“Bones: An Aboriginal Dance Opera” by Sadie Buck

On the evening of 8 August 2001 at The Eric Harvie Theatre, The Banff Centre, Banff, Alberta, history happened with the creation of the first ever aboriginal dance opera, “Bones” by Sadie Buck. Its cast of singers and dancers included representatives from three continents and seventeen different nations. They included Muriel Miguel (Kuna/Rappahannock) as Spirit Woman, Maku-I-Te-Rangi-Hoana-Huata (Te ArawaTuhoe/Ngati Kahungunu) as Earth Singer, Santee Smith (Mohawk) as First Woman, Carlos Rivera (Mixteco) as First Man, Cherith Mark (Nakoda) as First Earthbaby, Soni Moreno (Mayan/Apache/Yaqui)  as Grandmother, Jody Gaskin (Ojibwe) as Water Man, Jani Lauzon (Metis/Ojibwe/Cree/Scandinavian) as Wind Woman, Kalani Queypo (Haiaiian/Blackfoot) as Fire Man, and Faron John (Mohawk) as Rattle Man. The company of dancers/singers consisted of Penny Couchie (Ojibwe/Mohawk), Tracey Lloydd (Ngati Kahu Te Rarawa/Waitaha), Joel Te Maro (Ngati Porou), Brandon Oakes (Mohawk), Jeremy Proulx (Ojibwe), A. Blake Tailfeathers (Blood). David DeLeary (Ojibwe) was the musical director, also performing on bass guitar and percussion. Other musicians were Malcolm Lim (Singaporean Chinese) on percussion and William Martina (Australian) as cellist and percussionist. Russell Wallace (Stla’limx) prepared the music arrangements and oversaw the production of the pre-recorded materials.


As presented in the programme, the synopsis of the dance opera is as follows:


Scene 1: Earth Chant A

The earth calls to the people. Eventually, the people arrive, responding to the earth’s call. The gift to the people is the earth. We are here, on this gift, on earth. Omanipa ne oman. [Song: The Earth Sings]

Scene 2: Earth Chant B

The people begin to revel in the earth’s beauty. The earth is happy that the people are dancing and singing. She is happy that they are using what she provides. The earth is our bones. Omanipa ne oman. [Song: And the People Sing]

Scene 3: Silence #1

The earth is strength. The earth is knowledge. We need the earth to live. We are humbled. The earth reminds us: I am your bones. There is silence. Silence and our humility.

Scene 4: Mother and Child #1

Our bond with the earth: She is our mother. The mother’s love is strong; the earth’s love is strong. The song is a lullaby: Oma bema. The soul of the earth is love. Oma se spa. Earth baby, be with me in the state of being, in the state of love. [Songs: Oma Bema; Nema ne go Chiema]

Scene 5: Knowledge = Earth

We begin to learn the cycles. It started when we first rested our feet on the earth. How to live in harmony with the earth. We hunt, we plant, we pick berries. We work to learn her knowledge. [Song: Sto Des Mat]

Scene 6: Survival

The cycles go on and on. The food grows, is harvested; the ground rests; the seeds are sown again. The sun shines; then it becomes night. The baby is born, the mother becomes the grandmother; the baby becomes the mother, and a baby is born again. The cycles go on and on. [Songs: Da Wa Tuwedas; Me Nem Rasi Lo]


Scene 1: The Game

During our time on earth we have learned many things. We have worked to understand the laws of the earth. The game is played for us to enjoy and celebrate our life. Each is given a gift to use for the people. All the people are playing the game. The game realizes the full body. Our bodies are our gifts. [Song: Ne Gom]

Scene 2: The Grandmother

The grandmother is knowledge – the knowledge of the earth. The grandmother guides the little ones, laughs with them. They came from her. She loves her children, all her children. The grandmother is the teacher. She knows when her knowledge is passed on; she has done her job. [Song: Me Nem Se Manema]


Scene 3: Day of the Dead

Death is part of life. Death is the beginning. Those who have left go on to another place. We celebrate and honour their life. The community gathers around us and loves us, till we can feel ourselves again. Those that are gone come also to support those who are grieving. The day of the dead: we remember them. We feed them. We honour their memory. Death is our highest form of honour, the achievement of our life. [Songs: Omanipa; Seoma; Nutas Ae E Ful; Nu Yenos Se Omanipawe]

Scene 4: Community

The big house is built – the house of knowledge – the earth. Our land, our spaces, our territory, where we come from, where we belong, where our bones go back to, when we die. The big house is knowledge. It can hold all the people. It is strong, like the bones that last forever – the big house that holds us all. [Song: Bado ne Pino Chimape]

Scene 5: Fracture/Silence #2

We knew our worlds, we knew the air, the water, the land, the sun, the stars, our creator, the earth, the ways. Our existence was disrupted. Our time was fractured. This fracture caused ripples to form and slowly move out. We lost some things, yet we all know that those things are still there – the earth knowledge that we knew is still there. We have to pick it up again. Some of the people have lost their voice and are looking for those who kept their voice intact. [Song: No One Ever Stops]

Scene 6: Duality

We feel the ripples. The waves are taller than us sometimes. But, in the hollow between the ripples, there is calmness. There is balance. As a people, we move between the ripples and the hollows. The waters grow smooth again and shimmer in glassy reflection. We reflect on what we knew. We will know again. Creating our own ripples as we move back to the centre – the journey has begun. [Song: This Old Road]


Scene 1: Seven Brothers

This story is about seven brothers. As they play in the forest, they gain knowledge from their play; they decide to tell the adults of the village what they have learned. The adults do not believe the seven brothers have any knowledge, because they are too young. Saddened, the brothers go back into the forest to finish their last gathering of knowledge. The adults realize they were wrong, and begin to look for the children. But they are too late. As they dance, the seven brothers start to rise into the air. They can pass along their knowledge from the heavens. They become seven bright starts – the Pleiades. [Songs: Ne Tash Beti De Ok; Ta Won Sev Bres]

