Spotlight On: Bruce Naokwegijig

Ontario Presents and its member presenting organizations recognize the importance of presenting Indigenous artists, stories and culture as part of their presenting practice. As we continue to encourage the respectful presentation of Indigenous art, we will be featuring an Indigenous artist each month in our e-newsletter and blog. Our sincere thanks to Denise Bolduc for conceiving of and continuing to support this Spotlight Series.

Spotlights are developed with the artist, and are intended simply to share the artist’s work and foster greater awareness and understanding of the strength and diversity of Indigenous art available in Ontario and beyond.

Bruce Naokwegjig headshotThis month we spoke with Bruce Naokwegijig, an actor, director, and Artistic Director of Debajehmujig Theatre Group, the only professional theatre company located on a Reserve in Canada.

To start off, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your artistic practice?

I am Odawa from the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory here on Mnidoo Mnising (Manitoulin Island), currently living in Wewebjiwong (Little Current).

Debajehmujig has introduced me to a number of arts practices such as dance, acting for stage, improvisational theatre, mask and clown, stilt walking, fire breathing and much more. Many artists have come through Debajehmujig to teach us young ones throughout the past.

At Debajehmujig we are also getting back into our cultural roots of traditional teachings and knowledge. My artistic practice consists of using many or some elements of what I have been taught over the years. Debajehmujig works as a creation ensemble, drawing from our own knowledge and understanding of our world and artistic skills that inform our productions.  

You've been with Debajehmujig since you were very young; how did your involvement start?

The first thing I did with Debajehmujig was a production called Lysistrata. At that time I only did some of the workshops, such as paper mache puppets and stilt walking. It was a summer workshop that was for the community members and I took part, later to find that us stilt walkers were being placed into the show. It was a parade that started in the heart of Wiikwemkoong and we took the audience down to the beach… where the actual performance took place. There were quite a few community members in this production.

… I started in theatre at age eleven back in 1991. My first acting debut was in Lupi – The Great White Wolf. This performance was done in the bush where there was a clearing that could fit an audience and a stage. Lupi – The Great White Wolf was translated from English to Aanishnaabemowin (Ojibwe, Pottawattami, Odawa, also reffered to as The Three Fires Confederacy).

Growing up I have been surrounded with fluent language speakers. My parents and all my aunts and uncles spoke in the language, but none of my siblings spoke it, nor most of my cousins. Working with this production, I was taught how to read and write in the language. I am not a fluent speaker to this day, yet I can easily read what has been written down. Unfortunately not always able to understand what I am reading. Someday.

You have travelled around the world with Debajegmujig, sharing stories and collaborating with other theatre creators. What has been your biggest takeway from this kind of global exchange?

I would say that the cultural exchange between the collaborating bodies has been my greatest takeaway. Debajehmujig has always had a cultural point of view being from the Aanishnaabek territory. Each collaboration has had learning and listening elements to the productions. Sharing our own personal stories with each other as people and creating work that exemplifies our cultural similarities, and what makes us, us, with different worldviews, stories, culture and history.

You were part of the touring company of The Global Savages, a Debajehmujig community-engaged touring creation that actually inspired Ontario Presents to begin providing more resources to support community engagement projects among our presenters. Can you talk a bit about your experience touring this piece?

The concept of The Global Savages came before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to light.  Almost a taking back of the word “savage”, since only recently (1963) were we able to practice any traditional ceremonies and pow wows, and since the last residential school closed in 1997, which was to rid the people of all their cultural knowledge and language (savagery). 

The Global Savages has been created to share our oral traditional history of Mshiikenh Mnis (North America). Listening to our knowledge holders, we came to understand that there is still a lot of knowledge that our elders are sharing to this day. Some have begun to write about the past and our knowledge of our peoples.

Upon understanding the breadth of knowledge that is still with us, Debajehmujig decided to create the Savage (taking the word and hearing our story is why you wonder what stigma gave us that title), place them on the stage with our 18,000 year old oral history, native worldviews, and share it. 

Your predecessor Joe Osawabine said that, "the intended impact of [Debajehmujig's] work is to improve the quality of life for native people in Canada, by nurturing positive relationships between Aboriginal cultural communities and the rest of society." As Artistic Director of Debajehmujig, and an artist who has toured in Ontario and beyond, how do you feel that we as presenters can support this goal?

One way to support the intended impact to improve the quality life for society and native people is to communicate the good things our native people are doing with their communities and neighbours.

We are still dealing with the racism and the old mentality of the past with residential schools, and the Children’s Aid Society, and the sixties scoop… today it is now our turn to share with the country and the world our worldview and beliefs, to understand and learn of us and not the other way around, where we learn about the newcomers and get assimilated into their worldview.

It can no longer be “kill the Indian in the child”. Instead we must take the new understanding that native people are lawyers, judges, teachers and actors, artists, etc. That we can learn – outside of assimilation - what the government and society wanted us to learn in the past, in our own way, without losing our culture, language, and traditional ways.

A lot of negativity is still out there in the world - this view that natives are still the stereotypes that were created. It would be well supported that natives have a greater view, that native culture has vitality, and this good quality of life can be supported through showing and hearing the good stories our communities have and continue to create.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Our thanks to Bruce for this thoughtful discussion.

Photo by Samantha Lynn Brennan