I had the honour of meeting Michael Lawrenchuk, a Manitoba Swampy Cree, in a military prison cell so to speak. Lawrenchuk was the actor in a one-man play called The Trial of Kicking Bear as part of a Montreal Native festival leading up to National Aboriginal Day. It was put on by Lands In Sight flêrres en Vue).

It is a play about a Lakota leader. The time is March 1891. It is three months after the Wounded Knee massacre and Kicking Bear was one of those who believed in the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance would bring back the old ways and days. It would drive all the whites from the Sioux territory and other Indian lands. The American government saw these gatherings by the Sioux as a threat and jailed Kicking Bear for two years. The play was striking in the fact that it had elements that Cree Elders talk about and in the way they talk.

It is interesting that Lawrenchuk both wrote and starred in this play, as today he is a newly elected chief of the Fox Lake reserve. He was elected May 19, 1998. He laughs and says he’s so new to the position that he has “only a few kicks but no bruises yet.” He will, like Kicking Bear, have to look at the world and try to find the best path for his people.

Leaders in the Indian world usually are groomed and enter politics with experience inbusiness or band council employment. It is almost unheard of for an actor to be considered.Lawrenchuk has broken the mold and deservedly so.

The Nation: How long have you been an actor?

Michael Lawrenchuk: I’ve been in the profession for about eight or nine years but some you talk to will say I’ve been a professional actor or liar all my life, [laughter]

Why would you say that?

I think Native people understand this, that you have to sometimes adopt a role to be accepted in whatever setting you’re in. I think I’m great at adapting and adopting roles. It allowed me to move ahead and on to certain things. I knew if I didn’t play a game or play “The Game” I wouldn’t be where I am right now.

How did you get Into acting?

I’ve always been interested in movies. When I was growing up back home on the reserve we had CBC. Cinema 6 it was called and at about 11:30 at night the old black and white movies would come on. I would be glued to the movies and never thought anything about that. But when I went to university I majored in psychology. I was going to be a psychologist and save my people. Not realizing, I guess everyone else realized it, that what needed saving was myself and what happened was I took a theater course, Introduction to Acting or something like that, and I was bitten.

I switched my majors to English and Theater, and that’s how it all started for me. It’s interesting, though. Theater training, the nature of acting, is a very psychological process.It’s a good healing tool. I can honestly say the training that I received as an actor inthe university in London, England, saved my life. It forced me to rip away all the crap thatI used to try to stay alive. What happens when you rip away all the masks you have is thatyou are forced to look at who you are honestly with no coverings. That’s the beginning ofanybody’s healing process, when you rip away everything and start from brand-new, and that’san actors training. That’s how it started.

I noticed In your play that you talk In the manner of the Elders. I was reminded of people back home, tbu use this extensively In the Trial of Kicking Bear.

That was deliberate. I was greatly influenced by the old people. My grandparents raised me. The old people have a certain way of talking and it’s a beautiful way of talking. I thought it was important to use it for this show because it is a show about the old people.

The Trial of Kicking Bear Is a Lakota story and you’re a Swampy Cree from Manitoba. I’ve noticed the Lakota are very territorial about their heritage. Did you approach the Lakota before you wrote the play?

Yes, I did. In fact, I was helped extensively by a Lakota Elder and her name is Selane NotHelp’em. She is the direct descendent of Short Bull, a cousin of Kicking Bear. Selane toldme stories

that were passed on to her from survivors of the massacre. There are things in the play that aren’t in any books. Only the people who see the play will know them. I don’t think some of them realize what they are learning from Selane through the play. Yes, I did talk to the Lakota and I was helped.

Well, If some of those things aren’t In the books, I’m surprised the anthropologists haven’t come sniffing around.

[Laughter] During my tour across Canada there were various times I would be questioned about the accuracy of some of the things I had been saying by non-Native reporters and the like. I remembered being challenged by a radio announcer in Ottawa. I let him know that if he wanted to talk me about Native history or stuff like that I was more than willing and open to talk to him any time and any place, but he never called.

So you feel people would like to keep the version of history that Is In the books?


You’ve taken this play across Canada but this was your first time In Montreal?

When we originally did our tour, we had bookings straight through to Halifax. But becauseI funded the show myself, by the time we made it to Ottawa we were running on ticket money and there wasn’t much ticket money. We had to make a decision on whether to keep going east or see if the money we had was enough gas money to get home. That’s what we did; we went home.