Scene 2: Blue Note

One long note moves around the whole earth. A blue note. We all know the sound. The sound of knowledge, the sound of humanity. Our memory, our humanity dancing at the core. [Song: Eso Nahemas]

Scene 3: Mother and Child #2

The child is lost. The people are lost: their hearts, not hearing, not knowing. The adult child hears the lullaby his mother sang so long ago. The sound has travelled through time and is here and now. Softly, oh so softly, the lullaby wafts its way to his ears. Each touch begins to reawaken him. Each touch spreads the memory. Each verse makes the child stronger. [Song: Oma Bema]

Scene 4: Sea Shells

Before the earth called the human beings, the gifts were everywhere. The shells are the gifts, the sounds are the gifts. The earth is calling the gifts to be ready for the people that she is going to call. The waves bring new things. The waves bring the old things back. Cleansing waters wash everything clean. Soon the people will come. The gifts will be ready. [Song: Ne Wasen Melod]

Scene 5: Ashes and Ashes

When human beings have gone full circle – when we have achieved our death – our souls move on to the spirit land where our creator lives. Our bones are returned to the earth. They become part of the landscape. Our souls are free to roam with the stars.

Sadie Buck, librettist and composer, has been a performer and creative artist all of her life. She formed in 1965 the well-known group, Six Nations Singers, women of the Seneca, Onondaga, and Cayuga Nations that are a part of the larger organization, the Six Nations Women’s Singing Society that participates in community “sings.” [http://www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/aboriginalplanet/archives/march2003/art6_main-en.asp] With that group and as a soloist she has performed throughout the world, including the opening of the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. She began the Aboriginal Women’s Voices program at The Banff Centre that led to the establishment of its Aboriginal Program in 1993.
[http://www.banffcentre.ca/Aboriginal_Arts/] In December 2006 at Rapid City, South Dakota, for her outstanding contributions to aboriginal arts Sadie Buck received the 2007 Community Spirit Award of the First Peoples Fund.

In the following interview Sadie Buck discusses how her heritage, the teachings of her Nation, her experience as a performer, led her through the process of the creation of “Bones: An Aboriginal Dance Opera”.

Interviewer: Elma Miller
Place: Six Nations Reserve, Ohsweken, Ontario
Date: 16 August 2006

Elma Miller: Would you please introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

Sadie Buck: My name is Sadie Buck from the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, and the Tonawanda Reservation in New York State. I am of the Seneca Nation, Turtle Clan.


I do lots of different things: dance, perform, write music. Occasionally I still perform as a dancer, but not as often as in the past. I direct and write plays and shows. We just finished with a little show on Friday for kids, ages 9 to 14. I am not that used to working with children as I mostly work with adults. That was a lot of fun though. Really a lot of work. We had hectic weeks trying to get them ready even though it was a structured summer youth camp. It was called Strengthen the Identities Through the Arts. The program was very interesting and I hope they have it again. The kids really had a blast and now we are hoping that the skills they learned will continue to be a part of their lives. It was strengthening their identity so it was more than just learning the art. They did wampum–making, so not only did they wear a belt, they had to learn beading, what the belt meant. We also did theatre and visual arts. I and my son helped the person who did the theatre component.

EM: That sounds like an oral tradition that you are trying to continue. Would you characterize it that way?

SB: Yes, I think so, as it involves your whole body experience of it. We would learn originally by putting your hands in. We are doers. I write and compose music, but in our language we do not have a noun for that. We just ‘do’ music. There is a verb that corresponds to ‘she can write a song.’ It never becomes a noun like ‘songwriter,’ but always remains a verb. In our language one never becomes a composer or an author, but in English you can say that. It is difficult to go from our language to English as we do not have those concepts. We do not have the term ‘artist.’ Our members can carve in stone or out of wood, but these activities are described in the doing. We do not have a “wood-carver.’

EM: It is more democratic. Anyone who has the talent can do the activity.

SB: Yes, they will say ‘so and so can do this so go over there to see them.’ Go to see those who know how to make lacrosse sticks, or drums, or she is a good sewer and can make ribbon clothes so go over there.

EM: Now that we are on the subject of language, is this how children are brought in to develop skills in various areas?

SB: In this community of Six Nations we have 20,000 people and in Tonawanda there is maybe 2000. There is far more language in general in the community of Tonawanda than there is here. I have forgotten the exact percentage of fluent speakers here but it is much lower. In spite of the immersion school our most fluent speakers are 45 years old or older. Now we have the children coming through the immersion school program that are fluent so we have a gap in there of over three decades. A lot of the stories are told in English. It is usually when you are working on something such as ribbon outfits or a wood carving that a story would be told. That is not a fixed thing. Possibly the activity itself brings back memories and the person will say: “Oh, I can remember when my grandfather was doing this or this.” That is the time when the whys and the why-nots get passed on in the oral tradition. We do not normally have a structured storytime. Before TV in the evenings there would be lots of storytelling, but now we have TV.

EM: You grew up with storytelling at home, did you?

SB: I have always been a performer. Members of my whole family have been performers as in the 101 Ranch and Wild West shows such as those of Bill Cody. Because we were traveling and doing those shows, storytelling was a big part of our life. When you are cleaning beans stories are told, but when you go to perform them you understand nuances of the stories at the performance level. Retelling becomes something special, instead of just telling a story as part of what you do in everyday life. In that situation nobody thinks of it as storytelling. Last year I had an experience where I was sitting in someone’s home in Alberta, and a person said: “There is a storyteller.” The person was referring to me but I do not think of myself as a storyteller. Since then, I have been thinking about that observation. I realize when I sit and talk with people I am telling stories. But when I am working and feel that I need a storyteller, I would hire someone else and not do it myself.

For my family, because we have had this long performing tradition, we realize how important it is to tell these original stories. These have to be presented in such a way as to be understood and not simply told. This could involve talking about them in a music and dance performance. We always danced with my grandfather Tony Bear in Hamburg, New York in the summer and with the Jim Sky Dance Troupe. We also used to perform with other dance troupes such as Jake Thomas. I think that is how I learned a lot of different things. My family would talk about those things and talk about the stories. And then I would hear them on stage. For me it was different but I never thought about that until the incident last year. We did them at home but we also thought about them in a different context. I just never thought about it as storytelling until being labeled that way in Alberta.

