As the lights in the Whapmagoostui gymnasium dimmed, Oujé-Bougamou’s Redfern Mianscum moved to the centre of the stage, lit by a bright yellow drum representing the sun overhead. Playing an Elder, Mianscum was the play’s narrator, guiding the audience in Cree through the legends that make up Mind’s Eye.
One of the stories revolves around a young Cree man struggling to understand his place in the world after years of unsuccessful hunting. Wayne Neegan of Constance Lake First Nation played the role. As the story moved seamlessly from light-hearted and funny to reflective and emotional, the cast and crew (many of them performing for the first time) captured the attention of their audience.
“For young people to see this art form, it gives them a better understanding and grasp of how these stories were expressed, because many never get the chance to hear them,” said Neegan.
As young audience members gathered at the front of the crowd to take in the spectacle, Youth Grand Chief Joshua Iserhoff was quick to point out the potential opportunities that productions like Mind’s Eye bring to aspiring Cree actors and artists.
“This will open doors,” Iserhoff told the Nation after the show. “The youth here, they just gravitated to it. This could be the next big thing for young people in the Cree Nation.”
Based on a book of the same name by Emily Masty and Susan Marshall, the play retells several Cree legends in a combination of Cree and English. Masty was on hand in her home community to watch the opening performance, and spoke to the audience about the work that went into it.
“I’m thankful that I had the chance to collect these stories from the Elders while they were still living. Many were almost lost, but now we can share them for many generations to come,” said Masty.
Following the performance, Chief Stanley George presented members of each household with a copy of Masty’s book.
“When I first read the book I could visualize certain areas that were talked about because I’ve been there,” said George. “People were in awe to see things like the shaking tent, the sweat lodge, the big drum and other symbols on stage. I hope the communities start to understand that this is not something evil. These are important teachings that our ancestors kept for their survival. It isn’t a form of religion at all, the Cree are earth-honouring people and that is what it represents.”
As the production travels through the rest of Eeyou Istchee, Neegan noticed that there was some audience apprehension regarding the depictions of traditional ceremonies.
“I do feel sorry for those who take a negative perspective on such an important part of history. But this play isn’t about judgement; it’s just about showing the people a piece of history and their ancestors’ way of life. And we invite everyone to come out and see it,” said Neegan, noting the high degree of interest that the performance generated among youth in every community.
Eastmain’s Alice Gilpin was one of the many Cree individuals involved in the production. It was Gilpin’s first appearance in a professional play.
“I hope that this play encourages the youth to get involved in theatre,” said Gilpin. “This is the first time that many of us have seen a performance that represents our communities. It has the potential to inspire.”