Debajehmujig Christmas celebrates shared Northern culture

MANITOWANING—Each day seems to focus plenty of media attention upon the issues that pit Northerners against each other, be it the environment, our natural resources or the many cultural cleavages that create seemingly insurmountable chasms between us, but there is so very much that binds Northerners together to be found in our shared experiences in the North. Debajehmujig Storytellers’ Christmas offering ‘Spirits of the North’ seeks to highlight those shared experiences that bind us together and to poke a little fun at the misguided efforts of those from outside the North to understand this vast and wild domain.

This is the first time that the eclectic First Nation theatre group has reprised one of their Christmas offerings, having performed Spirit of the North last year, albeit in a very truncated schedule due to a number of personal tragedies experienced by the company last year. But the more things stay the same, the more they change.

“We had to limit the number of shows last year and that in turn limited the audience that had an opportunity to see the show,” said Debaj executive director Ron Berti. “It was a great show, so it was decided to put it on again.”

Co-directors Bruce Noakwegijig, Jessica Wilde Peltier, Carla Ritchie and Sarina Merling sat down with The Expositor to discuss the production and how it came to be, how it remains the same, and how it has evolved since last year.

“It is one of the beautiful things about theatre,” noted Ms. Ritchie, a Toronto-based playwright who recently joined the Debaj experience, about the impact different directors can bring to a story. “Each director brings their own perspective to the story as everyone drives toward the same goal.”

“The experience of the space that you have, knowing the limitations and the positive elements of the space, come together with the story to expand its horizons differently with each perspective,” agreed Mr. Noakwegijig.

“We all have our own 21st century audience perspective in rediscovering something that was written 100 years ago,” said Ms. Ritchie about the historical material that plays such a significant role in ‘The Spirit of the North.’

Part of that 21st century perspective comes out in the rap art form, but there are adaptations to that form made to make the art form more accessible to the generally older audiences typical of the Island. “The story comes in the form of the rhythm,” said Ms. Wilde Peltier. The normally rapid-fire delivery of the poetic form is subtly slowed, allowing the message to be more easily accessed by an older audience.

“Not just finding the metre,” said Mr. Noakwegijig, “you are storytelling inside it.”

“You see a lot of toe-tapping in the audience,” noted Ms. Wilde Peltier.

The Debajehmujig experience is inclusive of the audience, noted Mr. Noakwegijig. Members of the audience are often seeded with information that comes into play within the production, becoming bit players and part of the community-based theatre. “Those we know are comfortable with that,” said Ms. Merling.

Another positive change in this year’s performance was made possible by the number of people who have joined the company this year, either as WWOOFers, the organic farm volunteers who have become part of the Debaj milieu in recent years, or as visiting artists who have crossed the globe to experience the unique artistic fusion that is Debajehmujig Storytellers.

“We have a lot of natural accents this year,” laughed Ms. Wilde Peltier.

“There are people from Germany, people from Quebec,” said Ms. Ritchie.

“We are teaching them the experience of the North,” agreed Ms. Merling. “Being people of the North and what is our way of being people in the North.”

“It is the unique stories of the North, it’s bringing all those things together,” said Ms. Ritchie.

‘Spirit of the North’ is available as a private function for group Christmas parties by calling the Debajehmujig offices at 705-859-2317 or you can take in one of the public shows on December 6, 7 and 13.

Michael Erskine