EM: It is always interesting when an observation out of the blue permits an entirely new assessment.

SB: Yes, when I did “Bones” I did not realize it so succinctly. Now I have a clearer concept of what elements in storytelling you have to get to the audience.

EM: That is such a large work involving elements from 17 indigenous cultures. Can you speak more about “Bones”?

SB: Yes, it was 17 indigenous cultures from around the world because for me it was about being inclusive. For the Haudenosaunee and other aboriginal peoples it is a cultural thing to be inclusive. For me to do “Bones” it was really important that everything be included. How “Bones” started was through Alejandro Ronceria, who ran the dance program at the Banff Centre. I did an aboriginal program called Aboriginal Women’s Voices which was about music and singing while his program was about dance, which included music and songs with dance. For Haudenosaunee people music and dance go together. All of our songs have a dance to it. There is not one of our songs that does not have a dance through all our ceremonies including medicine and socials. There is no separation for us.

Here we were at the Banff Centre and in my program we were doing songs with dances. In terms of presentation at the Banff Centre, my program was separate from his dance program. What Alejandro and I talked about for years before Bones came into being was to bring the two programs back together and do a dance and music show of some kind. So that was how it all started. And then I had written a story called “Manhatten Magoo” a number of years ago. A friend of mind in the dance program at Banff called me here at midnight from Alberta. She said, “I need a story about a woman by tomorrow. I am sitting here at my computer and cannot come up with anything.” I told her that I would see what I could find and she said if I could get it to her she would pitch it the next day. She wanted to do it as a film as she was in the screenwriting program and had a deadline the next day. I happened to be at my computer when she called so I wrote a one-pager of “Manhatten Magoo” as that was all she needed. This must have been about eight years before we even did “Bones”. That incident preceded my conversations with Alejandro about bringing music and dance together.  Anyway I sent her the one-pager, but it did not get the grant in the workshop. She did not win the pitch. However, she said that is a good story and I said “ I liked it too,” but then I did not think about it anymore.

EM: When did you do the Aboriginal Voices program at Banff?

SB: That was in 1992. In the following year the Aboriginal Arts Program began at Banff as there was no such program when I first went there, it was just myself. They had done some of the Nomads program, a series of short films that later developed into the NOMAD NET project. Then they did Aboriginal Voices. In 1993 the Aboriginal Arts Program began in full. Then a year later Marrie Mumford got hired as the artistic director.

One of my aims is process, how do you achieve something. For aboriginal people it is the process that is important. For the Haudenosaunee people you have to facilitate the process and the end product takes care of itself. The end product is always a result of the process. Your end product is going to be as strong as the process so you take care of the process. Then what happens at the end will be the best it’s going to be. I had been talking to Marrie about this. We had been discussing the possibility of a workshop or something. In Aboriginal Voices I had done a lot of training of the women so that they could take that workshop concept back into their own communities. I would train them how to train other people.

EM: So your training would be part of the process?

SB: Yes. And it would not only be part of the process, I would be asking, why do this part. I would get them to do it, and then explain why afterwards. We did not do it so formally because we would have a show to do. We did it as part of the show preparation and then the women were really interested in it. That was always my thing, so Marrie and I along with Alejandro [Ronceria] talked about how we might combine the programs in some shape and form. Then we began discussions with Russell Wallace [a Stl’atl’imx musician and member of Tzo’kam] from BC. He did the music for dance and for Aboriginal Voices. Because he worked in both programs he was the most logical one. We had a meeting, the three [Sadie, Alejandro, Russell] of us asking what could we do. Then, because Russell’s mother was Flora Wallace, now deceased, she had been a member of the second group that came for Aboriginal Voices. I always had a thread of continuity in that program. There were always some women that I brought back the next time.

EM: A thread of continuity so that the traditions and process could be passed on?

SB: Yes. In my Haudenosaunee concept this was very important. You always have something from the first group that comes into the second, and on to the third and so on. Anyway, Flora was one of those ladies and there was another member, a Zuni [Cornelia Bowannie] as she was also more of a dancer. She was one thread and as time went on, Flora was another.

We were talking about these ideas of process and how we could extend the concept between the existing programs at Banff. Then Marrie got a grant to do a workshop program and it was entirely to look at the idea of process in creation. It consisted of invited master artists who brought nothing with them. I told them not to bring anything because I really wanted to look at process. I was running the project so I could tell them that. Even with the wonderful people at Banff and others too, they could not understand fully what we were trying to do with indigenous art. I felt we had to show it to get the point across about how it was and is different in its creation.

EM: You wanted a forum to demonstrate this difference and to let them see the results.

SB: Yes, because I had been talking about this process and intention for so long in the way I run my workshops in the development area. We invited a theatre artist, visual artist, dance artist, myself, musical artist and also a recording artist. There were six of us all together. Then some other people came in to observe and help. There were two dance artists from Mexico City who also happened to be in Banff at the time. We were all in a smallish room. The workshop was six days long. Each of us had one morning to show their art process and what each one had to do to produce an end product.  For example, Russell was the sound recording artist. He explained the steps in the process of getting a good end recorded product.

EM: So he explained the steps that he had to follow in order to get a recording.

SB: Yes. The theatre artist went through what s/he did in terms of developing a play. The dance artist explained what was done in terms of choreography. These were not in-depth workshops from each one individually, but rather an opportunity of looking for threads in their individual processes. In the course of the week we were looking at this and developing a show that we put on. In those ten days we developed, rehearsed and put on a forty-five minute show with the seven or eight artists that were there. As I became familiar with each of their processes, I learned how to create faster by picking up points.

EM: And more efficiently.

SB: Yes, in terms of the process. For an invited audience in the [246-seat] Margaret Greenham Theatre we developed and performed this forty-five minute show that we did everything for including the sound.

EM: This was pre-“Bones”.

SB: Yes, because as an aboriginal person I wanted to explore the process of creating a large work with little money. As aboriginal persons we never get anything close to the money required to stage a production.

