Families around the North have come together to share memories, legends and advice while keeping warm next to the comfort of a blazing fire for centuries.
This weekend, the tradition will take shape as a contemporary art form when musicians and actors alike hit the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre (NACC) stage for the annual Ko K’e Storytelling festival, kicking off in Yellowknife on Sept. 11.
Keeping with the NACC’s year-long theme of “reaching new latitudes,” the 2015 Ko K’e festival is dedicated to celebrating oft-marginalized groups, giving voice to people from even the most remote communities of the NWT.
“Last year the storytelling was more about humour,” said NACC executive and artistic director Marie Coderre. “This year we wanted to focus on the indigenous women as artists and storytellers.”
When Coderre brought the concept up to long-time performer Dëneze Nakehk’o, he agreed to it wholeheartedly.
“Women are always important to be talking about and celebrating. I think about all the women in my life – my mom, my wife, my daughter and my sister – I’ve been blessed with a lot of powerful, creative, loving women in my life and I’m very happy. I don’t think I’d be the person I am today if it wasn’t for them,” he said.
Sick of being inundated with negative stories about indigenous women on a regular basis, Nakehk’o said he’s ecstatic about providing a platform for Northerners to pause and appreciate the women in their own lives.
“We live in a day and an age and a place where there’s missing and murdered indigenous women. One of the ways we can try to combat all that stuff that’s going on with indigenous women in our country during this time is to take the opportunity to celebrate them and see how special they are, not only for our communities, but for everyone across the country.”
Taking the show on the road
Following two days of performances in the capital, the artists will part ways to drop their knowledge in Fort Simpson, Fort Smith, Hay River, Norman Wells and Inuvik.
It’s not only women who will be sharing their stories.
Performers include duo Quantum Tangle, which consists of Greyson Gritt and Tiffany Ayalik; multidisciplinary Métis artist Moe Clark; spinner of tales Thelma Cheechoo from Moose Factory Island, Ontario; poet Jacq Brass; CKLB Radio host and storyteller Lawrence Nayally and Inuvialuit actress Reneltta Arluk.
Arluk, for one, is excited to return to her place of birth in Fort Smith.
“I didn’t grow up there, but I spent all my summers there with my grandparents, who raised me until I had to go to school.”
Several years ago, Arluk’s grandfather Archie LaRocque passed away at the age of 96, leaving her with his guitar and a collection of stories from life on the land, recorded over at least 20 cassette tapes.
“When the RCMP used to patrol the North they had to do it by dogsled. They would have someone who would guard the RCMP; that was my grandfather,” she said. “He had all these stories and because he was a trapper and a prospector, he mapped out a lot of the barrenlands.”
Arluk has been busy for a month diligently digitizing and cataloging some of his stories. She plans to share them with Ko K’e audiences, with the accompaniment of that old guitar.
“He really touched on an era of our history in Canada that no one else really documented so I’m just bringing it home, bringing it to Smith,” she said. “My grandfather wasn’t perfect … but that’s the stories people want to hear, the imperfect stories that have a sense of richness to them. I think we need to start connecting to that. I’m all about women empowerment but I also believe that we all have to support each other.”
Each community visit will also feature matinee shows at the schools and a special guest performance by a regional storyteller.
For more information on the Ko K’e Storytelling Festival schedule and tickets, head to www.naccnt.ca.