Indigenous Theatre Festival focuses on language reawakening  

The cast performing Jealous Moon(Credit: One Island Media)

As Indigenous Elders pass, how can younger generations best learn and increase their fluency with traditional languages? Theatre professor Kirsten Sadeghi-Yekta believes applied theatre techniques can be an important part of the language-learning equation, and this month’s Indigenous Theatre Festival Reawakening Language on Stage offers a glimpse into how performance can powerfully augment classroom education.

Running at the Phoenix Theatre from September 16-18 in collaboration with the Hul’q’umi’num’ Language and Culture Society (HLCS), Hul’q’umi’num’ Language Academy and other university partners, the festival offers a weekend of performances, workshops and discussions aimed at exchanging research-based knowledge on the best practices for using theatre as a tool for this essential project.

“Language revitalization is the most important thing,” says Hul’q’umi’num’ speaker and Cowichan Tribes member Tara I. Morris, a PhD candidate in theatre and linguistics who is working with Sadeghi-Yekta on the festival. “We’re fighting for our language—we don’t accept it to be extinct—so we’re organizing and preserving and revitalizing with the younger generation. This festival offers a beautiful way to create space and help keep the language going . . . people need to know how hard we’re working.”

Sedeghi-Yekta (right) rehearses with community participants tsatassaya | Tracey White and suy’thlumaat | Kendra-Anne Page (Credit: One Island Media)


A different way of learning

Kirsten Sadeghi-Yekta has been engaged with this project since 2015 and her work has been supported by a number of SSHRC grants, including a new three-year Partnership Development Grant with UVic linguistics professor Sonya Bird as co-lead. “[This festival] is about inspiring other communities who are struggling to maintain their languages,” she explains. “We’re hoping to offer a spark for people to see that it’s possible to learn traditional languages through alternative ways—it doesn’t only have to be in classrooms.”

Sadeghi-Yekta was originally invited to participate by HLCS language specialist Joan Brown (now executive director of the Snuneymuxw First Nations) and SFU linguist Donna Gerdts, who were looking to find new ways to revitalize the Hul’q’umi’num’ language—which was traditionally spoken across a wide geographical area, ranging from now-Washington State and the Fraser Valley to the Gulf Islands and south-east Vancouver Island.

“Joan thought using theatre was a fantastic idea,” recalls Sadeghi-Yekta, a multi-lingual applied theatre practitioner whose international experience working with different cultures was ideally suited to this project. Given that performance has always been an integral part of Indigenous communities, theatre seemed an ideal fit for this project. “There was a steep learning curve on both sides to understand each other—both cultural protocols and the language of applied theatre—but the beauty of live theatre is you always start with your body, so we began by finding ways for participants to move past the discomfort of performing.”

Combining theatre techniques with community storytelling

Currently working with about 60 participants, Sadeghi-Yekta combines theatre-based techniques with community-inspired storytelling to help participants increase their fluency, focusing on nourishing a sense of excitement in speaking and performing only in Hul’q’umi’num’ . . . so festival audiences shouldn’t expect any subtitles.

“The whole point of the festival is that we want to celebrate Indigenous languages without translation,” she notes. “If we provide subtitles, the concentration towards Hul’q’umi’num’ could easily be gone. It’s a very complex language to learn.”

PhD candidate Morris—now co-director of the featured play Jealous Moon—has been involved with the project since 2019 in a variety of roles. “It’s been interesting being a student, learning the Hul’q’umi’num’ vocabulary for the play, acting it out and now helping teach and direct it,” she says.

Ironically, Morris’ grandmother—the late Theresa Thorne—helped create the Hul’q’umi’num’ dictionary and actually worked with SFU’s Gerdts years ago. “It’s such an honour to now be involved at this level,” she says.

kwustunaat rehearsing the role of Owl in Jealous Moon (Credit: One Island Media)

Engaging younger generations

Sadeghi-Yekta estimates there were over 50 fluent Hul’q’umi’num’ speakers when she began this project—a number that has now sadly dwindled to less than 30 over the COVID years.

