Monday, October 18, 2010

Elmiet: October 16, 2010

The woman standing on the steps is Ursula Johnson. During Nocturne: Art At Night, she performed a ritualistic scalping in protest of a law that says the scalp of a Mi'kmaq man, woman, or child can be turned in for a bounty of 25 pounds sterling (probably about $40 now).

The bounties were placed by former Governors Lawrence and Cornwallis (regular readers already know my feelings on General Cornwallis), and while the government of Nova Scotia officially apologized for the bounties back in 2000, the law is still on the books, and Johnson and many others have been trying for quite some time to have it removed.

In preparation for her protest piece, Johnson had been growing out her hair - in Mi'kmaq culture the longer a person's hair is, the stronger his/her spiritual connection to the world around him/her is considered to be - and also weaving a long headpiece that would cover her head/eyes, and double as her hair/scalp during the performance.

During the presentation, Ursula Johnson asked a brave member of the roughly 100-strong audience to step forward and volunteer to scalp her on stage. Believe it or not, no one jumped forward to take the place of the bounty collectors.

I suspected something like this might happen, and since the performer had voluntarily blinded herself for the past three to four hours, I really didn't want her to half to ask twice for a volunteer. I stepped forward and took my place beside her.

When I had first stepped forward I thought perhaps a short speech would be given by Ursula, and then I would simply pull the headpiece off. However, a top Native singer, Nathan Sack, came forward and started singing a traditional song while Ursula told me to place my hands on the side of her head. She told me that at the end of the song I was to rip her headpiece off violently, and that I should act very proud since I had done a noble act in killing a Mi'kmaq savage.

The video clip below shows the culmination of the scalping ("the last scalping ever.") Note: the first two or three minutes is cut out, because it's mostly the singer singing, and Ursula struggling to break free, while I struggle to comprehend what's going on but then catch on and try to act like I'm struggling to keep her from breaking free.

I accidentally deleted the video file, but after I tore Ursula's scalp off, I stepped up to the microphone and gave a short speech about how I may have look proud to have taken the scalp in the performance, but how I was not proud that the law/bounty still existed. Then I asked the audience to help lend their support to the performer's cause.

After the show, a number of Ursula's friends came up and shook my hand or hugged me. One woman actually said she started crying, because she pictured me as the embodiment of those rulers who tried to take away her people's way of life (is that a compliment?) Even non-Mi'kmaq members of the audience thought I was fairly convincing, and I had a tough time trying to convince everyone that I was not in fact "planted" in the audience, but was actually a real volunteer who didn't know what was going to happen before hand.

When asked by my brother why I wanted to go to the performance, I told him that since attending the Membertou 400 Festival I have developed a tremendous amount of respect for those Mi'kmaq people who are trying to regain a sense of pride in their history, and/or who are trying to regain a sense of identity for themselves and their people. I will continue to support the Mi'kmaq people, and indeed all First Nations people of Canada, whenever and however I can as I continue to migrate around the country.

Note: I apologize if I've used Mi'kmaq incorrectly at all in this blog. One day I will figure out when to use Mi'kmaq/Mi'kmaw correctly.

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