Bringing a Voice to the Voiceless: An Interview with Reneltta Arluk

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing the exceptionally talented and accomplished actor, playwright, director, and activist, Reneltta Arluk. As Director of Indigenous Arts at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta, Canada, and as the first Indigenous woman and Inuk to graduate with a BFA in Acting from the University of Alberta, Reneltta is no newcomer to the task of creating space for Indigenous artists. In addition to her studies in acting, she has established herself as a well-known playwright and director. She made waves at the Stratford Festival in 2017 for being the first Indigenous woman and Inuk director on the production of Colleen Murphy’s The Breathing Hole, which earned her the Tyrone Guthrie – Derek F. Mitchell Artistic Director’s Award. Reneltta also performed in the world premiere of our very own Chantal Bilodeau’s play Sila, produced by Underground Railway Theatre in a project of Catalyst Collaborative@MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In the brief time I got to speak with Reneltta, I was struck by her passion for serving her community, and by her dedication to creating space for Indigenous artists to explore their craft in a “barrier-free” environment. I learned a tremendous amount about the trailblazing attitudes and the works required to truly bring a voice to the voiceless. Reneltta is one of many crusaders taking on the task of creating diverse spaces that are both accepting and welcoming of non-white artists. She was fortunate enough to find her calling at the intersection of arts and activism, and every day she strives to tell the stories of and advocate for the people who belong to this land. 

A barrier that Indigenous artists often have to overcome in predominantly white spaces is the need to explain themselves, their culture, and their traditions. Oftentimes, white artists do not encounter these same obstacles, and might not even be aware of the privilege they have in telling their own stories. But Indigenous artists are very aware of the absence of this privilege. A small step toward change must start with the acknowledgment that privilege exists in artistic spaces. Once one can recognize the privilege of their own voice, they can do their part to uplift Indigenous voices in spaces where they have often been suppressed. 

In your opinion, what should the world learn from traditional Indigenous ways of caring for the Earth, and is art the best way to communicate these traditions?

I recently listened to a speech by Willie Littlechild… He was a former commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He was talking about the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations. This was in response to the United Nations’ initial response to Indigenous Peoples. He said that for a number of years, Indigenous Peoples weren’t invited to be part of the United Nations and that their inclusion eventually came down to their self-determination about protecting their rights globally. That then created a bit of a disruption to the “status quo” with colonialism. He also said something really powerful, which is that Indigenous Peoples need to be at the table with the United Nations because they’re the only ones who ask: What about the fish? What about the water and what about the land? I’ve been thinking about our responsibility as Indigenous people to ensure that we bring a voice to the voiceless; I think that is really our role in the world. 

Willie Littlechild didn’t speak from an artistic perspective; he spoke from this Indigenous wisdom perspective and I don’t know, I feel pretty connected to that. Indigenous knowledge connects to a sense of humanity that is transferable in many ways. And art is a great way of connecting because we’re asking people to emotionally engage. What’s beautiful is that the knowledge he offers can be transferred into art. I mean, we think: is art life, is life art? The two are reciprocal. His words and Indigenous knowledge in general have influenced my work. In some ways, I think art can be a conduit to that knowledge. Art can connect to that kind of knowledge and break it down in a way that might be a little dry even though the speech was not dry, it was really, really powerful. When I heard it, there was some music playing underneath it. And I was like, OK, so, yes, art is a way to transform emotion into word, and word into emotion.

I watched your Artist Spotlight video with Urban Ink productions where you talked about  how much of your life has been nomadic and that your early childhood memories are deeply connected to nature. Do those experiences support your passion for wanting to create physical community spaces for Indigenous artists?

I think what it does is keep me connected to the reasons why I do what I do in the different ways that I do it. Creating space is the priority of the work that I do as a playwright, as an actor, as a director, and now as Director of Indigenous Arts at Banff Centre. Sometimes it’s a physical space, but we want to create space in people’s minds too, so they can think about how they can create space for Indigenous voices. And that, in turn, means looking at biases. It also means undoing some of those biases. So, yes. Physical space. Yes. Mental space. Yes. Spiritual space. Yes. All the spaces for Indigenous voices to be heard authentically. Being raised in the bush has not directly led to where I am now because we don’t grow up thinking this will lead to that, but absolutely. Because I was raised in that way, there’s a sense of clarity to why it’s important.

Reneltta Arluk pictured wearing traditional jewelry.

What would you tell young Indigenous artists who rarely see themselves represented on stage or on screen?

There are a lot of people in the background pushing for those spaces to be accessible. So, what I would say is start writing. Some actors are just actors, and some writers are just writers. But I always encourage artists to become multidisciplinary. As Indigenous Peoples, we’ve never just been one art. We wore our art! We wore our art as we told our stories. I would say don’t wait for someone to cast you, cast yourself. Write yourself, produce yourself, and focus on telling your story. The right people will hear it and the right people will come to see it – maybe not the “right” people, but people will come because your voice is important. 