EM: What did you find about that collaboration that really helped?

SB: I really wanted to look at how one could meld all of their processes, because they were so different, into the necessary common goal of an interdisciplinary end-product. Recording is different than dance, which is different than theatre. How could we tap into the strengths of their processes so that I could understand it better? “Bones” had not been created yet so I brought forward “Manhattan Magoo” at that time. That was what we used in terms of the process. When the group got to Banff, they were really confused as to what we were going to do. I recall one of them told me, “I am here because I trust you.”

EM: So you brought the whole thing together. How would you characterize that?

SB: That was precisely what I was looking at. If it did not work, then it did not work. I already had an idea because for me how I picked them was not on the basis of personality but on their level of professionalism. There were some persons that I did not know on a personal level too, even though I was familiar with their work.

EM: You had not worked with them previously.

SB: No. They were like the unknown quantities that are placed in those multiple choice tests.

EM: You learn to work with them so you can see the difference.

SB: Yes, there is always one in there that is off the wall. I brought that into it too. I knew the person but I did not know his theatre work. I had seen the work of the indigenous artist but did not know him personally.

I gave them the sheet of “Manhattan Magoo” when they arrived. In half-days of the workshop, I said this is what we are going to work on. We did these improvs in all of their specialized areas on “Manhattan Magoo”. Then I said, now we have to do this show. They were all in it at this point, like the cogs in a wheel, so it was easy to take it to this next level. I am really sorry that we did not film it. We took everything from these workshops that they had done and then put it together. Then we had this play that did not at all resemble “Manhattan Magoo”. It was not even close to it by the time we had come to the next level, but it was a very strong forty-five minute play. A strong, well-written piece of work and we did it in ten days.

EM: That is amazing!

SB: Everybody knew their parts, and we did all of the live sound.

EM: And the dance.

SB: Yes, dance and movement in the whole thing.

EM: It was not recorded, but were there any photographs?

SB: I do not know if there were. Unfortunately no one is now at Banff that was there at the time.  There might be some thing in the Aboriginal Program archives but I do not know. The man who was the visual arts person had these sheets of white paper, and that was our set dressing. All we did was string lines and as we went through his process in regard to “Manhattan Magoo” we had this country scene and a street scene as these lines on paper. It was really interesting how it turned out. So that was the next thing we did and still we were not at “Bones”.

And then I did this show called “Full Circle” [1998], an offshoot of Aboriginal Women’s Voices, at the Max Bell Theatre. I was so exhausted and I remember telling Marrie in her office that I did not know how I was going to get through this Calgary show. Anyway I came home and sat down at my computer and wrote up a framework which was essentially incorporating the workshop procedure of Aboriginal Voices at Banff. That combined a lot of elements of Aboriginal Voices.

The first Aboriginal Voices was to end in a concert. The rest of them were a series of workshops with presentations so they did not have a concert at the end. I e-mailed it off to Marrie and that is what we did in Calgary. It was how I do my presentations now. The first half is different using what I call a “story-weaver.” It is not a concert where you have somebody come up to perform, and then you say that was so-and-so and thanks, and then call upon the next performer.

EM: Do you improvise?

SB: I do all of these transitions. There is no MC in the concert but rather the story-weaver holds things together. Even when I did “Celebrating Our Gifts” at the Sanderson Centre [Brantford, Ontario] last year, it was like that. The individual entities are all woven together in terms of their presentation instead of this artist followed by that artist. The artists come on and perform but they are part of this weaving.

EM: Now does the thread from the first one go into the next one and so on to the end?

SB: I always connect everything. For example, in Celebrating Our Gifts I got some of the same staff, because they know what I am doing. They have an idea of what I want.

EM: Because you know how they work together.

SB: Yes. This is what I want and I do not have to explain it every time. It is faster and more efficient. I probably could do a concert in the MC style, but that is not the way I want to do it.  I want to have a story and I like to weave them together.

EM: Do you write down any of this stuff, such as an outline?

SB: Oh, yes. For “Full Circle” I write them all out. Once it is written out, then I know exactly what I am doing. For instance, the first sound in “Full Circle” was a flute note by Olivia Tailfeathers. And there is just sound. It starts in the dark and then we go into all of the performances. We had Olivia Tailfeathers perform, Tzo’kam from BC, but the lead-ins into each were different. I will even ask, some say I dictate, what song they will perform. I listen to their CD and then say: “I want you to do this song. If you could do that song first, and this one last that would work in my story-weaving.” They can do whatever they want in between but I need this thread from here and another to go over there. Very few performers object to that because I do that story-weaving throughout. I think that the performers I work with also trust me and know that I will not put them into a position that goes counter to their culture or against their aesthetic ideals. I am always very respectful of all of the cultures that I work with. I will ask them saying: “This is what I want to do. Is there anything that is against your culture in there?” Because you have to be careful about certain aspects. In our Haudenosaunee culture we go counter-clockwise; we do not go clockwise. Some cultures go clockwise and will not go counter-clockwise. Sometimes it is for the dead so one must always ask and be careful of those kinds of things.

EM: You do not want to disrupt the spirit of the performance so that anyone has a bad feeling.

SB: Yes. I am always very careful of that. I try to honour all that they believe in. I will change something completely if they cannot do it. I would rather leave something out completely or change it rather than dishonour somebody’s culture. A lot of artists come and do it because they can trust me on that point. I always work hard on that. I build this story-weaving concept into every concert that I do.

A friend of mine went back to the Banff Centre and told Marrie I am starting to see what Sadie is saying. Let us do a show, and then they were a hundred per cent behind it. Now all of a sudden I have to come up with that. It had been percolating in my brain but it was not solidified in any way. Then I started writing some stuff. I wrote another story and sent that off to Marrie so she could start the grant-writing process. Then from that story I and Alejandro went back. We wrote a storyboard for an opera with all of the scenes and using stick-people. That is how we put together “Bones”.

EM: Where did the story itself come from?

