Paddle song – The story of indigenous existence and triumph

Paddle Song, a one-woman musical theatre production directed by Dinah Christie, follows Pauline Johnson, an iconic visionary Mohawk performer during the late 1700s. Co-written by Dinah Christie and Tom Hill and performed by Cheri Maracle, Paddle Song will be presented at the Firehall Theatre from Nov. 9–21.

Johnson was the daughter of an English woman and a Six Nations Mohawk chief. Despite the negative connotations associated with her heritage at that time, she challenged them through her work and toured Canada for 30 years. This piece honors her influence on the Indigenous arts.

The roots run deep

Maracle, who plays Johnson, acknowledges the empowerment she found through this role as she is also of Mohawk ancestry. She finds playing such a respected and fiery figure in the Indigenous community tricky but equally rewarding as the recognition and influence of Johnson is empowering to embody. As an actress, she also found it quite interesting how she related to Johnson at times due to the racial stereotypes as well as the gender norms that were benefitting White men. She had to dig deeper and try to place herself in a time where minorities – especially young Indigenous women – were being targeted by the ‘old White boys’ Club arena.’ Although this was a learning curve for Maracle as an actress, she says it made the work that much more interesting and invigorating.

Iconic status

Johnson is known as a visionary and an icon who, during her time, pushed the boundaries of acceptance as a minority. She challenged the status quo by bashing the hierarchy and sharing opinions on her heritage and equality.

Maracle says Johnson stood up for herself and her peers with intelligence and brutal honesty, a quality that has been associated with all these years.

“She was a bit of a trickster in that she played with the stereotypes, showed them to you and then flipped them through her work,” says Maracle. “[She] reeled you in and gave you something you didn’t expect – the reality of the Indigenous existence.”

Johnson, Maracle points out, has also influenced young writers.

“Pauline was gutsy, intelligent, and took risks that paid off. Her poetry was and is still now very political. I think young writers can get a sense of her limitless pushing of boundaries, from reading her work, studying her life and seeing that in the late 1800s it was do-able, and to craft your style and go for it,” she explains.

The theatre experience

Cheri Maracle as Pauline Johnson | Photo courtesy of Firehall Theatre

Maracle feels she has been able to represent many layers of Johnson, her legacy and the pain she endured.

She says the team at the Firehall Arts Centre were in awe of Johnson and the phrase ‘the woman had giant ovaries’ became the motto while rehearsing.

Maracle and the crew kept finding more complexity and truth in each layer of Johnson’s character. The story shows the complexity and the many different facets of her life she had to balance.

During her time in Norway at the Riddu Riddu festival, Maracle recounts that the Sami people were an amazing audience as they are a people of poetry.

“Performing a show portraying a prolific writer such as Pauline was an honour, particularly for Indigenous people, as the writing resonates with acutely different vibrations. We feel it in our bones, as the fight is real, for justice… and is on-going,” she says.

Maracle feels she embodies Johnson’s personality when giving advice to young artists. She says they should follow their gut and their heart, and listen and pay attention when something doesn’t resonate as authentic in their artist self. She believes the payoff is unimaginable if they play true to themselves.

“We are all unique, so honour your spirit. Learn to be gracious and kind to yourself and grateful for your gifts,” says Maracle.

For more information visit

www.firehallartscentre.ca

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