Trust the Process: The Inside Story of a Mohawk Saint

Poster for Indigenous Visions & Voices, image by Jade Laurel Thompson

When it’s a solo activity, the deepening of a self-created crater of couch comfort is sweet enough. But when the sinking-in takes place in the presence of close friends, one on each side, when three talking beasts can forget themselves as they weigh in on things big and small, then one of the great unforbidden pleasures of adult life is at hand. We all leave the womb and, to some extent, the family. But neither of these departures necessarily signals the end of the possibility for spaces and people to hold us well enough for us to forget we’re being held, for the present to be truly present in the presence of others.

Making their comforting couch-marks on this fortunate occasion were Roxane and Matthieu, whose positioning was politically poetic. To my left was Roxane, an ethnomusicologist who spent much of her time embedded both physically and intellectually in First Nations’ culture. Her research focused on the cultural significance of hunting songs (“Signature Tunes”) for the Cree nation in northern Québec. To my right was Matthieu, a consultant from Paris, a man with a big appetite for French literature and philosophy. He had studied law before going into business and would often spend free time pursuing his financially futile passion for reading and writing.

What could be said about my posterior’s position of extreme comfort couldn’t be said about my headspace as the conversation developed. All three of us were political animals, so it wasn’t a surprise when we made our way to the politics of cultural appropriation, one of the hottest topics of the Summer. Two of Robert Lepage’s productions, SLAV and Kanata had come under fire for insufficiently including the cultural communities their stories addressed. Activists had succeeded in shutting down SLAV at the Jazz fest and in disrupting the planned production of Kanata, an exploration of early Indigenous-to-non-Indigenous relations in which Indigenous artists would be mostly absent. For Roxane, so close to communities who had undeniably been fucked over by the apocalyptic presence of settlers, siding with the activists was in the spirit of protecting the exploited from more of the same. For Matthieu, a proud Frenchman, hearing about activists shutting down the work of one of La Nouvelle France’s most celebrated artists was an unspeakable outrage he couldn’t help but speak passionately against.

The argument was articulate and entertaining. But as the opposing camps, in what soon became verbal trench warfare, dug deeper into their positions and sank deeper into the couch, I sensed that any possibility of a post-couch excursion for a drink together was becoming unthinkable. And I realized I was sitting in an ideological No-man’s-land. That Indigenous people who hadn’t had the chance to tell their own stories, after generation upon generation of disgusting mistreatment, that they were being disruptive when their story would be prominently told without them didn’t strike me as unusual or bad. And that a highly-regarded artist should try to tell the story of an oppressed people (even without their participation), potentially making money in the process, didn’t strike me as a particularly grotesque moral event.

Hadn’t a prominent Chief once famously mocked the European idea of private property, laughing at the idea of owning the land, as if one could own the air we breathed, the water we used, the sky above us? What would he say about the idea of actively enforcing the ownership of stories?

There is nothing inherently noble or wise about the political centre and the centrist line isn’t one I enjoy toeing. When thinking that might lead to better coexistence is controversial, favouring the centre and avoiding controversy might not only be boring, but pointless. Being a centrist-by-default might do more to cement the worst elements of a status quo than to glean any possible solutions or helpful rearrangements requiring radical thought that could lead to a better modus vivendi.

Favouring the imaginary centre of the debate from the increasingly uncomfortable centre of the couch wasn’t ideal, but this was my couch, and favour the centre I did. It might be ridiculous to want to own the sky above but I owned this piece of precious furniture and a temporary modus vivendi that would maximize our chances of making it to the post-couch drink was what I wanted. If only there were a way of slicing through this tricky, insoluble debate that was threatening our fragile, couch-fostered fellowship.

***

This Friday and Saturday, the world premiere of a new multimedia musico-theatrical work telling the story of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha (Kah-de-lee Te-gah-kweeta), the first North American Indigenous person canonized by the Catholic Church, takes place. The creation of a piece honouring this legendary Mohawk woman was an inside job, conducted by a mostly Mohawk team of musicians, writers, dancers and actors.

When important stories aren’t appropriated by a dominant culture, it’s likely that communities speaking for themselves face the risk and opportunity of stretching their storytelling resources. Not putting narrative creation into the hands of external experts means that internal creators have a chance to stretch themselves outside the zone where their CV’s are most impressive. “The Mohawk council asked me would you be interested in writing the libretto for this? I said I don’t even know what a libretto is.” Having offered his book about Saint Kateri as source material for the team preparing the new work, historian and raconteur Darren Bonaparte ended up writing the libretto. And even though he’s one of the world’s experts on Saint Kateri’s life, testing out a new genre is a stretch. A stretch that can be necessary when a community searches internally for its own storytelling tools.

Historian and raconteur Darren Bonaparte

Saint Kateri’s story is iconic for the Mohawk community, for the wider world of Indigenous people and, in many ways, for anybody with an appetite for incredible human lives. Over the course of our long conversation, Darren regaled (and sometimes disturbed) me with some of the details of hers. Living 24 intense years during apocalyptic times, she shunned her family in order to devote herself to her own personal version of Catholicism. She was a spiritual inspiration to her community that headed north from Appalachia to the shores of the St. Lawrence. She was a rock star of mortification despite her frail physique. And the way Darren tells it, her faith, characterized by her self-imposed suffering to bear the cross of Christ, wasn’t about submission; it was active embrace.

