Guswenta Gathering to showcase Indigenous art, theatre, dance in Toronto

It’s a feast of Indigenous theatre, dance, music and art and it’s happening for the first time at Toronto’s largest non-profit theatre company. The inaugural Guswenta Gathering is happening at Soulpepper, a week-long festival to celebrate Indigenous culture.

Toronto theatre company Soulpepper to host Indigenous performance art and music festival

Guswenta Gathering curators Cole Alvis and Falen Johnson. (Daniel Malavasi/Soulpeper Theatre Company/Contributed)

It's a feast of Indigenous theatre, dance, music and art and it's happening for the first time at Toronto's largest non-profit theatre company.

The inaugural Guswenta Gathering is happening at Soulpepper Theatre Company, a week-long festival starting Tuesday, curated by Falen Johnson and Cole Alvis to celebrate Indigenous culture.

Nine events

Nine events are taking place throughout the week, with the starring act a performance of Cliff Cardinal's award-winning theatre production, Huff.

The central theme of Huff explores disenfranchised Indigenous youth who are at a high risk of suicide. The one-man show won two Dora Mavor Moore Awards, one for Outstanding New Play and for Outstanding Performance.

"This isn't every story, but it is what I thought was Canada's most taboo subculture," said Cardinal. "They're the one group that we're most afraid to talk about, except for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women.

"So I thought that we had a responsibility as artists and audience members to go through that experience as honestly and empathetically as we can," he added.

Tuesday is the official opening night of Huff at the Young Centre for Performing Arts, and Wednesday the festival really gets underway with speaking events and more performances.

"Part of what we wanted to do was find a way to Indigenize this space or make the Indigenous roots of this land visible," said Johnson.

Santee Smith will be performing NeoIndigenA at Guswenta Gathering. (David Hou/Soulpepper Theatre Company/Contributed)

Santee Smith from Six Nations of the Grand River, will be performing NeoIndigenA, a solo performance exploring past, present and future in one body. The performance will take place on Thursday and Saturday. 

An Indigenous market will be held Friday and Saturday in the lobby of the Young Centre, hosting Indigenous vendors selling beadwork, crafts, and art.

The Guswenta Gathering has also partnered with First Story Bus Tour, which will be traveling around Toronto to illuminate the indigenous history of the city that people might not be familiar with.

"What we're hoping with this tour is that we educate people in a fun and entertaining way," said Johnson.

"To show Indigenous bodies on Indigenous land in a contemporary way," she added. "What it says is, 'Yes, this history exists, and we're still here. We are still in this space. And please don't forget that.'"

Symbolic re-creation

A 50-foot two-row recreation of the Guswenta Wampum Belt named "Two Rivers," symbolically hangs from the ceiling of the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, where Soulpepper is housed.

"[It's] a really good reminder for us to work under it and remember what our Indigenous values are that come along with traditional agreements," said Johnson.

The Two Row Wampum was a 1613 treaty agreement between the Haudenosaunee people and Dutch settlers. The belt, a symbolic representation of that treaty, contained two rows of purple wampum beads on a white background. The two rows represent equal parties travelling in their own canoe who will not interrupt each other's paths.

The Guswenta Wampum Belt was created by two First Nation students from Nippissing First Nation, Cole Forrest and Katie Samara Couchie who are both in their first year at George Brown College.The idea for the Wampum re-creation was conceptualized by Johnson and Alvis. 

The Guswenta Gathering runs in Toronto until Saturday, Oct. 21, and Huff will have additional shows from Oct. 26-28. Click here for more information.

About the Author

Rhiannon Johnson

Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.