Performance collage

The media-fest in Oka and Kahnawake in the summer of 1990 assaulted all of us with its images of threatened brutality. Canada, which has never seen its First Nations peoples as adults with important things to say, suddenly had to listen on native terms to native voices. Imagine, "Indians" shaking the very foundations of this country's government's status quo and, worst of all, its sense of decorum.

In December 1991, Wii Seeks led a few First Nations people in briefly occupying the Santa Maria, one of the Spanish flotilla replicas of Columbus' fleet, near San Juan, Puerto Rico. That theatrical gesture focused the eyes of the world, albeit briefly, directly on us, the First Nations peoples.

"If we hadn't done it, we might as well have invited insult to ourselves. I was not around 200 years ago, but I am today," said Wii Seeks afterwards. There is no question; we are saying it is time for Canadians and the other nations of the world to hear First Nations' opinions about all that has and is transpiring.

But who is speaking for First Nations peoples? Who is choosing to speak for native people and who is being chosen? Is it still the movies, romantic visions from Kevin Costner for mass consumption? Is it still the media, leering across razor wire barricades at masked Warriors? For many, these images are still the only images they have of First Nations people.

We've all heard generalizations about native people—even from other native people—but which ones count? Who defines "native" for the native people? I once heard someone say, "Tyin' a rag around your head and bangin' a drum doesn't make you an Indian." I have to agree, but what exactly does? Surely, it is not the officious red and white status cards some of us have been given.

Is a mixed-blood raised on the reserve less "native" than a full-blood raised in Detroit and therefore a less important voice? Should we be hearing more from traditionalists like the Elders and less from the new self-defining of the younger generation?

One thing is terribly clear. The governments of this country are still defining and determining who we are: B.C. Supreme Court Justice Allan McEachern's decision on the Gitskan-Wet'suwet'en case: Delgam Uukw vs. Her Majesty the Queen, March 8, 1991:

"The Indians have remained dependent for too long. Even a national annual payment of billions of dollars on Indian problems, which undoubtedly ameliorates some hardships, will not likely break this debilitating cycle of dependence..."

This statement was used to support his decision that First Nations peoples had their land rights extinguished long ago, in part because we're not really "Native" anymore. We rely on funding from non-native bodies that decide which of us is producing "good" art. To some degree then, some of the "good" native art that is currently being made has been enabled according to someone else's aesthetic.

Some First Nations artists have agreed to play by the rules: that if you're good enough, you'll get what you deserve. The truth is, however good an actor you may be, if you're not white, forget even auditioning for the thousands of lead roles that are written by a white, mainstream and for a supposedly white audience.

First Nations peoples are still working in a white-dominated industry. We still do not have equal access to media. The colour lines exist. Images of First Nations peoples seldom come from First Nations peoples themselves. This has been called "appropriation."

Jack Gray, President of the Writers Guild of Canada, defends the writers' right to write about whatever they choose: cultural appropriation is "fundamentally a question of freedom of expression."

We all, as writers, appropriate ideas. The cry against someone else telling stories about us is not about censorship; it is a warning to artists to be responsible - your freedom to write about us is the same freedom we have to cry out if you're writing "Al Jolson-esque" black-face portrayals. It is also the same cry from Oka and from that harbour in Puerto Rico: "We have something to say for ourselves!"

We, as First Nations artists, are beginning to talk about the true state of our societies, i.e. multi-generational trauma, abuse, suicide and alcoholism, colonialism and the throw-away culture. We are also in recovery, successfully seeking peace and justice through traditional means, being victorious in being seen and heard by the dominant culture, and setting an example for the world about respect for Mother Earth. These are all our stories and we are raising our voices to tell them.

I hope that we are really being heard. The worst oppression is silence - we talk, no one responds. Can we convert the overwhelming ignorance and denial of the native reality into a constructive appreciation and respect for these differences between us?

First Nations people are a people in exile. We have lost that which we knew, hence we have alienation, depression, rage, pain. We are acknowledging this for ourselves, and letting other people hear about it too. Constructive appreciation and respect is not being told, "Get over it, honey."

Let our stories speak for themselves. As artists and as First Nations peoples we put forth our identities, our sense of self, who we are and WHO WE ARE NOT through these stories. We thank you for sitting and experiencing these voices and their stories. They speak volumes about who we really are.

Ee mutl.

Evan Tlesla Adams

Evan Adams is a Coast Salish actor and physician from the Sliammon Band near Powell River, BC, Canada.

Evan stars in the Emmy-winning TV-movie "Lost in the Barrens" and its nominated sequel "Curse of the Viking Grave" and as Thomas Builds-The-Fire in ShadowCatcher Entertainment's SMOKE SIGNALS, written by Sherman Alexie and directed by Chris Eyre, for which he won Best Actor awards from the American Indian Film Festival, and from First Americans in the Arts, and a 1999 Independent Spirit Award. Evan is the past host of Aboriginal Peoples Television Network's #1-rated show Buffalo Tracks, starred in FallsApart Production's American feature The Business of Fancydancing, and had a recurring role on the CBC TV-series DA VINCI'S CITY HALL.

Aside from his career in the arts, Evan has completed 3 years of pre-med studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC), a Medical Doctorate from the University of Calgary in 2002, and a Family Practice residency (as Chief Resident) in the Aboriginal Family Practice program at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver, BC. He is the 2005 winner of the (provincial) Family Medicine Resident Leadership Award from the College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC), and the 2005 national winner of the Murray Stalker Award from the CFPC Research and Education Foundation. He is the past-President of the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada, and is currently the Director of the Division of Aboriginal Peoples' Health, UBC Department of Family Practice. He is an MPH-candidate with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health while working with the Office of the Provincial Health Officer.