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media tricks : Ossossane to Wendake
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From Ossossane to Wendake
For the Huron-Wendat, art's fire is smouldering under the ashes
by Guy Sioui Durand (Tsie8ei 8enho8en), translated by Timothy Barnard
Wendake, September 2003: under a large tent erected on the future site of the museum, the impressive Festin Visionnaire comes to a close. On stage, a galaxy of Native artists - Nathalie Picard, Gilles C. Sioui, Charles Binder, the Sandokwa dance troupe, and the Long House singers - surround Yves Sioui Durand. For a moment, my spirit traveled from Wendake to Ossossane, retracing Le Voyage aux pays des Morts: there, I saw Sylvie Paré, René Labelle Sioui, Annette Vincent, and Michel Gros-Louis!
Barely 3,000 Huron-Wendat, the native people of Wendake, [www.wendake.ca] live on Mother Earth today. Along with the three other tribes of former Wendats who were dispersed after the destruction of Huronia in 1649 - the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma, the Wyandot Nation of Anderdon, and the Wyandot Nation of Kansas - the Huron-Wendat Nation is one of Quebec's ten First Nations groups (which also include the Mi'kmaqs, Malécites, Algonquins, WabanA'kis, Mohawks, Atikamekw, Innus, Cris, Naskapis, and the Nanavik Inuits). The Huron-Wendat are known as "the Business People" because of their great diplomatic tradition, and their ability to achieve compromise and adapt to the major events which have come one after another in North American history. These skills also account in large part for the creative vigour of their artists.
Native North American orality is a fundamental element of Iroquoian and Algonquian cultures, but in a protean manner: narration, rhythms, and sounds journey through, animate, and propagate an authentic Native culture - the product of survival and folklore - in order to participate in the changing of present-day social relations. This "telescoping", this movement from traditional to postmodern art within local and international networks of ritual theatre, sound art, sound poetry, and action art - particularly in the work of a few inspired Huron-Wendat artists of great conviction, whom I call the "new Hunters / Shamans / Warriors of Native art" - is the subject of the present article.
The new millennium has certainly provided us with a propitious moment. Huron-Wendat artists find themselves in "event zones" (biennials and festivals, art expeditions and adventures, and the theatricality of total art). Since 2000, some of these events have been important in revealing the work of Huron-Wendat artists, such as ArTboretum (Ste-Foy, 2000), Ours/Tortue: Des Indiens d'Amérique au pays des Ainus du Japon (Tokyo, Aizu-Mishima, 2000), Le retour de l'Ours/Tortue (Montreal, 2001), M'entends-tu? La Grande Paix de Montréal, 1701-2001 (Montreal, 2001), the Festin Visionnaire (Wendake, 2003), Voix d'Amérique (Montreal, 2004), and the Rencontre internationale d'art performance (Quebec City, 2004). We see in these events the exponential presence of orality in the interdisciplinary and multimedia work of many Huron-Wendat artists, some of whom I will introduce here.
Yves Sioui Durand and Ondinnok
The creative adventure of Yves Sioui Durand and Ondinnok, [www.ondinnok.org] transcends its true socio-artistic influences in the Huron-Wendat community. Durand's prolific output makes him an imposing force in contemporary Native art and theatre.
Because it brings together actors, performers, and artists in an authentic, interdisciplinary, and in situ manner, theatre is one of the key methods of conveying orality and Native visions of the world. For more than a quarter-century, Ondinnok's ritual theatre and Yves Sioui Durand's action art have been giving new life to our founding myths, legends, fables, and rituals of shamanic healing. Better yet, the latter has inspired other Huron-Wendats in their efforts to emancipate their community and themselves.
To do so, one must have "the power of one's dreams", and the aesthetic and ethical inspiration of a work of art. Atiskanahandate, le Voyage au pays des Morts (1988) is a good example of this. Its story seduces its audience in a manner both magnificent and disquieting, thanks to a journey through initiatory ritual, and encounters with fabulous mythological characters from the shadow world of legends. The work's storyline and vitality were such that it even provoked certain cultural changes within the Huron-Wendat community during the early years of the new century. For example, the play impacted the political activities of the Ossossane Foundation, [link no longer active www.ossossane.org] and also inspired the work of those young people in Wendake who have recently revived the rituals of the Long House and the Pow-wow. It has influenced my own experience as a Native intellectual as well.
Over the course of the 1990s, five tangible cultural transformations - each connected to the relationship between Yves Sioui Durand and the Ossossane Foundation through Annette Vincent and Michel Gros-Louis - have allocated a major role to the Huron-Wendat Nation's Iroquoian values. These include: the return of family circles to the political structure of representation; the new Cultural Alliance between the tribes of the Wendat diaspora; the resurgence of the great Fête des Morts as the reversal of an historic injustice in former Huronia; the new life being given to the Huron language; and the reestablishment among young people of various traditional activities linked to the Long House, including the return of the Pow-wow. Each of these developments merits detailed analysis, but here I will concentrate on the powerful symbolic impact of the Fête des Morts.
