On Friday March 22, Wenjack Theatre was filled with people celebrating World Water Day, and the works of Professor Emeritus Dr. Shirley Williams and Canadian filmmaker Sacha Trudeau, who launched a book and a film, respectively, at the event.
The night began with a prayer in Anishinaabeg led by Dr. Williams, followed by a series of water ceremonies. Williams and other speakers stressed the importance of water, and explained its significance not only to communities, but to life.
“Water is life,” she said repeatedly. “We need it for future generations. We have to pray for, sing to, and bless the water.”
In Anishinaabeg, nibi means water, and the room was invited to join the elders in singing the Water Song as the water was blessed. Lots of strawberries were also passed around. Dr. Williams explained that strawberries are heart berries, and that to bring balance back to the world, we must focus on our heart teachings and bring that same balance to our own hearts.
Dr. Williams reminisced and shared some of the experiences that inspired her book, Shoolee: The Early Years. The title was inspired by her younger brother, who, having never spoken English, was unable to pronounce the ‘r’ in her name, calling her ‘Shoolee’ instead. The auditorium listened attentively as she told a story from the book — one about herself and her siblings being chased by a rather persistent goat. People roared with laughter at the comedic retelling, demonstrating Dr. Williams’ talent as an amazing storyteller and that her book is well worth a read.
The hosts of the night fondly remembered their encounters with Dr. Williams and her writing. In their monthly meetings, while others showed off lines, paragraphs, and pages of written work, Dr. Williams would often come in with entire books, stories, and anecdotes written. She was a visionary and greatly encouraged the group.
Shortly after the water ceremony, Sacha Trudeau’s film began. Entitled Wiisgaapte, or “Bitter Smoke,” the approximately 20-minute long film was entirely in Anishinaabeg. Although there were subtitles, a technical difficulty left the audience watching the actors’ performances more closely, as they were unable to rely on the dialogue. Placed in a heavily wooded forest in the middle of winter, we meet a woman and a young boy who seems to be her son. They huddle together by a fire in a tipi, eating and eventually falling asleep. The mother is woken up in the middle of the night by a strange sound. She follows it, and stumbles upon a trail of blood, which leads her to a Wendigo.
These spiritual creatures are well known in Indigenous people’s history. They represent greed, human evil, and cultural taboos. These creatures either were once men whose greed consumed them or angry spirits who possessed people.
The mother runs back in search of her son, but the Wendigo catches up, and a fight ensues. The pair are lucky enough to distract the creature before setting it on fire within their home and watch it burn.
After a well-deserved round of applause, the audience peppered Trudeau and Dr. Williams with questions. Trudeau explained that he was repeatedly directed to Dr. Williams for the translations from English to Anishnaabeg, and to teach the actors the proper pronunciations.
He asked how the actors did — Dr. Williams candidly replied, “They did alright.”
The night ended with a beautifully decorated cake, tea, coffee, and water available. The audience was able to talk to many of the wonderful hosts and elders as well, and the blessed water was passed around for all those interested to take a sip.