But, yes, this is the first time I’ve been in Montreal and it’s

been a beautiful experience for me. Andre and Pierre from Terres en Vue, Lands in Sight,invited me down here. For me it was great experience. I know Pierre was a littledisappointed with the turnout, but this is a new thing for them. Theatre, though, is animportant thing for them to keep because one of the things they are trying to do is bridgethe gap between the Native peoples and non-Natives in Quebec. Theatre, whether we know it ornot, is a very important aspect of Native life because we are storytellers. In theatre youtell stories, so it is important for this initiative of theatre in the First Peoples’festival to continue.

I noticed some of the aspects of your show were about Kicking Bear dealing with the culture shock of having his way of life destroyed. He was looking at his place In the world. The play explained It In a way that both Native and non-Native could understand and relate to.

I think that the question that Kicking Bear deals with in the play is a universal question. One where we explore our life and its meaning, our purpose and why we are here. Where we have to question ourselves about some of the things we have done, the actions we have taken and where we have to face up and own up to them. Where we have to take responsibility for our actions.

In the play, Kicking Bear, in his mind, brought the Ghost Dance to his people but whathappened is it sped up their destruction. So what does a person do as a person if you blameyourself for killing all your people? How do you deal with that? So what happens, as inKicking Bear’s case, he was forced to ask some very hard questions about his place in theworld, his place in society and for owning up for his responsibility.

There are a lot of people who carry around personal guilt and they have to deal with it. Some carry more than others, but it still has to be dealt with. If you deal with it honestly I think you’ll grow the same way that Kicking Bear did in the play. He dealt with his guilt because it wasn’t his guilt. He tried to do what was best but it didn’t work. You can’t blame a man for trying to do the best and he found a way to move on which is what we do as Native peoples. We are constantly barraged with situations that are meant to destroy, but we’re still here. We’re growing stronger and stronger.

In my travels across Canada I see young Native people and young people just itching or justscreaming for something to happen so they can focus their energies. So it is very importantfor artists to tap into this energy and give Native people some hope.

You’ve been across Canada doing your play, but I understand Canada wasn’t the only placeyou’ve been In your studies?

Yes, I took my post-grad in London, England. Apart from the training, the experience of leaving this country is worth more than any education. It is an education. I think more of Native people have to get out and see the rest of the world. To see how big the world is. To see how beautiful the world is. To see how beautiful life is.

To see how many people in this country are caught up in little tiny problems not realizing that one day it is all going to end. You are going to come to the end of your life and that’s it; you’re going to be in the ground. What did your problems amount to? Nothing; they’re your problems. You have a choice to try to do good things and enjoy your life.Being outside Canada did that for me. It gave me a different perspective. I remember back on reserve where I went to this big city called Thompson. It had about 20,000 people. It was a massive place, a scary place. Then I went to Winnipeg with about 600,000.1 thought Holy Smokes, there’s nothing like this. Then I traveled to Toronto and Vancouver and these are big places with millions of peoples. Then I went to London with 15 million. It gives you a different perspective,a different appreciation for our place on this planet. It was a good experience for me because it makes you appreciate your home too.

I really liked coming back and realizing how much we had. That’s one thing about going away; if you don’t go away you don’t realize what you have. You don’t realize the beautiful country we live in and the beauty we are surrounded with until you go away and come back. I really missed this place. I’m glad to be back.

After all your travels you are going back home as a newly elected chief. Will you still be doing things like Kicking Bear or other projects?

I’ve got a lot of projects, but being the newly elected leader of my community will be taking priority over everything. All the people back home have put their faith and trust in me to help them try to live a better life as a community and as individuals. I really don’t know if I will have time for personal things.

If this show goes on the road again, and I’m sure it will, I don’t know if I’ll be a part of it. I have a friend I might pass it on to. He’s voiced interest in it. He’s another Native actor; his name is Loren Cardinal, a fine actor. I’m thinking of passing on the role to him and letting him take it wherever and giving him the authority to do it. So there’s that option.

Will you continue writing?

Of course, I’ll always be writing.

As a person with a lot of life experience what will you as a chief be bringing to your people?

An appreciation of life and the knowledge that things can be better. Hope and hard work.Because I’ve been so many places, I can appreciate life and I can get things done. I know that things can be changed. Because I’ve been away, I know certain things can’t be right. And when I go back to my community and I see the way we’ve been treated, I know it is a situation that is not right. When you’ve been living in that situation all the time and you haven’t been away, you begin to think it’s a normal situation.

People who abuse their powers and take advantage of that kind of stuff. Like for us it’sthe way we have been treated by Manitoba Hydro and Canada. Our land has been stolen from usand we have been made to feel it was our fault, but I know better. I have the ability tochange people’s minds, my people’s minds, and make them feel good about themselves. Makethem understand it’s not their fault and that things can change if we all work together.We can make our lives better and take control, which is my primary focus. My primary focusfor the people of Fox Lake is to be like we once were and that’s to rely on no one butourselves.