Speaking from the Heart of Collective Memories - by Catherine Martin
The filmmakers of The Journals of Knud Rasmussen write, 'This film asks questions among others, about vanished peoples, colonization, cultural amnesia, effaced memory, Christianization and the complete erasure of a religion - especially in the absence of a literary tradition in most Aboriginal oral cultures.'
As a Mi'kmaq filmmaker and storyteller I am always challenged with this 'absence' and the issues described above by the filmmakers. I welcome the invitation to engage in a critical discourse around issues of memory and history, and the filmmaking of Isuma or other artists concerned with the recovery of lost memory and effaced cultural history. It is a subject near and dear to my heart, one that I struggle with, that I am challenged by others about. I have a firm belief that the story is within our living memories, in our connection to our ancestors, in our genes, in our blood, in our spirit. The story is sacred and requires to be treated in a sacred, respectful manner by accepting the responsibility from within our communities to continue to tell the story from our place of knowing.
I attended the opening night screening of The Journals of Knud Rasmussen at the Atlantic Film Festival in September 2006. As a Mi'kmaq filmmaker and storyteller, it was one of the films I most wanted to see, especially after the amazing work of Atanarjuat The Fast Runner. That film was a revelation to me and a reaffirmation that the telling of our stories, from our perspective (Aboriginal, Inuit, M_tis) is different and necessary. I wanted to see The Journals of Knud Rasmussen because it was relevant to much of the work that I have been doing as a storyteller and filmmaker committed to telling our stories from our worldview, our perspective and our eyes.
The film was complicated and required my full concentration to absorb the many layers or nuances within the story itself. I had to see it a few more times before I was comfortable with understanding what the storyteller was saying. In the Mi'kmaq world it is the way we listen to stories - over and over again until we understand them well enough to tell the story to someone else, carrying on the oral tradition. There was so much to understand, so much to miss in watching the first time. It left so many questions and required an opportunity to discuss the story with the storyteller.
I learned a little more about the story after listening to the codirector, Norman Cohn, speak to the audience after the screening. I understood from his perspective about how the story was told, helping me understand the non-Inuit perspective, and how it must have been for them to be in this world of the Inuit at that time. Still, I felt there was something missing - I needed to understand more. I read two articles about the film, which interviewed Zach and Norman. I learned a bit more from that which answered some of my questions, but not all.
It was not until I heard Zach interviewed on cbc radio that I finally felt that I understood what was going on. I understood because, as a Mi'kmaq person I needed to hear from the storyteller, listen to his words in the traditional way one hears a story. What would help complete my exploration of this story is to be able to sit across from Zach the storyteller and hear him, see him, tell the story. It would have been wonderful to be part of the community experience, when they screened the film with the community. I would like to know what they said and see how they reacted. I did learn from Zach about some of reactions from his community. It was not unlike the reaction from the Mi'kmaq community when they get to see themselves on film or see their relatives, ancestors acting out a story that they all know so well. This process helps me as a listener, as a viewer to hear the story and see it as it is told, so that I can watch the storyteller as well as listen.
When I saw Atanarjuat The Fast Runner the year it was released, I also saw two other films during the festival I will never forget. One of the films was Is the Crown At War With Us? by Alanis Obomsawin. This is a documentary about the fishing dispute within Burnt Church, New Brunswick, and the Mi'kmaq/Maliseet Nation. The telling of the stories by those in the film was very powerful. Their accounts of the aggression and violence which occurred during that time were very emotional for me to watch.
The second film I watched was Rabbit-Proof Fence, a drama about the residential schools in Australia and the Aborigines' children taken from their communities to these schools. The story that was told brought alive the many, many stories and memories they had during this horrific time period in history. It parallels the stories of the residential schools here in Canada. The telling of this story is a beginning of healing for those who suffered so much. Making a drama, a movie that tells this story in many ways, validates and acknowledges that this did happen, as horrific as it was. This telling of the story as a way to begin a healing process is one of the most powerful methods that I know to help begin a dialogue over what many have been silent about.
The telling of the story, from the perspective of those whose lives it impacted, is vital to getting to the heart of the story, to the truth. I am committed to this and take the position that our stories need to be told by our own people. This is not saying that our stories should not be told from an outside perspective. If they are, then it should be understood that the story is coming from an outside worldview, written, directed and edited from outside the perspective of the people it is about. To accomplish the telling of a story from the First People perspective, it needs to be directed, written, produced, edited and researched by those from within that culture in order for it to truly be told in the purest sense. It is difficult to accomplish this when we as Aboriginal, Inuit and Metis do not have the resources to ensure that the process involves the very people the story is about.
As the first Mi'kmaq and First Nations filmmaker in the Atlantic region, I have come to this conclusion after making films by and about the Mi'kmaq community for over twenty years. I was raised within a Mi'kmaq family where stories were told to me all the time. I come from a wonderful tradition of storytellers who were basket-makers, trappers, hunters, fishers and prospectors. I can speak from a perspective that one can only get by being immersed in the culture.
As one of the founding directors of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), I honoured the work of the previous TVNC broadcasting organizations because they had spent twenty years before this station was created, telling stories from their perspective in their own time frame, most often in their own languages to each other. Those outside the culture and the language enjoyed the stories, watched them even if there was no translation. When tvnc agreed to widen their network for aptn to include the southern regions of the country, there was a lot of discussion about language and the need for English versioning so that all viewers can watch and understand the stories. The discussion and the debates over this continue to this day.
In all of this ongoing dialogue, the telling of the story from the perspective of the community, the Aboriginal perspective was taking a second seat to the importance of telling it for all to understand. The pressures of being a national network and the need to market the product to a wider audience than just Aboriginal, Inuit and Metis began to threaten the original intent of creating the network in the first place. This original intent was to have a place for our storytellers, from our communities, from our Aboriginal, Inuit and Metis perspectives. This was necessary because it was almost impossible to compete with the mainstream traditional venues, broadcasters, funding agencies and departments in accessing resources to tell our own stories and broadcast them.
