Fringe Indigenous Artist Program: a conversation with Rory Keewatin

Image: Rory Keewatin.

As part of this mini Fringe celebration, we wanted to highlight some of the artists who bring the Victoria Fringe to life. We’re sharing conversations with four artists who have taken part in Victoria Fringe’s Indigenous Artist Program. The program was developed in 2017 by artist and activist Johnny Aitken and Intrepid staff, and is open to local artists who identify as Indigenous, incorporating collaborative mentorship as well as access to resources, a bursary and support. Read more about the program and applications here.

Rory Keewatin premiered her solo show Reminiscences of Reconciliation at the 2018 Victoria Fringe. She’ll also present a new version of the show at the 2021 Victoria Fringe. She and Associate Producer Holly spoke about her process of building work through organic evolution of thought, combining her experience in Toastmasters with creating theatre, and taking Reminiscences of Reconciliation to different festivals.

Q: Can you start by introducing yourself?

My name’s Rory Keewatin*. I’m of Cree descent and learned lately, Métis descent. My Cree name is Musqua, also known as Bear. I was born in Red Deer, Alberta, back in 1986. I was born to Alison Richards and Lyle Wesley Keewatin Richards. My dad has an honorary doctorate, he’s been a social activist for the entire time he’s been in Alberta, some 40 years. He was president of the Red Deer Native Friendship Centre back in the 80s––as he puts it, it was little more than a pool hall at the time, and it’s now turned into one of the premier Native Friendship Centres in all of Canada. I got my name in a sweat lodge ceremony on the edge of the Cree and Blackfoot territories that meet at Red Deer known as Waskasoo, as it was known as “meeting place,” at Fort Normandeau in Red Deer at age 16. I got this drum soon after that. The sweat lodge was hot. We put stones in a hot fire and then take them into the lodge, and then we have a sauna type experience. It was all in Cree. I didn’t understand it at the time at all. But after 18 I started to learn some of my language. It wasn’t a lot, but I’ve got some, greeting and thank you and that kind of thing. There are a number of nations that have made apps now and such. It’s very useful.

I am the writer of Reminiscences of Reconciliation, which was in the 2018 Victoria Fringe Festival as a one-person show. I evolved its premise in 2019 to be involved in the 2019 Skampede Festival along the Gorge waterway on the Galloping Goose, and that was a two-person show. It worked fairly well––we got it down to a nine-minute show, from thirty-five minutes.

Now, I personally come from a labor activist background, and somehow picked up a university degree from UVic. I’ve had it going on almost a decade now. I have lived in Lekwungen territory for most of my life, and visited much of Western Turtle Island as a youth driving back and forth between Red Deer and Victoria. I practice storytelling in my macro view of relations between Canada and Aboriginal peoples of Turtle Island, which is where Reminiscences of Reconciliation came in, and I was able to work that view into theatre.

Q: What are you working on currently, or hoping to work on next?

Currently I’m a grocer, and working up a new evolving version of Reminiscences of Reconciliation. I’ll see what it will become for 2021 throughout this year, and what I can do through my Toastmasters club, where I practiced my previous show a lot before I came to the Fringe. Toastmasters is an international club about, yes, speech making, absolutely. But it’s also about leadership and learning leadership skills. I am trying to be a leader by giving perspective of modern life in Canada and the genocide wrought upon its Indigenous peoples here throughout the little over a century and a half that Canada has been in existence, and the hundreds of years prior to that. My show brings to fairly sharp relief what has happened and what could become better for all in the coming times.

My process is very sporadic to say the least. I kind of think up ideas and see what can come of it through time. My original show, I didn’t even write down until about a year after I had done it. It’s organic evolution through thought.

Q: Is there a way audiences can seek out or support your work right now?

Right now, keep it in mind for future. I currently don’t have any social media or website, but will be working on that fairly soon. I’d like to include my show in a couple of versions, both the 2018 [Victoria Fringe] and 2019 [Skampede] versions–– sort of an evolutionary thing. 

We also performed it up in Port Alberni at their Solstice Arts Festival. We performed it to [artist and storyteller] Cecil Dawson of Port Alberni. His quote was, “I was holding back tears, for you were saying words that had been left unsaid. You return me to my childhood with songs and stories being told by our elders. The trees listen to your stories and harmonize with your songs.” He’s a very highly respected carver up there and across western Canada. He was working on a languages project that was funded through feds, the province, and the University of Victoria, for the UN International Year of Indigenous Languages. So that was really neat.

Q: What’s your connection to the Fringe; how did you come to be involved in it?

I’ve been going to the Fringe Festival on and off for a number of years. I had some friends who had been in the Victoria Fringe as well, so I’d gone to their shows and such, and I volunteered a number of times as well, for the 30th anniversary and at least a time before that. That was pretty fun. So––showgoer, volunteer, to actor/writer/director.

Q: What was your experience like being part of the Fringe Indigenous Artist Program?

I’ve been on the Intrepid email list for years. One time I was reading through it and I’m like “Indigenous Artist Program…hmm. What is this?” So, I got typing, filled out the form, and thought, “I’ll see if anything comes of it.”

Then I get an email back from Sammie and Heather asking, “Would you like to come in for a meeting to talk about the Indigenous Artist Program?” I go in and we meet and I was like “Okay, this seems like I’m writing a play.” That was the start of my experience back in 2018. That was an exciting few months to write that show. I just took it from there and whenever I was on break at work, I’d write down some ideas in the back room, and I’d go into Intrepid every week or so and practice. And then, of course, the run of the show. During the smoke out of 2018 it was a very fiery year. It was interesting. It was also just before one of the major pipelines was having a decision brought down against it. It was like, “Well, that’s exactly what I told them would be happening yesterday during my show, so okay, good. I don’t know how I have this macro view, but good.” So that was neat. The run went really well, that’s for sure; I liked it. I ended up having a bunch of my labor activist friends from the New Democratic Party come to the show, and then, of course, the conversation at the end of my show was really important. There’s the show itself and then I had a Q and A. In Toastmasters it’s called Table Topics. Basically, the person comes up with a question and then you answer it on the fly.

Q: Who’s another Indigenous or BIPOC artist Fringe audiences should check out?

Definitely look up Cecil Dawson. His totem poles and carvings are all over the island.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to have included in the blog post? 

Kinâskômatin, hai hai, and thank you for being here.

*previously known as Logan Keewatin Richards

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Intrepid Theatre is located on the lands of the Lekwungen People, now known as the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. We give our thanks and respect to the stewards of these lands, and to elders, past, present and future.