Sophie Merasty speaks to bringing back stories and culture, indigenous rights, resistance and resurgence

Name: Sophie Merasty
Role with the show: Mom
Place of Birth: On the northeastern tip of Reindeer Lake, Manitoba
Current Place of Residence: North Vancouver
Any Recent Theatre Credits &/or Awards/Accomplishments you are proud of: PawâkanMacbeth, A Cree Adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Favourite Theatre Credits: The Unnatural and Accidental Women
A little bit about yourself: I am a Dene/Cree actor. Grandmother, activist
A book/article/website/film/resource you’ve found that might be relevant/interesting for our audiences: Art Manuel’s bestseller, Unsettling Canada

Sophie in the rehearsal room at The Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre for Weaving Reconciliation: Our Way

Where are you from and where are you currently living?
I’m of the Denesuline and Woodlands Cree nations of northern Manitoba.  Brochet is on the northeast tip of the beautiful Reindeer Lake. I moved back to Vancouver a year ago after spending a year in Saskatoon. I’ve lived in Vancouver off and on for the past 30 years.

Sophie at the Women’s Memorial March in 2016, speaking about her sister, Rose, who was killed in the DTES in 1991 and the injustice of her death. Photo: Fatima Jaffer

What brought you out to Saskatoon?
I have a son and two beautiful granddaughters who live there, Alexis, Meadow and Jaired. I wanted to spend time with them. They were the absolute highlights of my time there!

You mentioned that you were in a production ofPawâkan Macbeth?
Yes, I performed in Pawakan Macbeth with Edmonton’s, Prospero Theatre last November.  Reneltta Arluk, has cleverly adapted Shakespeare’s Macbeth to a Cree adaptation. She incorporated a Cree legend insofar as changing the names of Macbeth’s characters to appropriate Cree names. The meaning of Pawakan, is of a dream spirit that comes to you during your rite of passage. A historical war is waged between the Cree and Nakoda against the Blackfoot, Macikosisân (Macbeth), a great Okihcitâw (warrior), becomes consumed by a cannibal spirit.He plots with Kâwanihot Iskwew (Lady Macbeth), to kill their Chief, Okimâw Wîpâstim (Duncan). It is a journey through love, greed, murder, usurping of power, honor and betrayal as in Macbeth.

I played three separate roles. One was the lead Wiyôyôwakak (coyote howlers)Instead of witches as in Macbeth, there were three coyotes. They were trickster- like and had power and “medicine” to influence Macikosisân, “the Evil One”.Another was a character named Otepwestamâkew, who is the “town crier” or “caller” that announces current happenings in the Cree camp. I also played a Metis woman who allies with the Cree against Macikosisân. It’s a dark but wonderful play. And it’s going to be produced again in Edmonton next year, toured to Saskatoon and possibly to Vancouver’s Talking Stick Festival.

Was there the Windigo character in that play as well?
Yes. In our culture, in our language, we call it Wihtiko. Wihtikois an insatiable evil spirit. It is a cannibal that eats human flesh. I believe it also feeds off the greed of humans and eats souls.

In that process did you have ways of taking care of yourself?
Yes we did. We understood we were dealing with a powerful dark spirit I think there was some apprehension amongst some that we were conjuring or invoking this spirit and it could be dangerous. We took care of ourselves by smudging and praying before every rehearsal and show.  Some of our cast members attended sweat lodge ceremonies.

Renletta’s statement was “if we are going to bring back our culture, our language and our stories, we should bring everything back. Not just the good ones but the dark stories about Wihtiko as well.”We need to acknowledge it as part of our historical stories and legends.

I agree with her, so much had been taken away by the experiences of residential school, our languages, our stories, our culture, our songs. So, in telling this story she brought it back, we did.

Personally, In the bigger picture, I see this spirit as being alive in our modern day. Through greed, through land grabs, natural resource extractions, pipelines, fisheries, etc. It’s all about money.

With Weaving Reconciliation, how do you think the process is going to go?
Well, we’ve only had two days of rehearsal, so far. It’s the first time I’ve read the new script and I’m loving it. I’ve always wanted to learn how to play Slahal, and we’re learning how to play Slahal. It’s a great group of people. Everybody has something to offer to this process.