“Our Elders are passing so quickly that we’re trying to make sure we find ways to expedite the process and engage the younger generations,” she says. “The great thing about this project is that it inspires specifically younger participants to commit to the learning of the language—and to feel confident in speaking it—which is where it all starts.”

Given that the festival has been twice-delayed due to COVID, she is excited to finally bring Reawakening Language on Stage to campus. In addition to the performances and workshops, the festival will also include important life lessons about persisting, building confidence, overcoming adversity and helping others. Expect heartfelt messages of sorrow and reconciliation, loss and hope, and the realization that Indigenous languages are not just an object of study but a means of artistic expression—with the ultimate hope of galvanizing a new generation of Indigenous performers.

A full weekend of performances

As well as a September 16 full-cast performance of the original play Jealous Moon—written by Hul’q’umi’num’ community member Chris Alphonse—festival participants include Dene director and playwright Deneh’Cho Thompson (USask), Education Leadership master’s candidate Yvonne Wallace of the Lil’wat Nation (UBC), indigenous/Xwulmuxw studies professor Laura Cranmer (VIU), indigenous education, Victoria’s Visible Bodies Collective, plus theatre PhD Lindsay Katsitsakatste Delaronde (UVic) and Fine Arts Indigenous Resurgence Coordinator Karla Point.

“Participants always tell me that they’ve learned to play again through applied theatre, that it’s one of the few times they can laugh again without focusing on other worries, ” says Sadeghi-Yekta. “They say that it’s brought the community more together as well—and that’s a huge compliment for the art.”

AGGV grad student showcase

Music MFA Jose Enrico Tuazon plays for a full house at the AGGV

Fine Arts has a long history with the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria: from faculty exhibits to alumni on staff, from offering the annual undergraduate Fine Arts Student Pass to having current Curator of Asian Art, Dr. Heng Wu, serve as an adjunct professor with our Art History & Visual Studies department, we’re justifiably proud of our 50-plus year history together.

As such, the AGGV was a natural and logical community partner to present the inaugural Arts Alive Graduate Showcase in April. Led by supervising faculty members Catherine Harding (AHVS), Megan Dickie (Visual Arts) and Benjamin Butterfield (Music), two evenings of graduate and PhD student public presentations featured creative work and scholarship by 15 students from all of our units. 

“The evenings were simply stunning,” says Harding. “I want to thank everyone for their courage, excellence, presence, amazing talent and dedicated professionalism. The world seems very dark these days, but our students all shone a huge great light into that darkness with this event.”

Each night of presentations followed a loose theme (“History & Place” and “Expressions Through Time”), with the additional MFA art exhibit In & Out of Context running April 15-29 in the AGGV’s Spencer Mansion. 

Writing MFA Letay Williams

Participating students included Francoise Keating and Hamed Yeganeh (AHVS); Ada Qian, Grisha Krivchenia, Timothy Carter, Marco Neri and Jose Enrico Tuazon (Music); Melissa Wotkyns and Lauren Jerke (Theatre); Letay Williams (Writing); and Carly Greene, Colton Hash, Robyn Miller, Karver Everson and Connor MacKinnon (Visual Arts).

With the hopes of making this an annual event, the Arts Alive showcase provided our students with a unique professional and social opportunity to showcase interdisciplinary graduate-level arts scholarship and creative practice in a vibrant community environment.   

Work by Visual Arts MFA Robyn Miller

Art gallery a fertile ground for magic of forests

A screenshot from “The Ground That Mends,” the stop motion video by UVic fine arts PhD alumna Connie Michele Morey

Groundbreaking research in the 1990s by forest ecologist Suzanne Simard revealed that trees “talk” to each other through an underground network of fungi. Until September 17, anyone who visits UVic’s downtown public art gallery will be able to easily imagine this network underfoot and a thick green canopy overhead while standing among the paintings and other artworks of a new exhibition. But imagining the tang of cedar and pine or experiencing art and virtual reality cannot fully recreate the tangible splendour and ecological diversity of old growth forests.

That tension, between living forest and framed likeness, defines the Still Standing: Ancient Forest Futures exhibition at Legacy Art Galleries Downtown. It is guest curated by Jessie Demers, who was at the War in the Woods protest at Vancouver Island’s Clayoquot Sound in 1993.

