this as the first country in the ever-popular Read A Book from Every Country contest that probably exists but I just made up. This book represents Canada, and the Sto:lo Nation.

Indigenous Storywork is not a book of stories. It incorporates a few stories, such as two involving the character of Coyote, among others, but is more focus on Archibald’s process of developing a technique for storytelling,

A symbol for the Sto:lo Nation

from start to finish. On page 11, Archibald provides a helpful chart of her context for all Indigenous storywork. The four concentric circles represent the four levels involved in identity and in the germination of the story. The outermost circle is the nation, and continuing inward, we see the community, the family, and finally, the self. At compass rose points are each of the elements of the human that are in play when telling the story: intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Discovering the stories is an exciting process, where she realizes the power of the characters and how they can touch lives from young to old, and how they can be used effectively as teaching tools to keep First Nations traditions alive as well as impart valuable lessons. She encounters many roadblocks, though; she deals with the issue of language, translation, and preserving content; intellectual property rights (who do the stories belong to?); focusing on individual/tribal experiences rather than lumping her work into just “First Nations” scholarship; and the ever-present dilemma of keeping the stories faithful and sacred to the storytellers, possibly risking their extinction, and passing them on, which preserves the stories but puts them in the hands of those who may not use them properly, and for whom the meaning may get twisted. At the end of the book, Archibald compares her work thus far to a “story-basket,” citing the Sto:lo tradition of a basket weaver giving her very first basket to someone who needs it. As the “story-basket” is presented to the reader, it leaves her book open-ended, as if this is just the beginning.

For a book, it was pretty dull, but as a monograph, it was quite lively. Archibald writes, as others have noted, without jargon, and it is easy to identify with her feelings and emotions as she tracks down various elders and experiments with educational programs. As far as actually telling the stories, Archibald has basically described a more theatrical approach to storytelling, using things like sense-memory rather than rote reading. She also talks about the relationships between the elders, the words of the stories, herself as researcher and herself as storyteller, and makes it clear that each have a different role with one another and all are important in the storywork process; it is a venture that requires collaboration, which in turn requires trust.

On a macro level, Archibald is dealing with issues that are present in so many cultural contexts, especially the debate of keeping things sacred by holding them close, or sharing them and guaranteeing preservation but risking defilement, a pretty basic colonial/postcolonial issue. This is where I have not so much a disagreement with the author, but sort of a suggestion/solution. In one chapter (actually, in two) Archibald talks about the search for a story about plants, and getting shut down by the elders due to concerns of mentioning the names of sacred plants and their usage, and the harmful effect that the stories might have on children. For me, this is an example of self-censoring. Surely, the elders know what is and is not appropriate, and by volunteering the information, they themselves are choosing what to share, with the knowledge not that it can or may be shared, but that it will be shared. Archibald also mentions the cycle of tracking down elders and asking for permission, a practice that seemed necessary for the edification of the user but a nuisance for the elder who told the story. I mean, could you imagine calling an author, editor, and publisher, every time you wanted to cite something or use it in the classroom? Archibald does consider this, but is hesitant to accept it. My argument: reality check, look at the big picture. No one is going to be around forever, and even though it’s lovely to keep people involved as they’re still living, there must be some contingency plans laid for when the storytellers eventually leave this earth. Recording the story via text, audio, and video, signing an agreement, and seeing that it’s properly archived should be enough to eliminate at least one, if not all, of the middle-men, and expedite the process. Yes, a story is special, but that’s why there is an agreement in place, as a precautionary measure, to give the story the rights to assert itself, which is basically what Archibald wants. It would eliminate a quarter of the book, at least, but it seems like the only viable option.

The most notable sections of the book for me were when the author, instead of questioning herself, interacted with elders from various First Nations and engaged in dialogue with them. On page 50, Archibald gleaned a lesson in reciprocity from elder Vincent Stogan aka Tsimilano, one which she calls “hands backward, hands forward” teaching. This lovely passage encapsulates what she means.

