"The Ceremony"

January 1, 2018
I know that I have updates to write and thank yous to post, and I promise I will do that in upcoming days (maybe more regular blog posts should be one of my New Year's resolutions). In the meantime, I wanted to share a short-short futuristic story that I wrote recently. I considered looking for a publishing home for it, but decided to simply share it on my blog instead. I hope you enjoy this new story for 2018...

The Ceremony
by Cara Mumford

Sage sat on the floor in front of the sacred sand scrolls for the first time. In all of the years that she had attended ceremonies, this was her first time seeing the scrolls. She was excited and nervous. She had finally given her tobacco to show her intention to be initiated into the lodge; she hoped she wouldn’t do something wrong, drawing attention to herself and disappointing the members of the lodge. Focus, became the overriding thought in her head; she reined in her wandering mind, focusing again on the scrolls.

The first elder stepped up, pointer in hand. Sage leaned forward to listen, and he began to speak in Anishinaabemowin, the language of the ceremony, the language that Sage barely knew. He spoke rapidly and at length in the language and Sage thought, this is the cosmic joke, isn’t it? I finally receive the teachings but I won’t understand a word. Inside, she laughed at the joke on her, while outwardly she watched the elder, followed the pointer, and reached around her mind desperately trying to fill in the gaps of her lack of language.

Finally, the first elder was finished and the head woman of the lodge stepped up to give her teaching… partly in English. Sage listened to the elder speak with relief, eager for the teachings but savoring the sound of her voice. Sage would love to hear her speak every day. Then the head woman’s teaching was finished and elder after elder stepped up to deliver their own understandings of the teachings and Sage found her eyes drawn to some of the other women’s ribbon skirts. She fingered the fabric of her own plain and patched skirt and thought she should try and find some way to adorn it. Focus, she thought, her attention returning to the teachings.

They sat in the middle of a round building with glass windows in the curved walls, lush grass and dense trees visible outside, with the ground sloping down to a rushing river on one side. A massive skylight was in the centre of the ceiling, ablaze with the colours of the setting sun. Sage sat on the wooden floor, smooth with age. Some of the other initiates were on the floor with her; others sat in chairs. Sage’s eyes followed the point at the end of the talking stick that the elders used to indicate specific section of the scrolls as they spoke. Sometimes they spoke in English, sometimes in Anishinaabemowin. Now that Sage was an initiate, she felt a push to learn more of the language. How much of the teaching was she missing out on because it didn’t translate fully into English, because the connections revealed by the language were severed by English.

Then they were told about the gifts that they would need to make for other member of the lodge as part of their initiation. Sage tried to imagine what materials she might use, what items she could make. She had no beads, or enough fabric left to make anything she considered traditional. It is about the intention, one of the elders said, and Sage thought of her wild art, as she called it. Her sculptures created from found objects and gifts from nature—grungy, dark, and symbolic. Would they do?

After the sand scroll teachings concluded, the initiates were taught two songs. They would have to remember the melody and the Anishinaabe words to sing the song for the entire lodge during the next round of ceremonies. The drum kept the rhythm, a helper carefully pouring water onto the hide to keep it from drying. Sage felt her lips, remembering the feel of the water she had sipped earlier, losing her place in the song. She had to listen to the others for a moment before she could find her way back in. As she grew more confident in the words she was saying, her voice became strong and loud, as if her throat had never been dry from lack of water.

After they had been gifted with their new songs, the members danced out of the lodge. It felt good to be standing after sitting for so long. All day long. The drum once again set the rhythm for the dancers, matching the rhythm of their hearts, matching the rhythm of every living thing. Sage felt connected to all of the other dancers through that drum, connected to all of creation. She danced towards the east entrance of the lodge, wanting to dance slower, make her steps smaller and smaller so she would never reach the doorway, but she kept pace with the others and danced out of the lodge with them. Ceremonies were over for this summer and would begin again in the fall.