La Fête des Morts
The Ossossane Foundation's first real success (apart from helping to inspire the relearning of the Huron language, the return of family circles to Huron-Wendat democracy, and the resurgence of the Long House) was the result of a long-term political, historic, and sacred battle - one inspired directly by the work of Ondinnok. More than three hundred years ago, in 1636, the last great Fête des Morts was held at Ossossane in Huronia. Historians describe this event as the greatest of the Wendat ceremonials, because it was truly a "complete social phenomenon" wherein a full spectrum of the community's activities (trials, marriages, trading, political alliances sealed with Wampums, and so on) took place around one festive ritual - the collective burial of all of the year's deceased in a mass grave decorated with beaver skins and offerings. In 1947, the Wendat's sacred cemetery at Ossossane was discovered and looted of its contents by archaeologists working for Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). In the name of science, human remains, artifacts, jewellery, and headdresses were "classified" for study purposes by the museum: skulls with skulls, femurs with femurs! The Ossossane Foundation embarked upon a dignified struggle to allow the remains and spirits of the cemetery's Elders to rest in peace. In the late 1990s, the government of Ontario officially recognised the Ossossane Cemetery as a Wendat sacred site. The ROM, acknowledging the illegality of their looting of the mass grave, agreed to replace the remains and headdresses of five hundred Ancestors. And so it was that, in late August of 1999, on the occasion of a meeting near Lake Simcoe between the four Wendat Nations of former Huronia, the great Fête des Morts was held once more according to ancestral rituals celebrated by an Iroquois shaman speaking Huron once again. From theatre, then, to a reality which overturned history, the Wendats - including many artists - "lived" Le Voyage au pays des Morts, a powerful source of belonging in this new millennium!
In a fundamental way, the creation of the play Atiskanahandate illustrates the important, yet often unsuspected, role of art in the transformation of society. Here is where the real power of Native orality can be witnessed: in its capacity to give life to mythology, spirituality, and Mother Earth.
The interdisciplinarity of Yves Sioui Durand's theatre is also found in his films, performance art, and theme concerts.
Nathalie Picard [www.viamusique.ca/bio_nathalie.htm] works with bygone music, the songs of Wendat Elders, and traditional instruments. These serve as inspiration in her evocations of bird songs, rain, animal cries, and Latin rhythms. She is active in the Long House, works to prevent suicide and all other forms of violence, and creates shows that promote the transmission of Native values to young people. For example, at ArTboretum, the contemporary art biennial held at the Maison Hamel-Bruneau in Sainte-Foy which pays tribute to the "great trees which transmit civilisation", she once intoned a hymn to peace that she wrote during a stay in the Kanesatake pine forest, where the Mohawk "Warriors" took refuge in the summer of 1990.
Sylvie Paré: From the Fête des Morts to the Basket Seller
Sylvie Paré, a visual artist and museologist in charge of the First Nations Garden at the Montreal Botanical Garden, works to "open" Native "art spaces". In addition, she creates installations that give new life to the Huron-Wendat heritage: Urban Myths (Ottawa, 2000), Le Retour de l'Ours-Tortue (Montreal, 2001), and l'Objet-Culte (Montreal, 2004) are three examples. One demonstration of the vitality of sound often found in her work is the audio track to her performance La Vendeuse de panniers ("The Basket Seller"), performed in Japan in 2000. The piece symbolically links Native worlds, East and West, enveloping a dramatic performance that unfolds in a circle like the dance of a serpent in semi-darkness.
Gilles C. Sioui
In his fifty-year musical career, this peerless Wendake guitarist and exceptional musical director has earned the respect of his peers. From blues to orchestral work, using English and French, and giving Native titles to his compositions (he has produced two cds: Gilles C. Sioui and the Midnight Rider and Old Fool), he uses rhythm and sounds with a transdisciplinarity that has prompted many commentators to say that "in a few notes, he attains aerial qualities, and his guitar strings stretch across a deep and ancient wound". It is hardly by chance, then, that we have seen him involved in theme concerts such as M'entends-tu? and Le Festin Visionnaire.
René Labelle Sioui
A talented filmmaker, René Labelle Sioui premiered his moving film Kanata: L'héritage des Enfants d'Aataentsic in 1998 (National Film Board). It tells of the history and present-day issues facing Wendake just prior to the great meeting of the Wendat diaspora in former Huronia in August 1999, followed by the ceremony of the Fête des Morts at Ossossane.
Guy Sioui Durand
As a nomad [www.siouidurand.org] in the field of contemporary art, as well as an art theoretician and critic, I give priority to orality as a living and humanistic mode of communicating ideas. Two active dimensions characterise my work: dreaming up and producing "event zones" in which Native action art can take place, and creating "lecture-performances".
As an independent curator of Native art, my themes draw upon Iroquois heritage to create local and international "event zones". I privilege "installactions", or in situ strategies for occupying space: these examine our relationship to the land, and also dreams, mythology, and ritual, through live performances. My works created for ArTboretum (2000) and L'Ours-Tortue (2000-2001) are two such examples. I also work with a particular kind of Native orality - taken as a critical idea that blends the codes of body art, sound poetry, and in situ theatricality. These are what I call "lecture-performances". For example, see the works Art Sauvage (Vancouver, 2002) and Ak8a Enton8hi (Banff, 2003).
All of the aforementioned artists' practices demonstrate the protean orality
of contemporary Native art and its creative energy. The result is a revitalization
of Wendat culture and community life. Moreover, the circulation and hybridization
of all these artists and their works with the cultural milieus of other nations
generates a hope that emancipation lies within reach of all who inhabit Mother
Earth - which is to say that it might be universal.
Guy Sioui Durand is a Huron-Wendat sociologist and art critic. He is an in situ observer of the relationship between art and society - in particular of artworks that offer hope in the face of "spiritual famine". Co-founder of the journal Inter, and also of Lieu, centre en art actuel de Québec, he has published the books L'art comme alternative: Réseaux et pratiques d'art parallèle au Québec, 1976-1996 (Quebec City: Intervention, 1997) and Jean-Paul Riopelle: L'art d'un trappeur supérieur (Quebec City: GID, 2003). As an independent curator, he has organized shows including Coups de DÉS (Espaces Émergents, Montreal, March 2003) and Le bonheur vif de penser l'art, le colloque de la Manif d'art 2 (Quebec City, May 2003).