My dear ones,

Form a circle and join hands in prayer. In joining hands, hold your left palm upward to reach bask to grasp the teachings of the ancestors. Put these teachings into your everyday life and pass them on. Hold your right palm downward to pass these teachings onto the younger generation. In this way, the teaching and knowledge of the ancestors continue, and the circle of human understanding and caring grows stronger. (Archibald 50)

Here, Archibald encourages symbiosis, in which the student is also the teacher. Every word heard from the ancestors will be passed on; at least someone in the circle will relate their experiences, even if just to one another, continuing the cycle of learning. Tsimilano’s performative act of embodiment makes the student a vessel for information, a conduit between past and future. This inspired Archibold to pay more attention, and to tell stories in short spurts of comfort rather than in their completion, which is discussed in later sections of the book. Overall, Archibold relays to the reader a sense of giving and receiving, and that storywork is as much about speaking as it is about listening.

In the spirit of collaboration and listening, don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what Jo-ann Archibald has to say:

 

Oh, and apropos, not only was this the first day in the recent past where my blog views have gone up rather than down, it’s also the first day for visitors from Norway (velkommen!), Serbia (добродошли!), and Bosnia & Herzegovina (dobrodosli!) as well as visitors from 30 countries. Keep on coming, write a comment or give me follow?

Works Cited

Archibald, Jo-ann (Q’um Q’um Xiiem). Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit. Vancouver: UBCP, 2008.

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Klallam Me Maybe

Those who say you can’t take it with you when you go obviously never met Hazel Sampson.

Three days ago, Hazel Sampson passed away in Port Angeles, Washington at age 103. This is not a surprising occurrence, given that the number of 103-year-olds that are still hanging around is relatively small. However, Sampson’s death is the end of an era. She was the last native speaker of Klallam.

klallammemaybe

 

I hadn’t heard of the Klallam language before today, nor the Klallam people. As it turns out, they are related to the Salish and their territory straddles the borders of the USA and Canada, with communities on Vancouver Island in British Columbia and the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. Like many other Native American languages, Klallam was thought of as inferior to English and survived the government’s attempts at elimination. The 1990s Native American Language Act helped the Klallam cause, gaining the interest of scholars such as University of North Texas professor Timothy Montler, who operates a compelling website for the language. According to Sampson’s obituary, written by Jonathan Kaminsky, the majority of Klallam people today do not speak their language, although due to the dying-out of speakers (Sampson, of course, being the last), has been added to the curriculum at Port Angeles High School.

Language loss is a problem, even in the 21st century. People are beginning to embrace cultures whose members are dying out and trying to recapture days gone by, when the British, French, Americans, et. al., were trying to impress their own culture and drive out anything else. Fragments and even whole books of some languages without native speakers still exist, but it’s not enough to make up for centuries of forced linguistic genocide. I wouldn’t be surprised if several languages die out each year – or each month, for that matter – and Hazel Sampson’s story is no different. Back in 2008, a similar story emerged with the death of Marie Smith Jones of Alaska ending the line of native speakers of Eyak, an indigenous Alaskan language. Even though Eyak is still spoken and taught, it is officially on the list of dead languages – a club in which Klallam is now the newest member.

Just like peoples and cultures die out, I suppose that languages have lives too. Klallam has served its purpose, and now is a language of the heavens, along with millions of others. However much we may have of it, we’ll never have a native speaker, someone who learned it first, before any another language; someone who can compose love songs and secrets; someone to think and to dream in it.

Rest in peace, Hazel Sampson, and rest in peace, Klallam. Or, as Hazel might say,

húy̕ kʷi nəsčáʔčaʔ

(Goodbye, my friend.)

Works Cited

Kaminsky, Jonathan. “Last native speaker of Klallam language dies in Washington state.” Reuters.com. 6 Feb 2014. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/07/us-usa-klallam-death-idUSBREA1605W20140207&gt;.