SB: It came from the first story I wrote, “Manhattan Magoo”. John Murrell said that to me one day and I am so glad he did even though I have no idea where he got a copy of “Manhattan Magoo”. Indeed the story of “Bones” is that of “Manhattan Magoo”. It is very different, but the same story. Perhaps the name of John Murrell is not familiar to you.

EM: No, it is not.

SB: John Murrell was artistic director and executive producer of Theatre Arts at The Banff Centre (1999-2005) when “Bones” was produced and is now Executive Artistic Director of Performing Arts. He is a well-known playwright throughout the world and he was the first one to recognize that connection to “Manhattan Magoo”. I did not expect anyone to connect them. When he said that, I recognized that he was correct. The second story that I wrote for Marrie to get the grant was very different. It was more Iroquoian and Haudenosaunee than “Bones” came out to be.

When we sat down to do the storyboard the same stories are in it and our stories are throughout, but not just our stories. A lot of cultures in North America have stories about the Pleiades. It is in there and the story of the Dead. We as Haudenosaunee revere the whole process of dying and death.

EM: Now the Pleiades story — is that about the seven sisters?

SB: For us Haudenosaunee, it is the seven brothers. When I did my research I discovered other stories where sometimes there were eleven brothers or nine brothers so I just took our title “Seven Brothers” and did some creative license on those stories. I melded them into one, but the gist of the story is ours, the Haudenosaunee.

In the programme, the translation into English of the song Seven Brothers is given as follows:

There were seven brothers all young
They played all day long
They began to learn things
They knew they had to pass this knowledge on
They went to the adults in their village
We will teach you what we have learned
The adults of the village did not listen
The seven brothers went into the forest with nothing
They were saddened that the adults did not believe them
The leader of the seven brothers said we will go on
The seven brothers began to dance
The leader told the other children soon you will begin to rise
You will rise up into the skies, into the heavens
That is where we will continue
We will do our duty
Our responsibility
We will become the stars.

“Bones” is in three acts. The first is about the Earth, and the second act is about the body, and the third act is about the spirit. The first act being concerned with the Earth is that as Haudenosaunee people that is where we rest our feet. We call her our Mother and we rest our feet on Her. The Earth can exist without any human beings. She does not need us. It is a separate entity. When we as human beings were put on Earth, we needed Her. We cannot exist without the Earth but She can exist without us and all of the beings on Earth can exist without humans. We need them and we need the Earth. The body has to live in Her rhythm. If we did that we would not have pollution and the depleted ozone layer and those kinds of things. As a body we have a certain responsibility. There are so many subtexts in “Bones”. We are looking at how we as human beings are ruining our own lives because we are ruining the Earth. Somewhere along the line we have forgotten the message that we cannot live without the Earth. In “Bones” we talk about how the body is supposed to learn Her rhythms. How we are supposed to honour that relationship with Her as we need Her to survive. And the only way in the third act is to go back to the spirit. If we are going to survive as a people we have to regain that connection. Otherwise when the Earth is ruined, no one will live. It does not matter how much money you have, nobody is going to live. We have to go back to the spirit of the Earth and to the spirit of that relationship in order to survive. In the middle section, the second act, the body has to prepare to take the spirit of the Earth.

EM: So it is a kind of circular idea.

SB: Yes.

EM: Is that also how the Pleiades story comes in, that we become stars?

SB: Yes, we become stars and go through the whole process of becoming again. Those exist beyond us and without us. The first scene in the third act is these brothers who go up to the stars. They have to get their knowledge from the stars because we would not listen to them on Earth. For my people kids are the smartest people on earth. For the Haudenosaunee kids are the smartest beans because they do not have anything to tell them to not believe.

EM: They are innocent.

SB: Yes, they do not wonder: “I do not like that so I will not do it.” They are just going to do it.  For the Haudenosaunee people that is how we are supposed to treat our kids. In our story of Pleiades that was the adults not listening to the kids so we forgot that teaching.

EM: Do you take into consideration the rise of the Pleiades in the spring and in harvest time and its relation to the sun and near the end to the dawn?

SB: Not in the story. It is just a story about their knowledge not being recognized. They were given this duty with their knowledge so they have to keep doing it. So they go up in the stars and become Pleiades and still give this knowledge somehow.

EM: Was “Bones” filmed?

SB: Yes, but only for archival purposes. It is very bad because the camera is always trying to find light. However, “Bones” came out of ten years of my thinking about process and these various activities involving presentation that I did through that period. [The first Aboriginal Choreographers Workshop occurredin 1998 when Sadie was music director for the Chinook Winds Aboriginal Dance program and Alejandro stage directed the Aboriginal Women’s Voices Full Circle Concert.] Then we did a development year on “Bones”. The first year [1999] we did a workshop and it was just George Leach, Santee Smith and myself, Alejandro, Carlos Martinez, ElizaBeth Hill, Russell Wallace. We just did some of the development of the scenes as a team. At that time we developed the Day of the Dead, a scene that talks about the Earth’s rotation, about four scenes in all. In 2000 we came back and did a larger sequence of scenes to get to the full production of “Bones” that was in the third year [2001]. It was three-and-a-half to four years to get “Bones” to its premiere [http://www.banffcentre.ca/media_room/Media_Releases/Arts_Ab_Arts/2001/010726_BONES_creative.asp].

EM: In dealing with all of these indigenous cultures, how did you deal with language? Did you come up with new expressions?

SB: I had no idea what I would do there. What I did was that some of the original songs I wrote for “Bones” were with vocables only. I wrote the song, and then recorded it for re-learning. In writing these I just thought of the texture and what the song was supposed to be like and then I did the vocables. I did a couple of the original songs like that in the first year. For the second year I did more and I applied meaning to the vocables that I used. That was how the language thing started. All of a sudden I had words. When I wrote other songs I developed more words. When I wrote I used those words and then applied the melody to the words. And then all of a sudden when I was developing the gist of the story, the bigger show, I realized I had all of these words that were already there so I had to start applying them to the music and the whole production I was writing.

EM: So the vocables came first based on sound.