The hologram shut off automatically and the building went dark. Then the tint on the glass transitioned from blackout to clear and bright daylight streamed in. The hologram’s inner clock seemed to drift further and further from the days defined by the sun, and night was now turned to day. The landscape outside was barren, dust blowing over every surface, the riverbed long dry. Sage’s ears seemed to ring from the silence of the empty room, her eyes squinting in the harshness of the light. She always felt strangely hydrated after a ceremony, though, as if the holographic water was water itself. A sudden melancholy gripped her, as it always did after the ceremony hologram played. Four times a year for the past four years, with Sage looking forward to it more and more each year. She wondered how much her experience would change now that she had chosen to become an initiate. She wanted to know now but, of course, would have to wait three months to find out.

Why had she offered her tobacco to become an initiate? She had told herself that it was simply to vary the routine. She had watched the ceremony hologram for four years and she was ready for a change. But deep inside lived a hope that passing through the levels of the lodge might lead her to a portal, a place where she would finally be connected to other people again. There was nothing rational about it but she felt the truth of it deep within her bones. Something had led her to this building four years ago. She was convinced that her future was connected to its past.

Tired as she was, Sage had to check her water-capture devices and collect any water that had accumulated. The building had rainwater collectors built into it, but it rained so rarely and she would need a full canteen after she woke up from her nap. It was time to set out to search for other people again, survivors of this harsh, decaying world. She hadn’t seen another person, a real, flesh and blood person, in over five years, but she never stopped searching. Later today, on her search, she would gather insects for supper and also look for rusted remains from fallen civilizations to incorporate into her ceremonial gifts. She hoped, just maybe, that they might become offerings for a new and better life.

Sage opened the door that led to the entrance, what she thought of as “the hatch” because of it’s double steel doors with massive latches that effectively kept any dust out of the building. It was amazing, really, because the dust was everywhere else in this world. There, sitting on the floor, was a box. A box that had never been there before. She glanced around the hatch and noticed again the holes in the walls and ceiling that she had once thought were going to shoot lasers at her. Were they another holographic projector? They didn’t look like the projectors inside the main building. She touched the box but it didn’t have what she’d come to think of as the slippery feel of a hologram. It felt real. How did it get there? Even if there were people around, the door was still firmly latched. Could the hatch be some kind of replicator? Triggered by her offering her tobacco? She decided that was the most likely answer. This building was astounding, why should this surprise her?

She finally decided to open the box. Inside were packets of seeds. Seeds for grasses, for trees, for berries, for leeks and fiddleheads and asparagus, for sage, sweetgrass, cedar, and tobacco. Seeds to build a world. Sage fingered the packets in awe and then thought of the lack of water, of any tools to distribute or plant the seeds, and she sat down beside the box of seeds and felt like crying… but she couldn’t afford the water. Just then, the small room filled with whispers in Anishinaabemowin. She listened very carefully and realized with delight and surprise that she could understand the whispers, “In the spring the birds will come, and the rain will follow in summer, but this winter you will dance.”

3 Days Left!

November 8, 2017
Ecstasy crowdfunding campaign ends on Friday, November 10. You can get a copy of the film as one of the perks! Check out our IndieGoGo page: https://t.co/RaaWT0jojq



November 8, 2017
An In-Depth Interview
about ‘Ecstasy,’ a short narrative film, with Metis/ Anishinaabe Filmmaker, Writer and Director -
Cara Mumford

By Heryka Miranda

In brief, what is the short narrative film Ecstasy about? 

Cara: To personalize the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women through the relationship of sisters. In the film, one sister is alive and the other sister is spirit. It is a journey to find healing from grief through spirit, dream and dance. 

I understand that the ballet, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, influenced you in making the film. Can you share a bit about the ballet’s influence?

Cara: It was a play before it was a ballet. George Ryga, who was the son of Ukrainian immigrants – a non-Indigenous playwright, wrote The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. The play, as described by Ryga, is “an odyssey through hell of an Indian woman,” that hell being the racism and violence of an average Canadian city.

Can you share a bit more about the play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe?

