Solo performer tackles issues of mixed identities and Aboriginal values

Quelemia Sparrow pictured wearing Musqueam head regalia with her childhood doll. The doll wears a sweater that her grandmother knit. | Photo by Daniel Mark

Quelemia Sparrow, actress| Photo by Daniel Mark

With the upcoming National Aboriginal Day on June 21, Quelemia Sparrow’s solo performance, O’Wet/Lost Lagoon, sheds light on issues that Aboriginals still face through a theatrical interpretation of her personal experiences.

O’Wet (pronounced as oh-wee) denotes propelling a canoe. The word is also connected to a shaman’s canoe ride to the land of the dead to retrieve a lost soul. Sparrow is of Aboriginal and British descent. Her father’s side of the family is from the Musqueam Nation and she spent the first nine years of her life living on the Musqueam reserve near UBC. When she was 14, she began an international modelling career that lasted a decade. However, after travelling the world and living in various cities, Sparrow decided to return home and pursue a career in acting.

“I knew that I wanted to do acting and be back home and I wanted it to be based on my culture and being indigenous,” says Sparrow, who is a Studio 58 graduate.

Eventually, Sparrow became interested in the topic of reclaiming land and space and began to focus on the indigenous history of Stanley Park for a piece that she was working on. It was during this research that she learned about Pauline Johnson, a half-Mohawk and half-British woman who named Lost Lagoon.

“I found a lot of similarities between our lives and I thought, ‘What if she was born in this time period and travelled around the world, modelling?’” says Sparrow. “From there, it turned into an autobiographical story about my life.”

Raising awareness about present-day Aboriginal issues

O’Wet is a compilation of moments from Sparrow’s life in which themes of reclamation and inter-generational trauma are woven together with music, visuals and projections. The show is written and performed by Sparrow.

“I want people to ask questions about the land. I hear a lot of people say that Vancouver is a very new and young city and it’s not true. We have a rich [indigenous] history here and it’s been erased and not taught in school systems,” says Sparrow. “As an artist, what I’m passionate about is sharing that history.”

Sparrow explains that she is the first person in her family that did not go to a residential school, and that the experiences her father and grandfather endured at residential schools created lifelong trauma for her family. Residential schools were established to assimilate Aboriginal children into the culture of the European settlers in Canada. The children were taken away from their families and were not allowed to speak their native language. Physical, sexual and psychological abuse were not uncommon in these schools.

“There is a ripple effect [as a result of the residential schools] and each family has their own healing to do,” says Sparrow.

Despite the heavier issues in the performance, Sparrow notes that there are also plenty of funny and light-hearted moments as well.

Drawing inspiration from her culture

Quelemia Sparrow pictured with her childhood doll | Photo by Daniel Mark

Quelemia Sparrow pictured with her childhood doll | Photo by Daniel Mark

Although Sparrow has travelled around the world, she feels that it is in Vancouver that she has encountered the most confusion over her indigenous identity and some racism as well.

“I know that it mostly comes from ignorance, and that really inspires me with my work because the more that I can share my experiences and knowledge, the more the ignorance will go away,” says Sparrow. “I find that it helps to communicate and work your way through the uncomfortable places so that you can find some common ground.”

In addition, Sparrow says that as an Aboriginal actress, her cultural background and experiences have helped spur her to create new work.

“It’s forced me to find my own voice so that I can create and play the parts that I want to play and hopefully provide those opportunities to other indigenous actors,” says Sparrow. “My favourite thing is hiring other people!”

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