Theatrical Medicine: Aboriginal performance, ritual and commemoration

Theatrical Medicine: Aboriginal performance, ritual and commemoration

The Medicine Project

Michelle La Flamme

Dr. Michelle La Flamme is an Afro-NDN performer, activist and educator who completed a Ph.D. at UBC [University of British Columbia] in English literature (May 2006). In her other life, she is an avid performer and has worked in film and video production. She tries her best to bridge the world of academia and her creative life and she is often asked to speak or perform at Canadian conferences addressing representations of race in contemporary Canadian art and literature. She was born and raised here on the “best Coast” and has had the good fortune of taking her ideas abroad as a guest lecturer in Germany, Spain and The Netherlands. These days she is particularly interested in Native/Black issues as her bloodlines encompass both sides of the 49th and include Métis, Creek and African-American strains. Currently, she teaches Canadian literature, Academic Writing, Introduction to Fiction and Introduction to Poetry at UBC. She makes the time to write, perform and be involved in community activism when she has the energy.

There are many different definitions of Medicine. As a woman of mixed heritage (Métis, African-Canadian and Creek) I have been exposed to many Aboriginal teachings and ceremonies. My own definition of medicine is based on the teachings of traditional elders who have shared their cultural insight with me regarding the power and meaning of medicine. There are Medicine Wheel ceremonies that involve respect for the four directions and the balance between the physical, mental, spiritual and emotional aspects of an individual. Medicine can be understood in a psychological or philosophical way whereby individuals go through a form of catharsis when they are guided by the teachings. There is medicine involved in seeking advice from elders by way of offering them tobacco. There is participatory medicine involved in being a witness or participant in talking circles, and there is medicine that is physical in the form of tobacco, sweet grass, sage and cedar. There is medicine in ceremony whether these be sweat lodge ceremonies, moon lodge ceremonies, naming ceremonies or longhouse ceremonies. There is medicine in the practice of creating art whether that be carving, weaving or painting. Some traditional languages do not have a word for theatrical performance, so they use the closest word, which is ceremony. These cultural beliefs about medicine and practices which are referred to as medicinal reflect a belief in the power of performance and the possibility of the performance being medicinal for any and all of these cultural associations with medicine. The performances and plays that I examine in this essay can be understood as medicine in that they bring balance to the witnesses through honouring the deceased by way of naming rituals, they bring balance to communities by showing the humanity of Aboriginal women and they provide a cathartic ritual or ceremony for the release of trauma…

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