Sisters find new Indigenous dimensions in ‘Kamloopa’

Two sisters sprawl together on an old couch on a cold night, in a two-bedroom apartment in East Vancouver. They are struggling with college classes and distant professors and a thankless office job — and tonight they’re scared, three sheets to the wind and making each other laugh. One can’t sleep, not knowing how or where to belong, and one can’t see anywhere she might belong to.

But the wind is changing. As they hold on to each other, they hear it carrying sounds in the night — a coyote or a raven’s call. Voices speak the language their people have spoken here for hundreds of years. The sisters are Syilx, Coast Salish from the eight nations of the Okanagan Alliance, and when a woman comes into their lives as a chosen sister, she will challenge them to come into power in their own ways.

WAM Theatre presents Kamloopa by Kim Senklip Harvey, directed by Estefanía Fadul and performed at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, through October 24.

Ria Nez and Sarah B. Denison appear in Kamloopa at WAM Theatre. Press photo courtesy of WAM
Photo by David Dashiell

Ria Nez and Sarah B. Denison appear in Kamloopa at WAM Theatre. Press photo courtesy of WAM

The play is a comedy, a fast-paced sendup and satire with a raw depth, said actors Ria Nez, Sarah B. Denison and Jasmine Rochelle Goodspeed, as they gathered with Fadul to talk over zoom around rehearsals. In spring 2021, Harvey became the first Indigenous playwright to win the Governor General’s Award for English Language Drama, recognition as wide as a National Book Award or a Pulitzer prize.

She is a member of the Syilx and Tsilhqot’in Nation, with ancestral ties to the Dakelh, Secwepemc and Ktunaxa communities. Her people have lived for hundreds of years in a wide stretch of land on the Pacific coast and inland along the Canadian border, with hills of grassland and ponderosa pine, and the third largest city in Canada.

The sisters in Kamloopa are sharing a place on the East Side of Vancouver, in a diverse, working class, rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. They seem to be alone in the city together. They speak of their parents with love and awe, as though they are out of reach.

Ria Nez and Sarah B. Denison appear in Kamloopa at WAM Theatre. Press photo courtesy of WAM
Photo by David Dashiell

Ria Nez and Sarah B. Denison appear in Kamloopa at WAM Theatre. Press photo courtesy of WAM

Ria Nez, an Indigenous Nahautl actor, director and artist living in New York City, talked about her role as the younger sister, Mikaya.

“She starts in a very down place,” she said, “depressed, unsure of herself, unsure of the culture. She has a need to know more about who she is, as a person, in relation to her identity and being of the Okanagan Nation. At the beginning she has an urge to know more, but she isn’t sure how to go about it.”

Mikaya feels the loss of her culture and a longing for connection, bone deep even when she can’t put the whole of her need into words.

I can’t breathe a lot of the time,” she tells her sister in the play. “I’m scared of being … I’m scared of being. My body feels like it’s being ripped apart, and you keep asking me to ignore it. I close my eyes and I’m awake, so I don’t want to shut my eyes because I’m terrified of what’s inside me. My own body is trying to eradicate me. In a world that already doesn’t want me …”

Kilawna, her older sister, has built a cuccoon around herself, said Denison, a New York City actor, writer, and director originally from the Spokane Reservation.

“She definitely is … closed off to pretty much everything, even joy in the beginning,” Denison said. “She’s very much the protector of herself and everyone around her. She has built … a wall that rejects anything that makes her feel uncomfortable, or makes her think she has to look deeper into herself, into things she feels uncomfortable exploring.”

Kilawna comes into the play feeling a rejection of her culture, based on what she has experienced and heard outside of the community growing up.

“She has some very harsh opinions about what it is to be Native American,” Denison said, “… and so in a lot of ways the journey is about getting to the place where this wall built of fear of vulnerability can’t possibly be upheld any longer … the breaking down and breaking down and breaking down until it just crumbles.”

Ria Nez and Sarah B. Denison appear in Kamloopa at WAM Theatre. Press photo courtesy of WAM
Photo by David Dashiell

Ria Nez and Sarah B. Denison appear in Kamloopa at WAM Theatre. Press photo courtesy of WAM

It begins the night she and her sister meet a woman at a local bar: Goodspeed, a Massachusetts Native actor and playwright from the Nipmuc Nation, plays Edith / Indian Friend Number 1 — a comic force of energy and a catalyst.

“She’s got this amazing grand entry,” Goodspeed said. “She’s totally on board with these two — all right, we are best friends, we are sisters, this is the vibe! … And … it is not the vibe that she walks into the next morning, after meeting them the night before.

“I think she knows that her place is to spice things up here and to get these girls into this place of accepting themselves and accepting their identities. And that’s also a little selfish for her, because she also wants to be accepted by them and to be a part of their life.”

She joins Mikaya as an eager ally in trying to learn about their people, sifting out stereotypes and Internet memes — visiting the community center and singing along to Susan Aglukark and Chad Irschick, Tanya Tagaq and Halluci Nation.

