A unique stage production aimed at introducing theatre arts to young people in Cree communities in northern Quebec wrapped up its month-long tour Tuesday with a final performance in Oujé-Bougoumou, Que.
Mind's Eye, based on a book by Emily Masty and Susan Marshall, explores some of the legends told to generations of James Bay Cree by their elders.
'I'm proud to be Cree after seeing that.' - Cynthia Taylor
The play was staged and performed mostly by Crees, many of whom had never before been involved in a theatrical production.
Dianne Reid, president of the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougougmou, the group behind the Mind's Eye project, got to read the first manuscripts, and said right from the beginning she was transported by the stories.
"For me it was like a journey, the vision of the old stories, of the legends," she said.
"It was like I was reliving a force within me as I was reading each chapter. The spirit vision in any form, in any medium, it will be part of the legacy that we can give to our youth."
One of the goals of the project was to introduce theatre arts to young Crees, most of whom had never seen a play, much less performed in one.
It took a year of work, a gruelling travel schedule and a budget of about $300,000.
Shirley Cheechoo, a Cree filmmaker based in Ontario who's originally from Eastmain in northern Quebec, was brought in to direct the play.
She brought with her several First Nations actors from Ontario and southern Quebec, to mentor the newbies in the cast.
Pakesso Mukash, a musician and host of CBC's Cree television show, Maamuitaau, had a voice role in the play.
He remembers how tough some of the early rehearsals were.
"I was like, 'How are they going to pull this off?' And seeing it today, it was the grand finale. They nailed it," he said.
"These kids that I saw struggling at the beginning, making sure they had their lines and putting out the confidence it took to deliver them, it was amazing.
"There were a couple of times I had to hold back tears. I was getting emotional at the delivery of this piece and the stories that were being brought to life. You know, we hear legends, but when they're performed it's something else."
In each community, the team performed the play twice: once for students, and again for the general public.
Redfern Mianscum from Oujé-Bougougmou played the elderly narrator who ties the stories together. He said reaction to the play has been overwhelmingly positive.
"A lot of elders came up to me and said 'We heard these stories before' and it brought back memories from their childhood," Mianscum said.
"And the children, we thought they'd be running around, being loud and distracted while we were playing. But in every community we went, as soon as the play started all the children went silent and focused on the play. And that was amazing to me."
For some though, these legends — including stories of a hunter marrying a caribou, and ceremonies to contact the spirits — created a certain discomfort.
Many Crees are Pentecostal and some decided not to attend the performance because of their beliefs.
"We've heard some discussions that were stimulated by the play, between people who consider themselves fundamentalist Christians and other people who have a stronger allegiance to the old stories," said Stephen Inglis, executive director of the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougougmou.
'It brings a sense of identity.' - Redfern Mianscum
"What we've seen is that the respect for the traditions and the wisdom of the elders is quite uniform and very strong. But it touches on people's values and people's visions of themselves. And I think that's what the arts do."
Actor Redfern Mianscum said it was time for a play such as this one to bring to life the teachings of the elders.
"It brings back an understanding of how life was back then, and it brings a sense of identity, I guess. We are going through an identity crisis, we're struggling. And to do a play, it makes people realize how important it is to live by our values, our culture, basically bring back the teachings."
There are no immediate plans to tour the play outside of Cree territory. However, there has been talk of bringing it to some of the southern cities with sizable James Bay Cree populations, such as Montreal and Ottawa, to offer those who live far from their ancestral homeland a way to connect with the culture.
Cynthia Taylor, who has lived most of her life outside of Eeyou Istchee, travelled from Montreal to Oujé-Bougoumou for the final performance.
"As a Cree myself, not knowing much about our ancestral traditions, it really hit home and there were certain parts, especially at the end, going into the shaking tent, where I could just picture my ancestors," she said.
"It just felt real, and it really got me. I'm proud to be Cree after seeing that."
The final performance was livestreamed by Nûkun Media and is available to view online.