In Elaputiek (We Are Looking Towards), shalan joudry tells the story of Natawintoq (Nat) – a twenty-something Mi’kmaq woman from the local community – and Bill – a Euro-Canadian research biologist in his fifties. The play centers around the relationship between the two characters as they undertake a headcount of the local population of chimney swifts, also called kaktukopnki’jk. This is important, as these birds are an at-risk species. Their numbers need to be closely monitored and reported back to SwiftWatch, the Maritimes’ conservation agency. The drama is set in the wooded clearing where an old cabin stands and the birds make their roost in a crumbling chimney.
When the play opens, Nat is the first on the scene. She is conducting ceremony on the land when she is abruptly interrupted by the entrance of Bill, who, with the passionate assurance of a middle-aged white professional, states “I’m conducting research, with permission.” Bill asserts his permission to be on the land has been granted by its private owner. Nat asserts that the land belongs to the L’nu community, that it has always been Mi’kmaq land.
Things quickly deteriorate from there. Bill arrogantly argues his right to be in the space to conduct his business as he wishes, while dismissing Nat’s opinions and belittling her traditions. Nat, with a bit of humour, doggedly follows on Bill’s heels and asserts herself as a co-researcher. “I studied Mi’kmaq biology,” she tells Bill, “It’s all about relationships.”
“I don’t know my old English or Scottish culture,” Bill admits. Which leaves us wondering: so, what is his culture? From where has he built his cultural framework? How can he appreciate the land without appreciating the cultural infrastructure that supports it?
This is the conflict that lies at the heart of Elapultiek: that between Nat’s holistic, Mi’kmaq understanding of the land, and Bill’s Eurocentric understanding of conservation through data collection and private land ownership.
Nat convinces Bill to organize a community meeting to encourage the local population to come together to protect the at-risk birds. Things don’t go quite as planned. A suspicious fire threatens the survival of the chimney swifts and Bill and Nat’s work is in peril. Can they overcome histories of violence and intergenerational abuse and trauma to work together on a common cause? Can Bill put aside his firmly held prejudices against the Mi’kmaq people, or will all be lost?
Bill and Nat butt heads in a few political debates that recall recent headlines. The removal of the Edward Cornwallis statue from a downtown Halifax/Kjipuktuk park, for example. These exchanges can seem constructed, inserted in order to cover the necessary ground to bring viewers and readers up-to-speed. Considering that Elaputiek is the first play by a Mi’kmaq writer in the twenty-five-year production history of Kings County theatre company Two Planks and a Passion, I can see why a bit of background context is necessary to include.
joudry succeeds in balancing the educational with the dramatic. Where the play could have come across as preachy, joudry injects it with keenly felt emotion. The concept of ‘Etuaptmumk’ or ‘Two-Eyed Seeing’ (coined by Mi’kmaq elder Albert Marshall) is deftly illustrated in the ways the characters must learn to work together. As Nat says, the Mi’kmaq community has historically borne the heaviest load: “I’ve always had more work. I’ve had to learn the Euro-Canadian English way, but then also learn from my Elders about what it means to be L’nu. The onus is always on us to walk both worlds.”
I think Euro-Canadians need to ask themselves what they have stripped away by denying this Two-Eyed perspective for so long, both culturally and ecologically. How has our relationship with nature suffered? “These birds are our messengers,” warns Natawintoq (“she who sings”). “They show us that we’re no longer in balance with nature.” How do we move forward when all signs point to devastating ecological collapse in the next century?
The answer might be in working together, addressing the wounds of the past, moving towards reconciliation in a way that isn’t simply lip-service. It’s in the best interest of all of us.