“Please, John, Don’t Screw This Up For The Rest of Us / Staircase,” by Mike Andrew McLean, plexi-transmounted digichromatograph, metallic paper/plywood backing

Art, ecology and activism

Still Standing brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists in a dynamic dialogue involving diverse perspectives on art, ecology and activism. It will feature oil paintings, colour-pencil and pastel drawings, and wood and metal sculptures, as well as photography, video, animation and installations—including by seven artists affiliated with the Faculty of Fine Arts.

Demers believes that art “can create common ground while challenging the paradigms that keep us separate from one another and the earth.” As curator of the spring 2021 Eden Grove Artist-in-Residence Program (—created to bear witness to both the forest and the Ada’itsx (Fairy Creek) Blockades on Pacheedhat territory—Demers then worked with most of the 12 invited resident artists to develop this new exhibition in Victoria.

Her hope is that it will allow viewers to come away with a greater understanding of the urgency to protect these last stands of ancient forests.

On a snowy day in March 2020, I set up a donated canvas tent, which became the home and studio for the Eden Grove Artist-in-Residence Program. It had last been used by blockaders at Clayoquot Sound 30 years earlier, where I was arrested as a teenager. From March to May, 12 artists were invited to witness the magic of the forest, the strength of the community of forest protectors and the complexities inherent in colonial resource extraction on unceded lands.

—Jessie Demers, guest curator of Still Standing: Ancient Forest Futures at Legacy Downtown

The exhibition features eight of the artists from the Eden Grove program: Fine Arts alumna Connie Michele Morey; Heather Kai Smith; Jeremy Herndl; Kyle Scheurmann; Fine Arts alumnus and sessional instructor Mike Andrew McLean; Visual Arts professor Paul Walde; Chief Rande Cook (Kwakwaka’wakw), a Fine Arts alumnus and former Audain Professor of Contemporary Art Practice of the Pacific Northwest at UVic; and Valerie Salez.

They are joined by five other artists: Carey Newman (Kwakwaka’wakw, Coast Salish and settler), inaugural Impact Chair in Indigenous Art Practices with the Faculty of Fine Arts; Gord Hill (Kwakwaka’wakw); Fine Arts alumnus Jordan Hill (T’Souke); and Visual Arts professor Kelly Richardson.

We are grateful for the opportunity to hold space for this exhibition and the many ways that visitors can experience these works. Still Standing brings together artists’ responses to the magic and power of Eden Grove. It allows for reflection and invites action on how we individually and collectively value the old growth forests that are special to this place.

—Caroline Riedel, Acting Director, Legacy Art Galleries

“The Black Cedar” by Jeremy Herndl, oil on canvas

Scene from “Talisman (III)” by Kelly Richardson, 4K video on silent seamless loop

Evoking a sense of awe

The exhibition is meant to evoke the feeling of BC’s temperate rainforests and a sense of awe in looking up at ancient arboreal wonder. The essence of these big trees, centuries old, is reflected in the work of the dozen artists. The exhibition also captures their interpretations of how people can work toward uprooting the damaging effects of colonialism and consumer culture in the context of old growth.

The pieces will range from Walde’s large-scale photograph of the circumference of one of Eden Grove’s immense and ancient cedars, to a sculptural floor piece by Cook and a silent video by Richardson.

Newman, working together with Camosun Innovates and a team of its mechanical engineering students, has also designed an innovative tool to apply sustainable practices—rather than using old-growth wood—for the same cultural purposes of carving his artworks. At the exhibition, he’ll be presenting a cedar maquette of the second-growth totem he’s currently working on.

Art as instigator of change

Demers adds, “In this time of climate crisis, we need collective action and I see art as a powerful instigator of change. By sharing new perspectives and embodied experiences, art can move us past paralysis and into action.” With that in mind, the exhibition will also include an area where viewers can explore further research online and write postcards to government.

Still Standing runs at Legacy Downtown through to Sept. 17.