SB: Yes, the whole of “Bones” was written by sound. So I would change or add a vocable by sound, based on the texture and the feeling that I wanted of that song. Then there was a whole string of songs. There were twenty-three songs that I wrote for “Bones”. From there that was where the rhythms and the different dances came out. It was vocables and texture first, then I applied meaning, and after that I had words, so then I developed more words, so I could create more songs, and all of a sudden I had a whole body of words. Then I had to create in that. I could not just create any more. There was a body and structure that already existed. The last few songs were more difficult because I had this whole language that I had created already. It had its own texture and its own rules and I had to write in that. It would have been easier if I had just created everything and then applied meaning afterwards but I could not do that because of the layers of meaning and texture that already existed.

EM: Let me get this straight. Are vocables sounds like ‘ee,’ and ‘ah’ that gradually form into larger and larger sounds until they have meaning?

SB: No. They are sounds like ‘ka’ or ‘ga’ or ‘oma,’ ‘bema.’ ‘O’ means nothing; ‘ma’ means nothing; ‘be’ means nothing. That was how I did the first song Oma Bema [“Mother and Child” which occurs in Act 1, Scene 4 and Act 3, Scene 3]. What happened then, I applied ‘oma bema.’ ‘Oma’ which means ‘earth’ and ‘bema’ which means ‘baby.’ Then you have ‘earth baby.’ Then if you want to say ‘earth’ further on in “Bones” you have to use ‘oma.’

EM: So that is how the rules started.

SB: Yes, it made it more difficult in the end, but there were only a few songs because I had set so much. Then I started writing the songs down. Now I have a dictionary of the words. Initially I did not have that. Finally one day I went through every song I had done and made a dictionary of the words.

And we used a language of the world ideology to give it a framework. The Cansa people in South America have a song and dance in a ritual that they do to maintain the rotation of the earth. That is thousands of years old. There is a language that they use in that ceremony that is called the ‘Language of the World.’ They don’t know the meanings any more of the words that they are saying or singing. They have forgotten those, but they still do them in what they call ‘the Language of the World.’ We took that phrasing of ‘the Language of the World’ and applied it to these new words in the new language that I created for “Bones”. Also because there were going to be so many different people from around the world involved in “Bones” we felt that would be appropriate. Alejandro had been down in South America and had seen that ritual. When he brought that phrase forward, then we decided to call it ‘the Language of the World.’

EM: You have Michif, I notice in there too.

SB: There are all kinds of sounds in there.

EM: And Wajarri of the Australian aboriginal people, also Maori of New Zealand. This is a great mixture that you have.

SB: Yes. Any sound that I had heard. I am a sound person. Everything has sound to me. For me every language has its own special sounds. I tried to take as many as I could and apply it in there. That was very difficult.

EM: Did that help with the rhythm because language has its own rhythm too?

SB: Not really. The vocables were based on the rhythms that I was familiar with through other songs of mainly Haudenosaunee tradition that I have created and known. Of course, I am familiar with many songs not of Haudenosaunee origin and those too influenced the rhythms I used. Essentially all of the sounds that I have known were an influence on what was created for “Bones”. Rhythms that are very quick are influenced by the planting songs of the Haudenosaunee tradition. Those are very slow in the beginning and then all of a sudden the pulse becomes very fast. The earth has a kind of murmuring sound and it’s louder in some places and softer in others. It is always the same sound.  Every place that I have been around the world, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, wherever, the earth has the same sound. Under our feet it has the same sound. The only thing that is different are the textures.

All that I did was to take the rhythms that I have heard and apply it to the music material of “Bones”. The sounds like ‘ka’, ‘nu’, do not mean anything in terms of an individual, but when I would apply it to the rhythm I heard, then that is when they took on a meaning, but not in the terms of the ‘o’ or the ‘ma’. They took a meaning in terms of the texture that I was trying to achieve in that song but not a meaning in terms of individual words. That is a separate thing. Then when I would apply the word to tell the story of “Bones” because in an opera you tell the story in the song I wanted the story to be told in song but not English. That was when all those years talking about when does the texture and the feeling come into play. The story is being told on another level. You are not going to understand the story on a basic level because you will not grasp that “Oma Bema” means “Earth Baby” unless you are familiar with that language. And because I just made up that language no one is going to grasp that.

EM: But everyone will get the feeling of it.

SB: Yes. I had one guy who came from Los Angeles. He was coming to Banff, but he arranged his trip earlier when he heard about the performance of “Bones”. He attended the first performance of “Bones” and I talked to him afterwards. He said, “You need to change the show.”  I asked, “Why do I need to change it?” He said, “There is one scene in there about the contact period when the Wind Spirit [played by Jani Lauzon] comes on.” Jani played the guitar in a very rough manner. We called it the “garish guitar scene,” only some 30 to 40 seconds in length, happening on just an outcropping of the stage, not in its main area at all. He said, “You need to change that. After that there are two scenes where they talk English, including the songs. That jolts the audience. Then it goes back to the other language. I was so confused.” I said, “I do not need to change it then, because at that moment that was what you are supposed to feel about the contact period. We were here in North America all by ourselves and then these foreigners came and we got all confused. It was very disruptive to us. That was how I wanted you to feel.”

EM: That was intentional.

SB: I told him that was what I planned.

EM: And it worked!

SB: He said it was a very different idea than what he had of theatre. I told him if he came to see my work, I would not be using the established norms. “You are not going to be sitting back as a comfortable audience person watching this show. You are going to be involved in it. If that is what you felt at that moment, that was exactly how I wanted you to feel at that moment. I do not think I need to change anything.” He said, “OK, I am going to have to think about that.”

EM: That must have been a reassuring response.

SB: Yes, and making a person re-think their whole idea of theatre.

EM: How large a theatre do you think would be ideal for “Bones”? Would you prefer to have it outside?

SB: I would say that Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre [2000 seats] would be an ideal size. [http://www.mirvish.com/OurTheatres/Princess.html] The Eric Harvie Theatre at Banff is large, 953 seats, and we sold it out. That is the first time in the history of the Eric Harvie Theatre that it sold out. That theatre has been there some sixty years, and it was an aboriginal production that sold it out. The second aboriginal production that sold it out was the film “Atanarjuat”. Those have been the only events that have ever managed to sell out the theatre. We sold out for all three shows of “Bones”.

