In summer 2015, I joined a most unusual journey that launched in the Downtown Eastside and travelled across Canada. The “Train of Thought” brought together First Nations and settler/immigrant artists, young adults and elders – people exploring ways we can/will/do live together in the shadow of colonialism as they create art with, for and about their communities.
We were traveling to learn how to live on shared territory. In the words of Vancouver Parks Board Coordinator jil p. weaving, “We cannot proceed as we have for the last 150 years. We must find new ways of living and working together.”
Led by Jumblies Theatre in Ontario, the Train of Thought national tour involved 90 local partners (including Vancouver Moving Theatre), 70 artists and knowledge-keepers, and visits to over 25 stops in nine provinces to big cities, small towns, villages and reserves, and over the lands and waterways of Canada.
In Vancouver, travelers journeyed from Stanley Park (“On the Land”), to the Downtown Eastside (“The Big House “ cultural sharing feast), from Yaletown (TRACKS: the 7th National Community Play and Art Symposium) back to the Downtown Eastside (a Leave-taking Ceremony at Pacific Central Station).
At stops across Canada, there were acknowledgements of ancestral territory, welcoming and departure ceremonies, cultural sharing, performances, workshops and always artful feasts. Some stops also offered conferences, Cree language lessons, water ceremonies, Talking Treaties workshops or side trips to First Nation heritage sites, commemorative sites and culturally modified trees marking significant events and places. We were all aware that we were traveling across Canada during the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
At every stop there were also offerings from the travelers… Eliza StarChild Knockwood (Mi’kmaq) gathered waters from across Canada for a water ceremony in Prince Edward Island (to offer waters gathered to the Atlantic Ocean). At Priscillia Tait’s request Vancouver Moving Theatre asked for one minute of silence to honor the memories of murdered and missing Aboriginal women and girls (and to support the call for investigation). Sharon Kallis’s team contributed the foundation of a pair of boots to be woven from local fibers across Canada. The travelers sang a traveling song by Russell Wallace (Stl’atl’imx) that was specially commissioned for the trip.
At every place we visited, a Train of Thought traveler introduced our group: sharing who we were, where we came from and our purpose in coming to this place. In the words of Aaron Nelson Moody (Tracks Symposium presenter) “we introduce ourselves in that way so we know where things come from, not to separate us but to try and find ways to link us together.” At every stop, we were asked by First Nation speakers to carry messages across Canada about the need to work together and to honor those we have lost. At every stop, we were told that humans need to come together to take care of our waters and soil, because earth is the only home that we have. Without healthy water, healthy soil, we get sick.
Our trip was filled with bumps and wonders. Thankfully, protocols of respect mixed with genuine good will and respect for the land, our hosts and fellow travelers helped us to navigate tricky territory. We were doing the work of building relationships, while learning about the land and protocols over which we traveled. We were witnessing/experiencing/participating in art that is influenced and changed by the land in which it resides, by cultural practices and protocols emerging from the land and by those arriving from the four corners of the globe.
Our big challenge was the sheer number of places we visited, people we met, activities we joined; the volume of cultural sharing and teaching. The responsibilities of witnessing were overwhelming. We had few opportunities to pause and reflect: to digest what we were experiencing. We traveled faster than my capacity to process, leaving me frequently at a total loss of words to express what I experienced and learned. .
To my surprise, I learned that many places east of Ottawa have no treaty agreements ceding land. I learned that the governance structure of North America rests upon treaty agreements, many of them older than the founding of Canada and the USA – including treaty agreements with the Mohawk and Mahican peoples co-signed by my ancestors in the Hudson Valley. We are all treaty people, governed by the terms of these historic agreements.
In the words of Angela White of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, “This is our history. This is not just Aboriginal history. It is our history as Canadians.”
How do we live together on shared territory? To move forward in sustainable ways, we need to work together: to honour who we are, where we have come from, the stories we carry and the challenges we face together. The first step is to build relationship.
Savannah Walling is a first generation American Canadian immigrant from Oklahoma and a 12th generation descendent of French Huguenots who found homes on Manhattan Island. Her tangled roots go further on Turtle Island than she has concrete knowledge. She has lived and worked in the Downtown Eastside for 35 years.
When I was Eight Years Old
Testimonial from a participant in the Train of Thought
When I was eight years old, my grandparents Sarah and Thomas Tait went on the Constitutional Express train to Ottawa, which travelled across Canada in defence of Aboriginal treaty rights. I really wanted to go along but they said my education was more important. Maybe so, but I was very disappointed and for years I wondered what it would have been like.
When Vancouver Moving Theatre gave me the opportunity to travel to Winnipeg on the “ Train of Thought,” I was delighted and very grateful. When we boarded in Saskatoon, the conductor warned us not to vote for Stephen Harper because he wants to shut down VIA Rail. That would be a shame, since taking the train is such a wonderful experience.
Never having seen the prairies before, my eyes soaked up the spectacular scenery under the big blue sky. My enjoyment was increased by being able to share experiences with many different kinds of artists from all across the country. Some of us joined in a project of gathering natural materials like corn-husks, roots, and small flexible branches and weaving them into a boot. It reminded me of when my grandma unraveled sweaters for yarn, way before recycling came to our cities.
Of course there was music, too. A few of us had fun learning a great song Russell Wallace composed especially for the trip, and when a man named Eugene played his stringed instrument, it felt like we were sitting around a campfire. Music is so HEALING! Try it yourself- sing a song, or whatever your heart desires.