Cara: George Ryga grew up in northern Alberta and worked alongside Cree people. He had a strong sense of justice and tended to write about Indigenous issues, which made him very political in the 60’s. This is also what made him the perfect person for the Vancouver Playhouse to approach when they had the idea for the play. The idea for the play came when Malcolm Black, the artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse, read a short paragraph in a Vancouver newspaper about an “Indian girl” found murdered on skid row. The article left Black wondering what her life what have been like. He then approached George Ryga to write the play, as a commission for the Canadian Centennial. I think it’s really interesting that The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is often considered one of the first Canadian plays and it’s about an Indigenous woman that seems appropriate to me. But Ryga was an ally without insider knowledge. The play, although well intentioned, reinforces stereotypes and the victim narrative for Indigenous people.

How did the play become a ballet? 

Cara: In 1971, to commemorate the centenary of the signing of Treaties 1 and 2, the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood commissioned the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to turn The Ecstasy of Rita Joe from a play into a ballet. 

Why was it important to you to include aspects of the play/ballet of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe in your film?

Cara: I started working with the play in my mom’s  class. I began to read a lot about it and research what people have done with it. I read about Yvette Nolan  who did an Indigenous version of the play at the National Arts Centre with music composed by Jennifer Kriesburg and Michelle St. John. I was very intrigued with the concept of Indigenizing the play that Yvette underwent. One of the (many) reasons why Yvette was brought on as the dramaturge was because of her understanding and experience with that urge to Indigenize. The character of Rita Joe is a metaphor depicting the hard life that many Indigenous women go through when they go to the city. That feeling of just having everything stacked up against her. I feel that because The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is out there in the mainstream, the play itself has been identified as a metaphor for the violent victimization of Indigenous women.

How does your film write a different ending to the ballet of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe?

Cara: There is an article called ‘The Many Faces of Rita Joe’ that really captured my attention as it discusses the different incarnations that the script took. There were five completely different drafts. One of them had Rita Joe speaking after she died. Before I saw the ballet, I was hoping they had incorporated that idea because ballet often has women dancing after they have died, such as Giselle. Unfortunately the ballet of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe does not. After seeing the ballet I was left with this feeling that it was not the right ending, because there has to be some hope after her death. I wanted to take the ending of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe narrative and take it somewhere else. That’s why [in the Ecstasy film] there is the living sister. She carries that hope forward. The living sister was Rita Joe but she made it out alive. 

What does the word “ecstasy” mean to you?

Cara: In my mother’s class, we have had discussions about why the play is called The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. As with all art it’s open to interpretation. For me I look at ecstasy as a concept as complex as joy, although many people don’t see joy as complex. I remember having a conversation with Rulan Tangen  about the word joy and how many people tend to equate it with happiness. There is a depth and a tragedy underneath that joy. You don’t reach a level of joy without having experience some deep pain. For me ecstasy is kind of the same thing. Ecstasy can be painful but you feel alive and that’s one thing that the Marsha character hasn’t been feeling, even though technically she’s the living sister. She hasn’t been living her life and she hasn’t felt connected and alive. For me ecstasy is that connection. There is pain as well as complex joy. It’s all of it together. 

Can you tell me about the inspiration behind the character of Marsha?

Cara: The names that I have chosen to give the sisters have great significance. The character of Marsha is named after Marsha Ellen Meidow (with the permission of Marsha’s mom, Beverly Jean Meidow). Marsha was a good friend of mine who passed away in 2010, very suddenly at the age of 34. She was a frontline worker with girls on the street in Calgary. Most of the girls she interacted with were Indigenous. Although Marsha herself was not Indigenous, her husband was. She was the director of the Vagina Monologues in Calgary and raised money for Safe Haven House. She was a huge supporter of emerging artists. The feature concept of the two sisters going on a road trip came to me while I was driving across Canada in 2010, specifically the northern shore of Lake Superior. I kept visualizing a dancer along the side of the road as I drove. In hindsight, I now think that this dancer was flashes of Marsha, giving me ideas.

Can you tell me the inspiration behind the character of Lori?