EM: Are you thinking of remounting it and taking it on tour?

SB: I would like to. Since I have been home here, I have not been going back to Banff. I was really burnt out after “Bones”. It was four years of a lot of work. I did not have to write the grants but I had to write all of the blurbs for the grants. Then making sure it happened in the way it was supposed to happen in terms of process. I learned a lot in terms of how to facilitate the process. And that is how I continue to work. “Celebrating Our Gifts” at the Sanderson Centre in February last year was a similar kind of show where it was all woven together. We had the Pappy Johns Band [an award-winning blues band formed in 2000 with Murray Porter, Faron Johns, Oren Doxtator, Don Powless, and Joe Mahfoud; http://www.torontobluessociety.com/0304cov_rezblues.htm] perform but they performed within their little segment and their segment fitted the story. It was not just people coming on stage and performing. Those who got the story, did, and those who didn’t get it there was still material for them to capture. In terms of our storytelling you can hear a story fifty times in your lifetime and you find something new in the story every time. It is the same thing that I do on the stage.

EM: Do you have any kind of target audience or do you hope that everyone will get it?

SB: For me, “Bones” is for anybody. I think anybody can understand the story. That is why we want to tour it. With “Celebrating Our Gifts” at the 800-seat or so Sanderson Centre in Brantford, I knew that we could draw on the around 20,000 Haudenosaunee population of the area. It is not big and it has a very short stage but I knew that the majority of that audience would be from Six Nations. The theatre is only twenty minutes away. That show celebrated the arts of Six Nations’ performers. We almost sold out that show with only some sixty seats short. I am saying so myself but I thought it was a good show. We tried to put as many Six Nations’ performers as possible either in the text of the show or as performers on stage in an honourable way. Because I have been a performer all of my life I have gone through all the ways that they want to portray an aboriginal performer on stage. I’ve been there and for me I have no use for tokenism or sensationalism. My shows are never going to be like that. For me our visual arts and our performing arts are just as valid as that of anybody from anywhere around the world. In my shows I am not going to do anything that will take us back to that time.

EM: Presentation with integrity.

SB: Yes, with authenticity and integrity in the performance. I have performed since I was little on almost every stage in North America. I have been there so I am not going to do that in any show that I am in charge of. It has to be an honourable show for my people. Then if it is done that way, the audience takes care of itself. The audience will come to appreciate it.

EM: It is a learning experience too.

SB: For my shows, yes. I am always trying to teach something. Also, as aboriginal performers we never have had sufficient support to do our arts. Accordingly, we have built-in survival mechanisms and can do things very efficiently founded on group dynamics, group working skillls to get us to our goal faster with whatever resources we have. Those are skills that we have as a people. Some of our lands are not the greatest lands in the world and yet we live and survive there. We have these skills inside us that we use all of the time to achieve our goal. Often we do not realize that we are using that. We have to put this project on and it is budgeted at $150,000, but only $50,000 has come. But somehow it happens. It is because we know how to use our skills and to manage our resources.

EM: To pull people together.

SB: Because your biggest resource is your people. We know how to do that because we work in groups and we live in groups. When we live on a reserve it is all one people there and we learn how to live as one people. So when you have to put together a show such as “Celebrating Our Gifts”, my budget for that was $10,000.

EM: How many people did you have?

SB: We had some hundred performers on stage. It was hard work because we had to have so many rehearsals. We could only pay a very small performance fee, but they were all agreeable to it. They had to be agreeable about it because it was a celebration of our arts here at Six Nations. I had a disagreement with one of the persons at the Sanderson Centre because she said your audience is going to be the subscribers. I said: “No, It won’t be. I bet 95 per cent of the audience will be from Six Nations.” She disagreed with me on how I wrote it. I wrote it in our vernacular and she wanted me to change that. I told her I would not change it. For “Bones” people came from all over, California, Toronto, Lethbridge, Edmonton, because there is a very international audience at Banff.

EM: Because of your long experience as a performer you have a good sense of your audience.

SB: I know what kinds of things people ask and how audiences have changed over time. That is also why I do not want to go backwards as a performer because I have seen all of that. We did a show that was a fundraiser for a museum in this desert canyon. It was so cold there at night. They did not provide any chairs, but they would not allow us performers to leave that canyon, probably 20 miles out of town. There was no food or drink. It was summer and everyone had shorts on, not dressed for this cold. They would not let us go anywhere because they were scared we would not come back. That was the old response to aboriginal performers. Thirty or forty years ago they would not let aboriginal performers go because they thought they would not return. Anyway we did that show two years ago and the organizers still had that idea. I was so mad. I really spoke up about that and I complained. There were aboriginal performers from many different places. The ones from the far north were fine with the cold, if not the no-food situation.

EM: You mean the Inuit?

SB: Yes, but the guys from Mexico were frozen. The dancers from Hawaii were so cold as they dance with no shoes. What they were doing was extremely detrimental to the performers. You cannot allow dancers to get cold as they can rip their muscles. I talked to the woman and our call time was 11 or 12. We had to go down there and do sound checks. I had asked if we would be coming back to the hotel and they said: “Yes, but take everything.” So we had taken everything. Then they said, we are not taking you back into town. We had all of our stuff so then suddenly they cancelled our transportation.

EM: It was a dirty trick!

SB: Yes. I then asked that woman because it was six hours before we had to perform, why could we not go back into town. None of us had to perform until around 9 p.m. and we were finished with our sound checks at 2 p.m. in the afternoon. I said: “It is like six hours that we are going to be sitting here as it only takes some five minutes for us to get ready.” And there was no place to sit because they had not provided chairs. It was bad. The Hawaiian group was so upset.

EM: That would affect the performance too.

SB: I just went after that woman. I said: “This is crap. This was how we were treated forty years ago.” I told her that in my whole life as a performer I had never missed a performance when I was supposed to perform. We had not eaten since 9 a.m. in the morning and they had no plans for us to provide food except for cold sandwiches and cold drinks.