Jasmine Rochelle, Ria Nez and Sarah B. Denison appear in Kamloopa at WAM Theatre. Press photo courtesy of WAM
Photo by David Dashiell

Jasmine Rochelle, Ria Nez and Sarah B. Denison appear in Kamloopa at WAM Theatre. Press photo courtesy of WAM

They stretch toward something more raw and more real. And they begin to feel it in their bodies — a beat like a pulse, the voices of women in their blood. The actors weave together their contemporary women and the ancestors, and the shape-shifters —
Mikaya and Senklip the coyote, Kilawna and Grizzly Bear, Edith and the Raven.

“The (ancestors) live within us, in the past, present, and future worlds,” Harvey writes in the stage directions. “They are many things, including protectors of the spirit.” They are K̓ awiwelx, the greatest and oldest members of the family.

The shifters make a connection between the ancestors and the human women, Fadul said. When Raven, Coyote and Grizzly Bear come into the story, often the ancestors are trying to communicate, and the shifters become their conduit.

Kilawna, Mikaya and Edith struggle to hear them. When they are feeling the influence of the shifters, and the night sounds in dry scrubland on the edge of highway 97, space can open out. Harvey has set the play in all times in the multiverse, as though these three women can walk into a place where they can knead physics like clay and remake the world by hand. They can transform bodies and dimensions.

When she feels the presence of the coyote, Mikaya calls the shifter by name, Senklip, in the n̓səl̓xcin̓ language.

“We learned from our cultural consultant that in Syilx, Kilawna means grizzly bear,” Denison said. “So it’s interesting that the most resistant character to the culture, the direct translation of her name is this shifter animal that lives within her and guides her. … She’s so protective and kind of grumpy, that mama bear. … and then Mikaya is a bit of an instigator.”

“A trickster,” Nez said. “Mischievous.”

‘I’ve felt that loneliness, that broken feeling on the inside. That space where we know something should be. That intangible river that used to connect us to something more.’ — Kim Senklip Harvey

They have worked with their consultant to learn the words they speak here in the n̓səl̓xcin̓ language, the language of the Okanagan Nation, said dramaturg Tatiana Godfrey. He has studied it for some four years, and he has recorded all of the lines spoken in it, in the play. The actors can listen and learn how to shape the sounds.

“It’s a beautiful language,” Godfrey said, “and I feel really thankful that we’re able to speak it. There are less than 50 speakers of this language right now, so I feel very privileged that we’re able to put this language to be heard in the air, to be received.”

The play holds that kind of loss, Denison and Nez said, and the humor can have depth and an edge to it.

I’ve felt that loneliness, that broken feeling on the inside,” Edith tells Mikaya. “That space where we know something should be. That intangible river that used to connect us to something more.”

“I think that’s one of the things in this play that really strikes,” Denison said — “… So many nations and tribes and Indigenous people lost access to their culture. And it is kind of a joke, you’re just an ‘Internet Indian’ — you just learned that on the internet — but for so many people, that becomes the only way to start. Because unless you live really near your Indigenous community, or you live in your Indigenous community, sometimes you don’t learn, you don’t know know these things.”

That loss of culture comes from many years of systematic pressure, she is clear to say: “It was taught out of people as people were forced to assimilate into the White man’s world, and a lot of that culture was lost. … But the fact that we can make light of it and step into the joy of discovering, even if we don’t have a real means of discovery …. If you’re an Indigenous person not connected with the community, how do you get there — how do you find that?”

‘This show does such an amazing job discussing what does it mean to do it yourself, to try to connect with your culture on your own.’ — Jasmine Rochelle Goodspeed

“This show does such an amazing job discussing what does it mean to do it yourself, to try to connect with your culture on your own,” Goodspeed said.

It takes work, she said, and not everyone will make the effort or keep it up. She sees even within her own family people saying ‘I’m not going to put in the work. I’m not going to try — I know I’m native, but it’s easier to just pass.’

“It’s easier to not have to take all of it on,” she said. “But then there are people like Mikaya who really want in — and want in for the right reasons, which I think is a significant thing.”

Some people want to claim Indigenous identity because they want it to benefit them in some way, she said.

“But the journey Mikaya goes through is beautiful, and sure it’s hard, it’s really hard, but I think it’s a really truthful experience for a lot of people, and it encourages a lot of people to have the courage, to have the strength.”

Jasmine Rochelle, Ria Nez and Sarah B. Denison appear in Kamloopa at WAM Theatre. Press photo courtesy of WAM
Photo by David Dashiell

Jasmine Rochelle, Ria Nez and Sarah B. Denison appear in Kamloopa at WAM Theatre. Press photo courtesy of WAM

“For Mikaya, it’s learning that language,” Nez said, “and I think for a lot of Indigenous people, the culture comes from the language.”

“First they took our language, in every sense of the world, and that’s how we lose — you take our language, you take the teachings, the ceremonies, you take away connection to your own people. If you can’t understand your own people, how are you supposed to communicate, how are you supposed to engage with them?”

Mikaya is trying to learn on her own, finding as many words as she can and always trying to pronounce things properly, trying to understand layers of meaning and roots of words and the ways of thinking and feeling they reveal.

“And maybe (she’s) not getting it,” Nez said, “but she’s almost there, almost there, almost there, until something opens within her and she can finally connect, and it just comes out naturally … and it propels her forward.”

The three women move forward together, Fadul said. None of them could make this journey alone.

“They can go beyond this world with who they are,” Nez said. “Now that they have this sisterhood and connection … I feel like anything can happen for them.”

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