Cara: The character of Lori is inspired, in part, by a young woman named Loretta Saunders. She was Inuk from Labrador, living in Nova Scotia, a student at a university studying the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. She herself was kidnapped and murdered by two people who were subletting her apartment because they couldn’t pay the rent. Since she didn’t look Indigenous, Loretta was initially assumed to be ‘white’ when she went missing. I remember reading an interview with her mom saying that her heart almost broke when they changed the description of her daughter from being white to Indigenous. Her mother was afraid that Loretta would be downgraded to just another missing Indigenous woman and the police would stop looking for her. The character of Lori represents the women who should have been safe, according to the government and mainstream media who claim that the majority of missing and murdered Indigenous women live “high risk” lifestyles. For Loretta, and the character Lori, their only “risk factor” is being Indigenous women.

Another inspiration for Lori is Bella Laboucan-McLean, also a university-educated woman. Bella’s sister, Melina Laboucan-Massimo, writes about her a lot, as Delilah Saunders writes about her sister Loretta, so that sister relationship is right there, too. Bella had just graduated from art school and was going to be a fashion designer, yet somehow she “fell” to her death from a condo balcony in Toronto and no one in the small condo knew what happened. Again, these were not “high risk” women except for the fact that they were Indigenous. I want people to understand that an Indigenous woman can be the epitome of success, yet still be at risk because she is Indigenous; there are still people out there who see Indigenous women as less than human. 

Why did you choose to shoot the film north of Sault Sainte Marie on Lake Superior?

Cara: I’ve done that drive so many times from childhood to adulthood. It never loses its magic for me. This territory holds huge significance to Anishinaabe people. We filmed close to the Agawa pictographs, which holds great power and carries many stories and dreams of the Anishinaabe people. There are many sacred sites in that area and the lake is said to be home of Mishibizhiiw - a manitou in the form of a lynx serpent that has many interpretations. I see him as a creature of balance and protector of the lake. Some people view him as evil but I think when he is acting violently it is to protect the lake. 

Cara discusses Lake Superior and its connection to human trafficking that she touches upon in her film.

Cara: Lake Superior is also it is a huge site of human trafficking in North America, specifically on the boats between Thunder Bay and Duluth, Minnesota. During my research, I came across the statistic that 90% of women being trafficked in Canada are Canadian, and 90% of those Canadian women are Indigenous (this second stat is more contested). I’m not sure what percentage of those women are transported on these boats, but it’s one of the main organized sites of human trafficking in Canada outside of Toronto and Vancouver, along with areas around man camps for extractive industries. I read some interviews of survivors that have been on the boats between Duluth and Thunder Bay. Sometimes they are there for years. Some of them have had children on those boats and had their children taken away to become further victimized by human trafficking. 

I accompanied Cara and Elisa, the cinematographer, location scouting along Lake Superior last June 2016. I remember when we arrived at Katherine’s Cove and the excitement that came over us. Cara expresses that day here.

Cara: Lake Superior feels like this intersection of the natural beauty, sacred sites of significance to the Anishinaabe people, and then this horrific human trafficking. It just felt like the film needed to happen somewhere along the intricacies and complexities of this land and lake. I didn’t know if we would find a spot where we would all feel that power, but when we were location scouting and visited Katherine’s Cove, I felt the impulse to sing to the water and you, Heryka, started dancing at the waters’ edge, and Elisa was so moved by the place. It felt like the right place where you could sing, dance and feel deep emotions. Everything we needed to do. 

What are you hoping to convey when people watch your film?

Cara: The main thing I’m trying to do is to connect people to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women on a personal level. It’s important to have statistics and information campaigns out there to raise public consciousness, however, I feel like until people see it in a story with characters that they can relate to that it doesn’t really get inside of them. I’ve learned that dance and music, with the right kind of narrative, can have such an impact on people. I’m hoping that people who watch Ecstasy will finally feel a connection to those women that are missing and to family members left behind. Change needs education with passion behind it—that will, that urge to change. I feel that this urge to change comes from touching people’s emotions. I really feel inspired to create something that is both beautiful and meaningful and has the ability to create change. 

What’s next?

Cara: Hopefully, this film will also be the proof of concept for the feature film I would like to create with the collective, a road trip film following Marsha and Lori from Vancouver to Halifax, telling more of their story through spirit, dream, and dance.
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