Yesterday we had a big discussion around influence by Catholic and Christian religions on our culture, because one of the characters is leaning that way. There was some discussion around it as they were a big part of damaging our Indigenous people’s spirituality. We discussed how triggering that could be to survivors of Residential Schools. I like the way that Trickster’s lines are written in that he poses questions rather than making opinions. It’s a sensitive issue and many of our Indigenous people are still affected by it today. There are those who have whole heartedly converted, and there are those who vehemently reject it and there are those who have embraced it but still do ceremony.

We have three and a half weeks to rehearse. I’m sure we are going to have more discussions on our Indigenous worldview. Yesterday, we touched on some of the common experiences of pain we have and carry as a result of colonization, residential schools and cultural genocide. How some of us don’t have our language because our parents or grandparents who went to residential school were not allowed to speak their language. For me, this process is about reclaiming our songs, our cultural practices, our belief systems, which I believe have evolved since. We can’t go back to the past as it was. I believe we all have DNA in our memory, genetic memory that surfaces through a dream, a song, intuition and instinct. It is a thought or a memory that’s been passed down through our DNA from our ancestors. I think every human being is born with this ability. Some of us are separated from it because of all the white noise around us, but it is connected to the land where we all come from. There’s an ancient wisdom there.

There’s a lot that’s being covered in this one act but it’s beautiful because we are exchanging cultures with each other and other indigenous people. I like that we are an Indigenous cast with an Indigenous director and writers because we understand each other. I’m grateful to Vancouver Moving Theatre for producing this show and being the vehicle to tell our story.

“Fair is foul and foul is fair! Pimihak oma ota Kawepahtak kaskaweykamin (Hover through the fog and filthy air)” Sophie as Wiyôyôwakak in Pawâkan Macbeth. Photo: Logan Taylor.

How do you feel about the future of this country?
Oh wow. It’s pretty scary. We live out here in the west coast with pending pipelines, which are going to affect the ecosystems. I mean it depends on what’s being asked about specifically. We are land based and rich in resources. First Nations on this land have rights that are not being recognized by federal or provincial governments. The oil company, Kinder Morgan, is trampling on Indigenous rights by pushing the pipeline through. This issue is brought up in the play. If there’s a spill it will affect the water the land, the fish, the ecosystems. That’s what First Nations people are trying to protect. We were given the stewardship over land.  Our responsibility was given to us by the Creator. But again, we’re dealing with a huge corporation from Texas that does not care about this land, or the people. These violations have been happening to us on our territories since the beginning of colonization. In my territory of northern Manitoba it was the uranium mining.

Our culture is so connected to the land, and if that’s destroyed and damaged beyond restoration, then what do we have? What do we have to pass on to our children? Our future generations? Everything is tied into it. The language, the customs, the traditions, the spirituality and our sovereign power. It’s such a big question to answer. What does the future hold? I really don’t know. But I believe that what’s happening is our young people are taking over leadership in a way that hasn’t been possible in maybe our generations and before because we were more directly impacted by residential school, whereas they are becoming further removed from that and they’re becoming more astute, politically, and they know what’s going on. They are the next warriors to stand up. I have hope and faith in them that they’re going to do exactly that, and they will affect change. It’s going to keep happening. As much as they tried to extinguish us and our rights, it’s not happening. It’s not happening. There are just so many amazing indigenous people in this world who are doing great things and making a difference. Some of us are artists, some are politicians, doctors, lawyers, judges, etc. Our current minister of justice is Indigenous. You know, it’s happening in a way that’s saying, “You can’t get rid of us. You may have killed some of us but you haven’t killed us all. We’re still here. We’re here to stay and as long as we’re here we’re going to continue to fight for our rights”.

Sophie (centre) performing in The Unnatural and Accidental Women by Marie Clements

What would reconciliation look like to you? If you even want to use that word…
I did have some misgiving about the word. Mostly because I don’t see it happening in Canada. So I wondered why Renae and Rosemary would choose to use that word, reconciliation. If you look at the word, the meaning of it is “the restoration of friendly relations” It sounds to me like Canada has seen their relationship with Indigenous people as two opposing parties in conflict with each other. But really the way I see it is we were not in the wrong. It was not us. It’s Canada that needs to reconcile with us. In my opinion. It’s a buzz word that’s being used by the Canadian Government and it doesn’t feel real. Especially when injustices are still happening to us. Most recently the killing of two young Indigenous people, Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine. The Canadian legal system failed them and their families.