—Tara Sharpe

This story original ran on the UVic News site

Sharing fears and truths about climate change

Crookes Professor Sean Holman (right) with Writing student Sandra Ibrahim

Recent climate-related disasters—from heatwaves and wildfires to floods and hurricanes—make it clear that we need to prepare for climate change, while also trying to prevent it. Journalists and scientists must work together to do that. By improving media coverage, the public can make the best decisions possible about the most pressing problem of our time. To help support this work, humanitarian and political activist Wayne Crookes funded a professorship in Environmental and Climate Journalism in UVic’s Department of Writing through a gift of $1.875 million.

Sean Holman, who assumed the role in September 2021, says the power of the professorship is the marriage of both teaching and research. It allows him to “involve students and members of the broader community in this research in very direct ways, so that they can take action on climate change.”

Establishing a baseline for good climate coverage

One of Holman’s first accomplishments as Crookes Professor was to co-lead the first ever Canadian study comparing perceptions of climate change coverage in three groups: journalists, climate scientists and the public. The resulting Climate Coverage in Canada Report was published in November 2021, shortly after the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. The report offered recommendations for how climate change reporting could be improved, including how scientists and journalists could better work together.

“Until now we haven’t had a baseline to establish what good climate coverage should look like,” says Holman. “Now, as a result of this survey, we are getting a better idea about what climate scientists would like to see in the news media and how they would like the media to reflect the scientific evidence that surrounds climate change.”

Climate Disaster Project

Crookes’ gift extends beyond the professorship to fund other research and outreach initiatives such as the Climate Disaster Project. In the project’s manifesto, Holman writes: “We are already losing countless lives and livelihoods to climate change. That means we are all climate disaster survivors. But we don’t see ourselves in that way, so we feel alone in our experiences.”

The project brings together students at UVic and several partner universities to collect and share the stories of people who have lived through climate change-related disasters. Those stories will be published and broadcast by the project’s media partners and then added to a publicly available memory vault. The vault will also serve as a launchpad for investigative solutions journalism projects about climate disasters and a virtual gathering place for anyone who has experienced them. APTN  (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) aired the first set of stories highlighting the work of the Climate Disaster Project on June 3.

So much of the narrative about climate change has been around ‘can we stop it?’, without acknowledging that it’s happening. The hope is that by creating these stories, we can build community, and by building community, we can create hope.”

—Sean Holman

Trauma-informed journalism

UVic student Sandra Ibrahim participated in the project through her undergraduate writing class. To prepare for interviewing climate disaster survivors, students in the class learned trauma-informed interview techniques and practiced them with each other. This way of interviewing relies on gradually building trust between the interviewer and interviewee. Practices such as informed consent, providing interview questions in advance, sharing transcripts after the interview and self-care are built into the process to help the interviewee feel comfortable and confident in sharing their story.

For Holman, one of the most fulfilling aspects of the donor-funded professorship is teaching a course that combines classroom experience with a pioneering real-world project. “I’ve always wanted to be able to teach this kind of transformative course, a course that doesn’t just have an effect inside the classroom, but also outside the classroom—and is grounded in both research and social change.”

Reflecting on the class, Ibrahim says: “One of the things Sean said that I’ve taken to heart is, ‘What if the truth was a gift?’. What if sharing pain, insecurities—or grief, in my case—what if sharing that was a gift, even if it makes us feel vulnerable?”

Shifting focus

Holman believes the project could create a perceptual shift for those sharing and hearing stories. For example, for students in his class, the collective realization that they weren’t alone in their fears about the future helped foster a sense of community. Ibrahim described the process of sharing in community as “absolutely healing. It may not solve the problem of climate change, but it solves the problem of loneliness and despair and grief about climate change.”

Perhaps that’s the crux of why Crookes’ visionary gift is so important, not just to UVic, but to the world. It permits the sharing of truth—a truth belonging as much to one individual as to humankind. It shifts the focus from data and temperature percentages to empathy and shared experience, from the enormity of prevention to the reality of adaptation.

All this would never have happened without Wayne Crookes. It was his visionary concern for the humanitarian cost of climate change and his belief that society can be mobilized around this experience that made this possible.”

—Sean Holman

—Sarah Tarnopolsky

Related Links

Latest ONC collaboration focuses on data sonification

How do you use music to address the climate crisis? If you’re Colin Malloy, you fuse your current status as a PhD candidate with both the School of Music and UVic’s Computer Science with your background as a percussionist and apply to become the latest Artist-in-Residence with Ocean Networks Canada.