EM: That is terrible mismanagement!

SB: That is what I told them: “I am never going to work for you again.”

EM: Was this in the States?

SB: Yes. I entirely disagree with that form of treatment. I think there must be a better way. I told her we are all cultural performers and we will all be here on time. Where would we go in town anyway? We arrived there on Friday night to perform Saturday and we were flying out on Sunday.

EM: Has that ever happened again?

SB: No. That was the only time I had seen that happen since I was a child performer. The others were so glad that I ranted at her. I went back to where the caterers were on the other side where they were preparing a $600 a plate meal. I told the caterers could we have some hot coffee as all the performers are over by the performing space with no hot food and no chairs. The catering company was really good to us, giving us pots of coffee, cream, sugar, cups periodically. When they started serving the hors d’oeuvres the waiters would bring platters over to us and they were warm.

EM: You had to go and get it though.

SB: Yes. The organizers only had supplied the cold drinks and sandwiches for us.

EM: Has that frustration of not being taken seriously as a First Nations’ artist ever come into your own work?

SB: No. That does not belong to us. That is a relationship with other people; it is not our doing on our side. I do not put that in because that is not ours to do. Because we have had to always work together, that is what we are about. I want to present our view. We do not do that although we can react to that other action. We have always welcomed people. We have been stopped by prejudice and all of those things but on our side, we have always remained welcoming. Even in this whole situation with Caledonia, our people still want to go to the shops but they stop us from going.  It is not our doing. Just as the version that Channel 11 CHCH-TV is showing. They are blocking out the non-aboriginal faces. The Caledonians blocking our way are not shown but they are showing our faces in full view, not blocked out. That is very distinct racist behaviour by CHCH-TV. In this community we have finally said that CHCH is not allowed here any more. CHCH started out so well in their reporting, but I think they must have had a change of producer because this stuff started happening. The tire fire only went on for two hours, but even now you constantly see reruns of that.

We do not have control of the media and we would not do that. It is not a part of our culture to exclude. Especially in Haudenosaunee culture as it is all about respect. That is why I do not put those other things into my shows because that is not the way or a part of how I live. It is not what I was taught and it is not a part of our teachings. When I am on stage it is from my perspective only and from my people’s perspective. It does not include anything of the Western aspects. Even in the use of the theatre it is very different. When we think theatre we use it in our way. In “Bones” the Spirit Woman’s house is offstage and they wanted to move it over and put it onstage. I said that I did not want it onstage. It was extreme stage left and it sat there so the audience could just see it on the lip.

EM: Was that that also where the garish guitar scene took place?

SB: That was on extreme stage right. They did not want either of those scenes placed in that way because you are not going to be able to put lights there, mikes for sound and so on. Even in “Celebrating Our Gifts” some of the performers entered from the audience. In “The Lion King” they enter from the audience but that is unusual in Western theatre.

EM: So is the audience a part of the whole show?

SB: Yes. You are all in the whole thing. When I do a show it is about everybody. For me, the audience has to be involved even if it is just turning the head. That is why I do those kinds of things in a show.

EM: Ideally, what kind of feeling would you like to have the audience in after seeing a performance of “Bones”?

SB: I would like them to want to come back to see it a second time, obviously! A number of persons who have seen a performance of “Bones” have told me that if they had know what it was going to be like, they would have bought a ticket for every performance. One of the reasons was that there were so many layers of meanings as that fellow from California told me, but he could not get a ticket for the next performances because they were sold out. He told me that his wife felt the same way. They were so enthralled and involved that they could not take everything in through one performance. Something I want is that when they come back they will learn something new on each experience of it. Perhaps that will evolve. And a central hope is that a conviction would arise that we have to do something to take care of Mother Earth.

EM: To encourage environmental responsibility.

SB: And also responsibility to each other as humankind, as that is what our prophecies talk about. That is how we are going to destroy the earth. When the earth is destroyed we all are going to go. For me if someone can get that whole message, we have to care for each other and we have to care for the earth. We have to do it ourselves as obviously the governments are not doing it. Somebody has to put pressure on these governments to make the changes that have to be made. If not soon, we will be in a downward spiral and the earth will not be able to come back. If that message gets out and someone understands it, I would feel that “Bones” has served its purpose, but I think that is also an evolution. That is why I think the first thing is that they have to come back and see it again.

I was out for my walk at about 6 a.m. one morning in Banff and this woman came up to me. She said “I want to thank you. Last night I watched ‘Bones’ and it was like my life was going in front of my eyes. All of a sudden I made so many decisions when I came out of there about my life. I called my mother last night and said this is what we must do. I am going to go back to school and try to figure out what I can do to avert a catastrophe.”

EM: I get the sense of a new self-respect.

SB: Yes, that was certainly what she got out of it. She said that probably if I see you again in a few years, I would tell you that it was a life-changing experience for me. And this all happened at 11 last evening.  She went on to say that she could hardly sleep as she was so excited. Now she said that she had to figure out how to get enough money to get back home in New Brunswick, I think, and do all of these things. For her, it was really life-affirming.

EM: Now after all of this conversation about “Bones” I am going to bring back the subject of children. Is one of your present goals to do more work with children?

SB: I have always worked with kids. It is not my favorite thing, as it’s hard. That is not because I do not like it, but because it is too loud for me. There is too much noise. I do everything with sound. I am good at working with kids, but by the end of the day I am too exhausted from the noise. I will do small projects with kids like this three-week camp that I just finished. Perhaps I will do something else with kids next summer. I like this camp because it is called Strengthening Our Identities Through the Arts. I think this camp is very valuable. In the past I have taught in all of the schools here. I was thinking of doing a ‘Baby Bones’ kind of show.

One thing we did not talk about is why it is called “Bones”. It is called that because bones are the structure of the human body and the earth is the foundation of everything. Our bones are the foundation of the human body. It is the strength of Mother Earth’s foundation that our bones give us shape and structure.

EM: Thank you so much for this interesting interview. I have enjoyed hearing your voice and the passion in it as you speak about your work.

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Indigenous Dance