If real reconciliation is going to happen, we need to be given back our lands. We need to be acknowledged as sovereign nations. Our leaders have been pushing and fighting for that. Slowly things are happening and changing, some nations are winning battles in the Supreme Court of Canada over land, fishing rights. Things that were inherently our right, we have to go to court and fight for. Which is bullshit in my opinion, but that’s why I say reconciliation is not something that I see happening quickly enough. But when you think of it it’s been almost over 500 years of oppression, cultural genocide, or genocide. Theft of the land. All the things that have happened. And those systems have been built over that period of time…I mean the last residential school closed not that very long ago. So when people say “get over it” or think that we’re complaining too much, it’s because of their ignorance and lack of education historically about Canada. And that, I think, was a deliberate action. They didn’t want people to know what happened to Indigenous people here, because it’s a shame. Canada doesn’t want to look bad- and that makes them looks really bad. That’s one of the things that is going to take time to change. The history- you can’t just erase it in order to create reconciliation, because they have to give back what they have taken.

And we’re still dealing with a lot of racism, we’re still dealing with injustices, we’re still dealing with missing and murdered women, and the list goes on and on. In every area, in all these different systems. So I would say: it’s not where it could be yet. I would say give back the land first, because that’s where our power was. And abolish the Indian Act. I mean, oh my god, it’s so discriminatory, I hate it.

Another stigma is that people think that we get everything free. It’s not true. It’s so not true. It feels like we’re set up to be discriminated against without being told the truth. We only don’t pay tax on reserve. We got one percent of all this land that used to be indigenous- all indigenous lands. Everybody else has prospered off it. We got other immigrants coming in and they discriminate against us too. So, the truth has not been told about Canada’s history. Deliberately, in textbooks. We were depicted as savages and all this terrible stuff. But it’s happening now….it’s happening. It’s just that still we’re dealing with a lot of people that are stuck in that old type of mentality, or who don’t question things and just accept what they’re parents or grandparents…. But as far as I’m concerned, everybody is a settler here, or a descendant of, this is all indigenous land- stolen indigenous land. And they’ve done all kinds of things to make that happen.

You know, I could go on about all this, because I know the truth, and I hope other people do too, but on a positive note like I said- change is happening. I wish it would happen a lot more quickly, but considering how much time it took for things to go the other way, it’s going to take, [a lot of time] to go this way.

But it’s happening in our youth, in our young people it’s happening and it’s very exciting. I just love seeing the cultural pride in our young people. And they’re asking questions. They’re making creating change. Even though things will never be the same as it was pre-contact, we are moving forward.

It’s also incredible within the cast even, the shift in people’s life experience, intergenerationally, between Stephenand Taifor example.
Exactly. Sam Bob went to residential school, Stephen Lytton went to residential school. I didn’t go, but my grandmother went. Somehow we are all touched. I don’t know one indigenous person in this country who has not been touched somehow by the oppression of colonialism in some form or another.

It’s amazing how the change is, hopefully, happening.
It is. If there was no hope- what’s the point? But there is a lot of hope. I like to think that, we are not defeated people. Many of us have had our spirits trampled and hurt, deeply hurt, but we’re not finished. There’s been a revival happening for a while now. It’s beautiful. We have beautiful cultures. Even our languages, some of our Indigenous languages almost went extinct but now there’s been a whole lot of money put into the revitalization of our languages.

We are not given free money. What we are given belongs to us. We should be given way more to compensate for what’s been stolen. You look around and see how everybody else has prospered of our ancestral lands and resources. Where do you see many of our Indigenous people? Down here, on skid row, homeless, living in SRO’s, living in poverty, addiction and alcoholism. There’s foster care – which is the new residential school. Canada owes us a lot. So does the church for the harm they’re caused us. I mean the Pope wouldn’t even apologize. To apologize would make them liable. They’re one of the wealthiest religious institutions. They have also prospered off the blood of indigenous people.

If people only understood and got educated about the truth and history of Indigenous people in this country maybe we wouldn’t be treated with such hatred, ignorance and racism. I think of racism as a mental illness. Being racist against another person based on their color and their culture is ignorance based in fear. Why would you want everybody to be like you? Why do you think you’re superior to people of color? Not being able to accept others for the race they are born into is a dis-eased way thinking. Part of reconciliation is going to take effort on both parties, Canadians and Indigenous people.


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