Darren insisted on the relevance of Saint Kateri’s story to today’s world, and one of the angles he took has haunted me since we spoke. We are living through an invisible epidemic of young people, mostly girls and young women, self-harming. Teenagers are hurting themselves to feel real, to feel less lonely, to feel present to something, even if it’s the immediacy of self-slicing. Anything to make the present present. I cringe as I write it down, but it’s as if the mortification for which Saint Kateri was famous involved a form of togetherness, what Darren described as something youth “learned from the priests. And they began to do it themselves and then they got creative and started dreaming up new ways to suffer. To show how ardent they were about Christianity, to share in the cross of Christ.” There is a hint of dark solidarity in what Darren described. A solidarity that is at an extreme remove from the isolated slicing of today’s youth. If the self-torture of the past appears less pointless, almost uplifting or inspired by comparison, what does that say about the teenage suffering of the present?

Darren told me that after Saint Kateri’s death, “the priests and people who were close to her started having visions of her.” Those visions were part of the path that led to her canonization nearly 400 years later. With the creative support of the McGill Chamber Orchestra, they’re undeniably still in circulation today. And every element of the spectacle, including the two pieces leading up to the premiere of the new work, will showcase violin virtuoso Tara-Louise Montour, born within shouting distance of Saint Kateri’s grave.

Montour gets things done. 15 years ago, she looked into commissioning a piece by Régent Levasseur. The result was Farewell to the warriors, a piece which Montour said brought Levasseur to conduct “a phenomenal amount of research about Indigenous culture”. When, more recently, she cold-called prominent composer Malcolm Forsyth about commissioning a piece blending Indigenous musical traditions and classical violin, he said “call me back in two years”. To Forsyth’s surprise, two years later he got a call. Her persistence led to the creation of Forsyth’s Trickster Coyote – Lightning Elk. Forsyth and Levasseur’s pieces will open this weekend’s concerts in the buildup to the world premiere honouring Saint Kateri.

Violinist Tara-Louise Montour

Barbara Croall, the Odawa composer responsible for Saia’tatokénhti: Honouring Saint Kateri, the main event, said of Montour “She’s dedicated, like me, to bringing the two worlds together – Western European classical music (through her violin) and Indigenous culture”. There is an echo in this of a young, determined and gifted woman who managed to make the institutions of the Jesuits her own. Saint Kateri left her family and travelled north, pursuing the visions of her mission. Montour left her family and travelled south, bringing her artistry to Virginia where she performs with the symphony orchestra. Saint Kateri’s religious fervour astonished the missionaries of her day. Montour was mentored from a young age by one of Montreal’s musical missionaries, and her career speaks for itself.

That musical missionary was Boris Brott, Artistic Director of the McGill Chamber Orchestra. Brott is the key other from outside the Mohawk community whose vision helped bring Saint Kateri’s visions to musical life. It was Brott who supervised Tara-Louise Montour’s musical training. It was Brott who pitched the idea of a piece honouring Saint Kateri to composer Barbara Croall. It is Brott who will be at the podium for this weekend’s concerts. He brought a spark to the Mohawk community that, this weekend, will become a reverential blaze of artistry. From a gifted young person identified by somebody from the “other” culture, to the persistence of a mature artist who wasn’t bullshitting about calling back in two years, to a man whose expertise led him to take a leap into the world of libretto-writing. This is what culturally unappropriated collaboration looks like.

***

It’s terrifically frustrating to admit that I’ll be out of the country when these two concerts, presenting truly new, important music, music that seeps out of the spirit of a female presence that refuses to die, take place. My wish is that I could bend the time-space continuum so that Roxane, Matthieu and I could relive our cultural appropriation couch controversy, but with a different dénouement. Instead of deepening our division theoretically over an evening of drinks, we could have gone from the couch to the concert hall and seen for ourselves what an example of high-level, unappropriated cultural creation was like.

Our experience, in my wishful redo, might have led us to the stunning Église Saint-Jean Baptiste, the location of Saturday night’s concert. But my preferred version would have us heading out to Kahnawake, to the Catholic church that bears the name of Saint Kateri, beside the place where she is buried, the place where the world premiere will happen on Friday night. A place where, as Darren put it, “if she doesn’t like the performance, the whole church could collapse and kill us all”. We wouldn’t, in this wish-fulfillment, be heading out in the hopes of settling our debate, once and for all. We would be heading out so that we could keep the debate going by seeing, hearing and feeling, up close, what it looks, sounds and feels like when the direct descendants of capital-H History make it real by speaking for themselves, by creating for all of us. 

Indigenous Visions & Voices: Friday, October 19th, 7:30 pm at Kahnawake Catholic Church & Saturday, October 20th, 8 pm at Église Saint-Jean Baptiste

For more from Darren Bonaparte, click HERE

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About Conor Coady

Conor is a musician and writer whose content can be found at tmttt.org. Contact: Website | Facebook | Twitter | More Posts