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Turning up the volume for First Nations storytelling

Kerriann Cardinal and Reneltta Bourque want to amplify the rich aboriginal storytelling tradition.The voices of aboriginal people are too often…

Kerriann Cardinal and Reneltta Bourque want to amplify the rich aboriginal storytelling tradition.

The voices of aboriginal people are too often drowned out by the din of modern culture, said Bourque after she settled in at a table in Zola’s cafe, tea in hand.

Bourque, an ebullient person herself, isn’t sure why native people stay so quiet. She is sure that she’d like them to be less retiring when it comes to sharing their culture and goals in the mainstream media.

“I just find that aboriginal people keep to their own, rather than yell-yell-yell what they want in life, you know?” added the NWT-raised actor.

“They have their voice in the communities — but they need to find a way to share that.”

You have to make yourself heard, said Bourque, who is the first Inuvialuit graduate of the University of Alberta acting program.

She wants to share her experience with other First Nations people.

“It’s not that aboriginal people don’t have things to say, but you don’t grow up thinking anyone cares,” said Bourque.

“I don’t want to say that it’s racism, or oppression or whatever. I don’t really know why that is.”

Bourque is trying to change that dynamic, and she’s not alone.

Kerri Ann Cardinal, who plays mother to Bourque’s teenager in Nakai Theatre’s production of Where the River Meets the Sea, also works with aboriginal people to develop new storytelling methods.

She acts as a facilitator for a course that teaches design, writing, painting, web design, and acting to native people in Vancouver.

Cardinal wants to make native culture a more visible part of Canadian life.

Like Bourque, she knows that there are many barriers to gathering a wide audience for aboriginal storytelling — like TV for instance.

Cardinal grew up with her Cree-speaking grandmother, and now recognizes the value of that upbringing.

But she can point to her own experience as an illustration of some of the limitations of traditional storytelling.

“I remember as a kid going: ‘Gran, I’ve heard this story five times already. I know what you’re going to tell me — the button, and the guy, and geez, I saw the picture,’” she said, shaking her head.

“Only now do I think I should have written that down, or I should have listened the fifth time she told me and I was trying to watch the Dukes of Hazzard.”

Part of the problem is that non-native audiences aren’t liable to listen to a long story told by a single voice.

Cardinal and Bourque are trying to combat this by getting aboriginal people onstage, or on-screen to tell their stories.

Some believe the way to preserve tradition is to keep storytelling alive in its ancient form, offering it at storytelling festivals and in museums until the art form gains more recognition, especially among the non-aboriginal population.

But Cardinal has another idea.

“I’d like to say that non-aboriginal people need to listen differently, but I think that we need to put our stories out in ways that people will pay attention,” continued Cardinal.

That means movies or TV or the web.

Cardinal cites Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, as a successful example — a native story that strikes a universal chord in a widely accessible medium.

Bourque agreed, saying that drama is a great way to give people confidence in their stories and voices.

She has taught for three summers in Yellowknife, as part of a program run by the Center for Indigenous Theatre, which is based in Toronto.

The course is rigorous.

A dozen participants of varying ages come into Yellowknife from remote communities to put in two weeks worth of 12-hour days.

They share their stories with each other, and then present them to the public.

The audience for the final show has grown exponentially. In the three years it has been running the final performance has gone from drawing an audience of just over 10, to more than 100.

Not all the stories participants bring to the Centre for Indigenous Theater are traditional — there are modern day ghost stories too, she said with a shiver.

“It gives a sense of living culture,” said Bourque. “Rather than telling a traditional story that’s been told before, it’s telling your own story.”

Having another person tell her that she had a good yarn to spin was what set Bourque on her current path of acting and storytelling.

“I told him a story and he said, ‘That’s a really good story; you should tell that story,’ and before that I would never have considered that anyone was interested,” she said.

The workshops also help draw out stories that might otherwise never be told, say the two women.

Cardinal remembers one incident that grew out of an aboriginal multimedia arts course she helped teach in Vancouver.

“I remember one time these two or three elders were sitting there talking about the story, then suddenly they were talking about something else,” said Cardinal. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a whole Thompson Highway play right here.’”

There are also unique challenges when it comes to revamping First Nation stories for the modern media, especially when it comes to mediums like film or television that are widely circulated.

Bourque and Cardinal are both acutely aware that taboos and customs about sharing traditional tales vary widely from First Nation to First Nation, and that stealing a story is to be avoided.

“The Tlingit How the Raven Stole the Sun, that’s a very popular story, but I would never tell that story without permission,” said Bourque.

“The reason that you ask permission is so you’re not exploiting culture.”

Teaching new storytelling techniques can create a stronger sense of pride in having native roots, and draw out the conundrums of being a native person in Canada, where traditional learning and the education system often collide.

It makes it difficult to decide what success means, said Bourque.

“Do I got to school or do I learn from my elders — it is possible to do both, but you have make a real effort to do it,” said Bourque.

Bourque and Cardinal hope their teaching will pay off, giving First Nations people another tool to help them reach their goals, and a new way of making themselves heard by mainstream society.

“Even if they just go ‘I’m a little proud of myself,’ I think, ‘Good, you’ve recognized something in yourself’,” said Cardinal. “It’s what I think I did all through theatre school.

Bourque nodded in recognition, and brought up the second part of their shared work: “To shift the medium from one person passing one story to one person, to being able to bring that story to life and share it to a mass.”