The hope was that if the access and opportunity to produce stories for television was in place, then we could in turn develop the stories in our own way, not dictated by mainstream regulations, rules and formats. Atanarjuat The Fast Runner was a true testament to this. It was not a traditional mainstream length, it was not told in a traditional mainstream storytelling format, beginning-middle-end, and it was allowed to breathe, to tell the story in its own time. It was a success with Aboriginal, Inuit and Metis and mainstream societies. It was understood around the world and received the highest awards a film can get. This is affirmation that the telling of our stories, from a different place of knowing, from our view, our eyes, our hearts is important and necessary.
The concern that I have about this wonderful network (APTN) is that it will forget where it came from, why it was created and whom it was created for, if it has to keep up with mainstream standards and ideologies. It is my personal view and one that I felt so strongly about that I decided to step down from the board and go back to creating films and telling the stories from the Mi'kmaq perspective. It is the place where I am most comfortable because it is the place that I come from. Being Mi'kmaq is all that I am and will ever be. I was born Mi'kmaq and will die Mi'kmaq. The stories I tell, no matter what story, will always be from a Mi'kmaq perspective.
This all leads me to discussing my own work and why I chose to pursue a career in filmmaking, or more to the point, why it chose me. I am a descendent of a storytelling tradition. I have been nurtured by storytelling, raised to understand life through stories and taught to remember them as they are told to me over and over again. I always knew the power of telling stories and especially those told from the heart, from the place of knowing, from the one who experienced it. When I went to elementary school I learned at a very young age what discrimination and racism are. I learned through reading stories, articles and books written about Aboriginal peoples throughout history and about current issues. My eyes were opened wide to this cruel world where Aboriginal people are not considered the proud, loving people that I had grown up with. It was confusing as a young person to be told by those in authority, those who are your teachers, those who supposedly come from a place of knowing, that we are inferior. It was tough to listen to and was embarrassing at times to identify as a Mi'kmaq among those who were not.
I made it through those years and they were good lessons to learn. It made me a stronger person. It also helped me to mold my life in later years when the opportunity to make films was presented to me by the National Film Board's Atlantic Executive Producer at the time, Germaine Wong, and Mi'kmaq Association of Cultural Studies Director, Dr. Peter Christmas. I was asked to direct a film on Mi'kmaq and Maliseet artists, Kwa' Nu'Te'.
I agreed to the challenge because I knew that I could do this. I saw stories produced on my grandfather, Mike Martin, on my dad, Ben Martin and thought then that I could have done that. In fact, I thought that I could have done it better since I knew them and understand their world as a Mi'kmaq. So I made my first film with the goal to learn how to make a great film and one day make the film I needed to make. I knew that Annie Mae Aquash (nee Pictou) had a story to tell and wasn't given the chance when she was murdered in 1975. She was silenced by someone who had no right to make judgment on another's right to life. I knew she wanted to tell a story and one day I would help her tell that story. That has become my role as a storyteller who uses film as a medium to reach the audiences, to help others tell the story of the people.
Throughout this dialogue on issues of memory and history, I am reminded of what one of my teachers, Shirley Bear, once said in my first film, called Minqon Minqon:Wosquotum Elsonwagon (Shirley Bear: Reclaiming the Balance of Power) 1990. In this film she speaks about appropriation and the importance of telling the story from within, from our minds, our hearts and our memory. She also discusses the importance of ceremony to prepare oneself as part of the creative process and to reconnect to our ancestors' sacred stories. Her teachings have helped me to tell stories through a Mi'kmaq perspective. The only way I know how.
I have come to believe in this as a way to bring our stories into the future in a way that will not confuse our generations to come when they are searching for truths, for identity, for teachings. The stories told from our perspective will help to keep our culture, our language, our worldview alive. Up to this point in time, it has been very difficult to wade through histories and the stories that have been told by others outside of our own worldview and search for the hidden messages in these histories that have been sent to us in time by our ancestors before us. The impact of someone else's imposed value system on our own has caused much confusion and destruction of our own ways. The writing of our histories, our stories, the interpretation of our songs and art from outside perspectives has caused much confusion for those today who are trying to search for our own truths, our identity as a people. The truths are within our collective memories; the identity that we so desperately need in order to heal our communities after five hundred years can be found through the process of telling our own stories, in our own way, from our own perspective, our own eyes and from our collective memories as a people.
Continuing to allow those from outside of our culture, our nations, the privilege to keep telling our stories from their outside perspectives is only doing an injustice to our children and our future generations. The honourable and respectful thing that one who is in a position of power, of privilege, can do is to use that influence to ensure that who tells our stories, who gets financial support to produce films about ourselves, are those from within the place of knowing, who possess the cultural capital, property and authority to tell the stories of our people. It is time to relinquish the control and allow the storytellers to reclaim their rightful place in society and take the place of honour and privilege that existed before the impact of Eurocentric values and culture were spread over our own culture like blankets infested with smallpox. I am sure that Zacharias Kunuk understands much of what I am trying to describe because he has accomplished this in the telling of his stories using film as a way to ensure that we begin to remember. He has broken through the wall which has been a barrier for Aboriginal, Inuit and Indigenous storytellers. He has been acknowledged and awarded highest honours from within his community and from outside, for telling the story from within, from the Inuit perspective. I honour Zacharias Kunuk and his partner Mr. Cohn, for paving a very long road for other storytellers to travel into the future on. Welalin. (Thank you) M'sit Nokamaq (All My Relations).