An award-winning percussionist, composer and audio programmer specializing in contemporary solo and chamber percussion and music technology, Malloy is also a multi-instrumentalist who performs on steelpan, guitar, bass and the Japanese koto.

Hear more about Colin’s work when he appears as part of the Art and Science” webinar with Science and Society Dialogues, starting at 5pm (PT) / 2pm (ET) on July 26. In this first event of the Science and Society Dialogues Series, you’ll hear from both Colin and Sara Black (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) as they discuss their work at the intersection of art and science, followed by a facilitated discussion. 

Data sonification

As the third Artist-in-Residence with Ocean Networks Canada, part of a continuing partnership with Fine Arts, Malloy frequently incorporates nature sounds into his practice as a composer, so it’s a natural step for him to tap into ONC’s vast hydrophone arrays of underwater microphones to create “data sonification” during his residency.

“We’re all familiar with data visualizationwhere you take data and turn it into a visual image that can be interpreted,” says Malloy. “Data sonification is when you take data and turn it into a musical aspect.”

And while most people only hear the steelpan as part of their summer soundtrack, Malloy is looking further back to its origins from actual steel drums used by the oil industry in the early 20th century. “People think of it as a really bright happy instrument from the Caribbean, one that everyone associates with very fun, festive music,” he says. “But a lot of the music I perform on it really subverts that image.”

The arts and the climate crisis

Much like previous ONC Artists-in-Residence Dennis Gupa and Colton Hash, Malloy is passionate about using his artistic practice to make change in the world. “Hearing things that represent what’s going on in our environment can really create a different level of engagement for people, because it’s not just an abstract musical sound it,” he says.

Back in May 2022, Malloy was one of four faculty members who participated in the Fine Arts Creative Futures webinar “Documenting the Climate Crisis” (which you can watch via this YouTube link).

“It’s important to get your message out to people who need to hear it,” says Malloy. “For me, I want my music to go out to people who are either uninspired or a little skeptical . . . you want the listener to have an emotional reaction that makes them want to do something.”

Malloy actively seeks ways to incorporate environmental concerns into his creative practice.  “We can all sit around and agree that climate change is an issue but, if we’re not doing anything about it, then we’re not actually helping or making a change,” he says.  

“I’m a very action-oriented person. Small steps can really add up to a long journey, but if we’re not taking those steps, then we’re not actually helping or making a change.”

Public talk by Shahzia Sikander

Shahzia Sikander’s “The Scroll” (vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, and tea on hand-prepared wasli paper, 1989-1990)

The Visual Arts department invites you to a public lecture by Shahzia Sikander, a candidate for the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Decolonization and Transformational Artistic Practice.

Please join us at 7pm Tuesday, July 12, in room 103 of UVic’s Fine Arts building (masks encouraged) or via Zoom:

A pioneering Pakistani American artist, Shahzia Sikander is widely celebrated for expanding and subverting pre-modern and classical Central and South-Asian miniature painting traditions and launching the form known as neo-miniature. By bringing the traditional and historical into dialogue with contemporary international art practices, Sikander’s multivalent work examines colonial archives to readdress orientalist narratives in western art history. Interrogating ideas of language, trade, empire, and migration through imperial and feminist perspectives. Sikander’s paintings, video animations, mosaics and sculpture explore gender roles and sexuality, cultural identity, racial narratives, and colonial and postcolonial histories.

Recipient of the MacArthur genius grant and US Medal of Art, Sikander’s work has been exhibited and collected internationally including at MoMA NY, Whitney Museum, Guggenheim Bilbao, MAXXI Museum Rome, MOT Japan, Asia Society HK, and Jesus College, Cambridge, UK. A traveling survey of her early works opened at the Morgan Library and Museum New York in 2021 and traveled to the RISD Museum and closed in June 2022 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

If awarded, the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Decolonization and Transformational Artistic Practice will establish locally and globally impactful innovations through interconnecting artistic, Indigenous, and global perspectives across a program of transdisciplinary research and creative work.