In the time before there was light. In the darkness, there were stories. A place where you could be any gender. A place of sexual desire and pleasure. All fantasies went. They played games. They played games in the dimming of the light.

A little light to warm us all. She tends to the light. A flame.

On the floor, to the centre left of the intimate, circular theatre stage, Laakkuluk huddles over a kudlik, slowly bringing its flames to life from left to right. Behind her, Tanya sighs and growls softly and repeatedly, her throat singing gradually building tension and momentum. Over the flickering fire of the kudlik, Laakkuluk tells us of a world of possibility and fantasy — a place where passion is embraced and embodied. Then, from the oil and soot of the kudlik, she smears her face in black, scratches lines across her cheeks and forehead, and puffs her cheeks out with large wooden beads. She transforms. Tanya quickens and intensifies her sound, and together, they invite us into the unknown.

Laakkuluk is performing uaajeerneq, a traditional Greenlandic mask dance and form of storytelling which centres elements of sexuality, fear and hilarity. Transformed, she moves away from the light, stepping forward into the darker foreground of the stage. She begins to move around the space, crawling and lifting her body in every direction. Eyes bright and piercing, she circles the audience, taking us in. She feeds on our curiosity, our awe, our anticipation of what will come next. The energy and feeling in the space sharpens. Tanya rumbles and snarls. Laakkuluk works her way to the back of the stage to join her in an instinctual and fiercely intimate exchange of singing and dance. Exploring and testing their boundaries, they grasp and hold each other with a hunger and intensity that permeates the room. Tanya ducks between Laakkuluk’s legs and howls from beneath the tulle of her dress. Limbs entwined, panting and breathless, the performance climaxes in a visceral entanglement of sound and movement.         

Moving away from Tanya, Laakkuluk redirects her focus on the audience. Weaving and creeping her way through the crowd, she peers into the faces of her onlookers. Tanya’s guttural rhythm emboldens her, feeds her, propels her into our space. At times grinning and mischievous, at times erratic, maniacal and terrifying. In Kalaallisut, she whispers and points, as though taunting us. She crawls over chairs, slinks through our ranks, and jumps into the laps of her prey. We are her playthings. We are implicated. Just as much her entertainment as she is ours. Boundaries blur between audience and performance. Face to face, eye to eye, she flips the gaze of the show and the observers become the observed.

The performance is a dialogue. Tanya and Laakkuluk speak to one another through their art — Tanya through her voice and Laakkuluk through the mask dance. Their synergy tantalizes and intrigues, almost intimidates. They relate through an emotive and kinetic language that is both familiar yet otherworldly. In the shared space of the performance, the audience is invited into the dialogue. We become integral to the evolution of the show as they look to us and us to them. In a loop of actions and reactions, the energy emanating from the crowd and the responses of the artists push the performance forward.

As the show nears its end, Laakkuluk exits and reenters the stage. Suddenly, she is visibly afraid. She seems lost and her eyes desperately search the room. She unravels. At no point in the performance is uaajeerneq’s theme of fear more palpable. Panicked and whimpering, she crawls to Tanya. They find each other, centre stage, and embrace in an electric moment of relief and love. Tanya’s dress sparkles as the passion and care of their relationship saturates the room and fills us with light.

Laakkuluk returns to the kudlik. Snuffs its flames one by one. The room dims. Tanya relaxes her breath. They smile and bow to a standing ovation. As the lights come on, we are left to navigate what we have witnessed.




Tanya Tagaq and Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory performed at The Chan Centre from March 16-18, 2018 to a fully sold out theatre every night. This column is produced by CiTR 101.9FM’s Indigenous Collective, who also produce Unceded Airwaves on air Wednesdays at 2PM. Visit citr.ca/radio/unceded-airwaves for show archives.

Last month, three years after Bradley Barton was not guilty of the first-degree in the death of Cindy Gladue, who was found dead in a bathtub in an Edmonton motel after spending a night with Barton, The Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear an appeal. Cindy was a 36-year-old Cree woman, a mother of three, and a sex worker who deserved safe working conditions in her chosen field. It has been a difficult few months to be an Indigenous person from the prairies, but I am reminded that is has been a difficult and beautiful few hundred years.

I am a Treaty 6 Cree woman who grew up in Edmonton. I remember attending a rally in 2014 demanding justice for Cindy in a trial that continued to dehumanize her after her violent death. I am not sharing those graphic details here. You can find them elsewhere. I remember standing there surrounded by other Cree women. I remember feeling that specific love, admiration, and mutual recognition I feel when surrounded by other Indigenous people from the prairies, as we stand solidly in our homelands despite many attempts to thwart our present.

In The Globe and Mail in May 2015, Kathryn Blaze Carlson wrote an article about Cindy Gladue’s life with one paragraph that strikes me each time I read it:

“…Ms Gladue had big hair and big dreams. She wanted to beat the odds in her family and go to university. She didn’t know what she wanted to study, but she knew she wanted the school to be somewhere beautiful. She wanted to become a mother, and she knew, even then, what she hoped to call her children, having jotted down a list of her favourite names while nestled with a friend under a tree along the North Saskatchewan River.” (1)

Illustration by Dana Kearley for Discorder Magazine

I studied in a beautiful place and shared many secrets with friends along the North Saskatchewan River, which flows from the Rocky Mountains through our territory, an important vein. We need to talk about the legal and political structures that result in Indigenous death, but let us not lose Cindy and Tina’s vibrancy in this move.

I write these words from Winnipeg, Treaty 1 territory and the homeland of the Métis Nation after driving across the prairies from the West Coast with my Anishinaabe friend, who is moving back to her territory from Vancouver. In February, the Indigenous community in this city reeled as Raymond Cormier was found not guilty in the second-degree murder of Tina Fontaine, an Anishinaabe teenager from Sagkeeng First Nation whose body was found wrapped in a duvet cover in the Red River in August 2014. Tina had suffered immense trauma in her short life; her father was murdered in 2011 and Tina was in the care of the Manitoba Child and Family Services.

Illustration by Dana Kearley for Discorder Magazine

It was Tina’s death that is credited with prompting The National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls that began in 2017. The Federal Government is currently considering extending the inquiry, which is supposed to examine the systemic reasons Indigenous women face high levels of violence.  Whatever concrete outcomes result from the Murder and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry, the Crown in Manitoba will not appeal Raymond Cormier’s acquittal, and Tina’s killer remains free.

A few weeks ago I went out for dinner with an friend who is also from Treaty 6, and we talked about what life would be like on the prairies had our treaty been honoured and upheld for the last 141 years. People in British Columbia often associate historic numbered treaties with swindle and surrender, but we have deep understandings of the treaty process as an act of love and visioning for future descendants. I know deeply that the ancestors had different lives in mind for Tina and Cindy.

Rarely do we get the space to envision a prairie Indigenous feminist future. We are caught reacting to an ongoing cycle of violence, but whispers of that world exist in 3AM text message check-ins and the Saskatoon berries in my mom’s basement freezer. I come back to these words from my friend Erica often: “Always remember where you came from, iskwesis: you are made of poverty and abundance; forged from nothing but a legacy of absolutely everything.” (2)



Emily Riddle: nehiyaw iskwew. treaty feminist. reality tv devotee. On Twitter @emilyjaneriddle.


Works Referenced

  1. Carlson, Kathryn Blaze. “More than a tragic headline: Cindy Gladue dreamt of a happy life.” Globe and Mail. 15 May 2015.
  1. Lee, Erica. “In Defence of the Wastelands: Survival Guide.” Guts Magazine. 30 November 2016.