Melaina Sheldon: Indigenous women and First Nations Theater.
In recent years the major buzz has been in sports with the misappropriation of indigenous people as team mascots. While the representation of native people is important the aspect of how native people represent themselves is equally so.
Internationally, the struggle of breaking the barrier in the entertainment and arts industry is a large focus for the future of indigenous people. Canadian First Nations member, Melaina Sheldon speaks of how she feels First Nations theatre has impacted her and its effects in society.
Sheldon, of the Teslin Tlingit Council from Teslin, Yukon Territory Canada has contributed much of her life to First Nations theatre. Graduating from high school in Whitehorse, and attending the University of Victoria where she double minored in Greek & Roman Studies and Indigenous Studies, achieving a Bachelors of Arts degree, Sheldon moved on quickly into theater. Having always felt a pull to acting but never doing more than a few classes during her education she later began her pursuit in an acting series near her home in the Yukon.
In 2008, Sheldon had auditioned for a public play for the Gwaandak Theatre’s Summer Play Reading Series, which according to Sheldon is the most cost-effective way to produce a play and find local talent who are interested in First Nations Theatre.
When first participating, Sheldon was selected to perform in Kenneth T. Williams’ play Bannock Republic. “What inspired me when I read this play was what was being said,” Sheldon commented. Referring to Williams’ representation of politics, reserve life and residential schools that were less talked about openly publicizing the issues. Sheldon states, “It was there that I saw the power of the art of theatre.”
In Sheldon’s experience, all plays are meant to say something of importance and reveal a face of humanity. An example of a work she feels that has stood out in this way is Keith Barker’s The Hours That Remain, in which she played Michelle. The play is takes on the unrecognized of numerous missing and murdered women in Canada. In recent years the issue has been lacking national attention, and within the last few months the Federal Government of Canada had rejected the request for a National Public Inquiry of the missing and murdered indigenous women.
In the Native Women’s Association of Canada Fact Sheet for the statistics of Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls in 2010 conducted on cases within 10 years, approximately 582 cases have been documented. Of these cases 67 percent were due to homicide or negligence; 4 percent were of suspicious death, which includes death caused by police, family or community members. Another 20 percent are cases of that are just for missing women and girls and the final 9 percent are of unknown cause of present circumstances. These statistics have risen and impact all of indigenous women within Canada as well as internationally, in places like New Zealand where these atrocities are frequent.
With issues like this that are being exposed within the arts and entertainment industry it creates a greater need for indigenous people in these roles and productions. For the Hours That Remain, the company would tour Canada to conduct this form of dialogue on the issues of missing aboriginal women and girls.
In most indigenous theater companies their goal is to create a dialogue within the audience, cast, crew, director and playwright to expand the knowledge on national and international issues. Sheldon, due to indigenous theater, feels “stronger in [her] beliefs and in [her] identity as a First Nations woman” thus becoming more approachable as an advocate and source of information in both theater and within her tribe on issues. In her community she is an active member on the General Council of the Teslin Tlingit Council’s Self-Government, directing decisions for her tribe that involve various issues, much of which include that of the concerns of indigenous women.
In regard to the historical treatment of indigenous people as entertainment, Sheldon has described her experience as one that in First Nations Theater allows you to step away from the stereotypical roles. Being that you are no longer entertaining non-natives but according to Sheldon, are “ ‘entertaining’ ourselves, in ‘our way’ – we set the standard and decide the stories that need to be told, as well as educating the rest of the world from a First Nations perspective.” Most visions of indigenous theater are to provide another form of support, advocacy and an outlet to for native creativity and voices.
Today, Sheldon also works as the Community Arts and Events Coordinator, helping coordinate the biennial gathering Ha Kus Teyea (The Tlingit Way). Sheldon advises anyone in the First Nations who has interests in theater but feels that they aren’t going to be recognized “that there most definitely is a space and need for us here!” For more information on getting involved in theater or attending events, Sheldon recommends contacting Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance (IPAA), Native Earth Performing Arts, and the Gwaandak Theatre, all of which can be found online. All of these groups look to provide experience, exposure and empowerment to indigenous voices for the education of all people on indigenous issues. With this type of mission, indigenous arts and entertainment will be in the forefront of indigenous peoples’ future.