Kiciweok, a lexicon of 13 Aboriginal words that make sense: An interview with Émilie Monnet
In Anishnaabemowin, the word Kiciweok means “they have a strong and clear voice.”
Nayla Naoufal: How did you choose the artists who participate in “Kiciweok, a lexicon of 13 Aboriginal words that make sense”?
Émilie Monnet: What shaped the show were encounters with the artistic work of certain people that captured my heart. The artists practice in different media – some participants are writers while others don’t work with words at all . For example, Hannah Claus comes from the world of visual arts, and Catherine Boivin mixes performance and media arts in her work. George Sioui is a philosopher and historian.
What I liked was the plurality of practices. It was also important that there be diversity in the Aboriginal nations present on stage.
N.N.: What was your role in the creative process?
É.M.: My role, as director, was to frame and knit together all the words of the participants, to find a fluidity and an order for each respective proposal, to guide and suggest things… It was to create a container, a whole. The show was punctuated by animation vignettes designed by visual artist Meky Ottawa to present each of the Aboriginal words in the show. Singer/musician Moe Clark provided sound transitions between each of the speeches and interacted frequently with the performers. What struck me was that many people wanted to sing!
N. N.: Some of the Aboriginal words chosen by the performers are what we call concept words or word-concepts. What does that mean?
É.M.: It refers to words that don’t have an equivalent in French and English. Sometimes it takes a whole sentence to try to translate the meaning. For example, Eatenonha, the word chosen by George Sioui in Wendat in Kiciweok, is a concept word. It means, as George explains, “the principle of the feminine at the very heart of democracy. It means that democracy is impossible if it is not carried by women. The word-concepts convey conceptions of the world, values, ways of being connected to the living world…
Not all the words chosen by the artists were word-concepts. Some of them are full of humor and gave rise to very funny performances. For example, Mikon Niquay-Ottawa chose the Atikamekw word Otapan, which means car. She tells us that this word comes from the French phrase “on est en panne” (we’re out of order) and was invented when the first car appeared in Manawan.
N.N.: It is therefore a relatively new word. The colonial discourse often conveys the idea that Aboriginal languages would no longer change, that they would belong to the past…This idea is false, Aboriginal languages are in perpetual movement, right?
É.M.: Aboriginal languages are always evolving! New words are constantly being created because the world is changing. Aboriginal languages are alive, not stuck in the past. Like cultures, they are constantly adapting to the times.
N.N.: First Nations, Métis and Inuit languages are imbued with a different idea of the world, one that is specific to Autochthony. In particular, relationships with the living world are essential. Do Aboriginal languages contain specific knowledge about the territory and nature?
É.M. Yes, there is a very intimate connection between Aboriginal languages and the territories where they are anchored. Some words reproduce the sounds that animals make, it’s as if you hear the territory, the birds, the river…
N.N.: Are some of the Aboriginal words chosen by the participants in Kiciweok marked by this intimate connection to the territory?
É.M.: I would say yes. For example, Innu poet Marie-Andrée Gill chose the word Kuapetsip, which refers to an instrument used to break the ice in the spring to collect water from the river. Josephine Bacon’s word was mitinikanishaueu, which in Innu Aimun means “the divinatory art of reading on the shoulder blades of animals.” When the Innu were nomads, as Josephine explains, they would heat a caribou shoulder blade and interpret the pattern that formed on it, which allowed them to locate the herds.
Josephine Bacon’s poetry gives a place to Innu words so that they continue to exist. Some words will disappear if they are no longer used, if the objects or practices to which they refer are no longer useful in today’s world. Not only these words are lost, but also the knowledge they contain…
N.N.: It is as if each Aboriginal language had a terminology of scientific knowledge about the territory where a community lives, the fauna, the flora, and how to live on that territory.
É.M.: I agree. It is often said that the Aboriginal languages are reservoirs of knowledge, traditions, ways of seeing the world and of inhabiting the territories in their specificity. They constitute our heritage.
N.N.: You are in the process of learning Anishnaabemowin, the Algonquian language spoken by the Anishinaabeg Aboriginal peoples, of which you are a part.
É.M.: Yes, it’s a way to nourish my connection to my family and my culture on my mother’s side. It awakens something important in me. Like the feeling of activating a memory, or rekindling a fire.
I take Anishnaabemowin classes, although not always on a regular basis. Veronique Thusky is my teacher, and I have been learning from her for a few years. There is also the Native Montreal organization which offers courses in several Aboriginal languages. It is a valuable resource in Montreal. I would say that my art practice allows me to progress more quickly, and my art projects become a channel for learning Anishnaabemowin.
N. N.: Revitalizing, reanimating Aboriginal languages is a political process, isn’t it?
É. M.: Yes, absolutely, it is not for nothing that the colonial government tried to eradicate the Aboriginal languages. To lose one’s language is to be torn away from one’s identity, from one’s connection to the territory…I believe that when people are disconnected from their cultures, their languages and the stories that connect them to the territory, it is easier for the government to take over their lands and natural resources.
Recovering the knowledge of our ancestors, reclaiming our languages, our ceremonies, our traditions, this is part of the movements and processes of re-autochtonization, of claims, of reaffirmation of the Aboriginal presence within the territory.
N. N.: According to Maori researcher Linda Tuhiwai Smith, the languages of Aboriginal peoples are uninterrupted links with their histories.
É. M.: Aboriginal languages convey ways of seeing and relating to the universe. For example, the feminine and masculine do not exist in Anishnaabemowin. However, the language does distinguish between what is animate and what is inanimate. When you hear someone speak this language, you are immediately aware of a particular worldview.
N. N.: It makes me think of survival, the concept formed from the words survival and resistance, created by the Aboriginal Anishinaabe writer and thinker Gerald Vizenor. Linda Tuhiwai Smith talks about celebrating survival, through events where artists and storytellers come together to honour life and community. Kiciweok is an event that celebrates survival, right?
É. M.: Yes, Kiciweok is a happening show, it’s very festive, the atmosphere is relaxed. We celebrate being together. All the artists are on stage throughout the show, passing the microphones around as if they were talking sticks. The premiere was timed to coincide with the thirteenth full moon of the year, as a way of paying tribute to the knowledge of our ancestors as well as the bearers of that knowledge. The intergenerational transmission is really tangible on stage.
There is certainly a reflection to be made on the resistance through celebration, on the link between the political and the festive. There is something very political in the mere fact of being together, of taking over a place like the large hall of the Centre du Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui, the centre of Franco-Canadian drama for fifty years. It was very moving to see so many Aboriginal bodies moving on stage, to hear so many words in different languages. We take our place, we share who we are. It’s like a small revolution in the world of theatre.