Understanding our place in the world through theatre

Salmon Girl has message of care for the environment | Photo courtesy of Quelemia Sparrow

The legends of bears and ravens often showcase First Nations history to the public. This time, Quelemia Sparrow of the Musqueam Nation and Michelle Olson of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in Nation decided to tell the story of salmon. 

Produced by Raven Spirit Dance and created by Sparrow and Olson, Salmon Girl (which mixes theatre, dance, music and puppetry) will be performed at Presentation House Jan. 26–29 and Feb. 3– 5.

“Growing up, I heard stories about the salmon – all about transforming salmon and different tales. I thought we really need to share these stories,” says Sparrow, Salmon Girl’s playwright.

She says that the stories and tales that have been passed down through generations of indigenous nations taught certain elements of behaviour and lessons regarding how to act and survive in this world.

There is no end

This piece helps us understand our place in the environment – how to give back to the earth and not just take. There isn’t a finite end to anything. It continues,” Sparrow explains.

Sparrow used garbage pollution and recycling as an example to show this. Recycled plastic bottles are turned into another product and garbage that is thrown away ends up in the ocean.

“We have this idea that if it’s away from us, if we can’t see it anymore, it has disappeared and that it’s gone,” she says.

Sparrow thinks of it as a valuable lesson that is being taught to the masses now. She acknowledges that straying from these habits is not a small feat. Realizing that every item being thrown away still exists, whether it can still be seen or not, is a huge lesson. According to Sparrow, we, as a race, have to learn to take care of the environment, make sure that we are not polluting the space we live in and the food we eat, as well.

From stories to theatre

Salmon Girl shows the cycle of salmon. Like the Tr’ondek Hwech’in and Musqueam stories factoring in on the plot, this play teaches the audience the salmon’s journey going down the river and coming back up. “You understand how to take care of the salmon. Those lessons are infused [in the plot]. Salmon Girl goes on an epic journey through the river.”

By working with choreographer Michelle Olsen from Raven Spirit Dance, both theatre and dance as well as music and puppetry are used to present the play. “A lot of indigenous performers work in many different mediums. It’s not out of the ordinary for us to mix different disciplines together to tell the story,” Sparrow explains. A colourful dynamic is brought to the play when one character plays multiple parts through shadow puppetry. Through the incorporation of movement and shadow puppetry, Salmon Girl shows there is more than one way to tell a story.

“I think the inspiration has been there the whole time for both Michelle and myself. I feel a pull to retell these stories and to share these teachings,” says Sparrow. There is a true importance in telling them; it is a re-emergence and sharing of the culture. “It is also a strong desire to share my culture with Vancouver. I think it is very important that Vancouverites know these stories and the histories of the First Nations peoples,” she says.

At the end of every show, Sparrow hopes that Salmon Girl makes the audience feel joy and a sense of our place in the world and what that means. “I want them to feel our connection to the earth – that we are all connected and are not living in a bubble. That what we do affects the person beside us and everyone in the world. It affects the environment,” she added. The goal is to motivate the audience to be aware of this connection.

For more information, visit www.phtheatre.org.