We are the original storytellers of this land. Our stories are more interesting than anybody else’s stories that can be told on this land, and we just need to know that. Great things come from small things. I’m from the Northwest Territories in Canada, which has a population of 42,000 territory wide. I come from a community of 1,100. There were no arts in my life because of isolation and lack of accessibility… and yet I’ve been everywhere. I still run a project-by-project theatre company (Akpik Theatre); we don’t get operation funds, but we’ve been around since 2008. What led to that success was focusing on what’s important to me, and what’s important to me is Northern Indigenous stories. I’ve stayed true to my passion, and I think that’s where the interest and the longevity comes from.

I think it’s OK to say no to things that go against your value system. I know that doors are breaking open, but I don’t think they’re breaking open fast enough. If you want to be heard the way you want to be heard, you need to be the one telling your story, and you need to be part of other groups telling similar stories. I don’t know if there’s value in being in movies that portray stereotypes and in saying yes to things that you feel are challenging your value system. True success comes from living truly. When you’re starting out, you have to say yes to a lot of stuff so you can gain the experience you need, and have the opportunities you have. But I really value millennials! Millennials use their voice in a way that people in my generation never used theirs. And this new voice has led to movements. I’m hearing millennials and I’m feeling them. We always say you learn up, but you also learn down. So I’ve been truly grateful for how young people are using their voices and their bodies.

Members of the company in Colleen Murphy’s The Breathing Hole, directed by Reneltta Arluk, performing at the Stratford Festival. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

You took on the task of directing The Breathing Hole by Colleen Murphy which beautifully and intricately addresses the reality of climate change in the Canadian Arctic. Why do you think it’s important to bring awareness to the climate crisis through art? 

Art has a responsibility. Art asks for people to witness it. And so it asks for an audience who wants to see it to connect to something not only intellectually, but heartfully, and spiritually. When we look at how to offer perspective, or change perspectives, or increase awareness of climate change, we have to get people in the gut and in the heart, and art does that – well, good art does that. So it makes a lot of sense to use art as a way to connect to the importance of climate change.

You said that you became an artist as an act of cultural and political resurgence. How have those same motivations helped you in your position as Director of Indigenous Arts to foster a supportive and inspiring space for indigenous artists?

The political resurgence is important because I see myself as part of a greater community and a greater voice. Artists can be artists for their own sake. Absolutely. One hundred and ten percent. But my calling is to be part of a community, to create a community, and serve a community – and that’s the artistic community, the Indigenous community, and the Northern community. You know, we’re all part of these different worlds. And so I guess when that calling came, it wasn’t really about me, it was about the importance of my role in the greater community. I could have been an actor for the sake of being an actor; I just felt that my calling was a bit more than that. And so I was and am grateful to have found it, grateful to still be living it and serving the community.

As an indigenous artist myself, I am very inspired by the work that you do, especially seeing that there are people and spaces out there that are designed to help us and empower us.

That’s right! To allow us to be ourselves. Wholly. Non-Indigenous artists are able to go into organizations that serve only them, where there are no barriers when they create their work. There are no financial barriers, no support barriers. But Indigenous artists are constantly met with barriers because we’re in rooms where we’re often the minority. Then we have to try and explain our art – the why and how – we have to apply for funding that sets a hierarchical structure that doesn’t actually serve us. We have to create art in non-Indigenous institutions; and we even have to ask for permission to smudge in a lot of those spaces. When can we enter a space where there are no barriers? Can we just get to a place where an Indigenous artist enters a room and there’s nothing there telling them they have to explain themselves? There’s no one there subjecting them to microaggressions. They can develop work over however long it takes, and it doesn’t have to be done in three weeks and be perfect or else that organization will never do an Indigenous work ever again… We just need to be able to get to that place where we can do barrier-free, wholly supportive work.

In closing, do you have any words of wisdom for our readers?

I’m thinking of the work that The Arctic Cycle and Climate Change Theatre Action have been doing, how incredibly impactful it is, and how consistent the reach of the work is. I’ve really valued hearing people’s voices say: the climate crisis is important to us and our current governments are devaluing that knowledge. It seems a bit daunting because they are our governments, here to protect us and to keep us safe. But as a minority, we don’t believe that, because they’re not really here for us; they’re not really speaking for us. It has been hard to see that this perspective is also present in the conversation around climate change. 

It’s been great to see how as artists, we are sharing these voices with each other. I feel like it’s a grassroots movement in a lot of ways, but I also feel like it’s a grassroots global movement. I guess my advice would be to stay hopeful, especially now… what a time. Stay hopeful and stay trusting.

(Top image: Reneltta Arluk (center) with Sophorl Ngin (left) and Nael Nacer (right) in Sila by Chantal Bilodeau presented by Underground Railway Theatre, a project of Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, in 2014. Photo by A.R. Sinclair Photography.)

This article is part of the Indigenous Voices series.

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GiGi Buddie is an American Indian artist and student studying theatre, with an emphasis in acting, at Pomona College. Whether it be through acting or working in tech, GiGi has dedicated much of her life to the theatre. In the summer of 2019, her passion for art and environmental justice took her to the Baram River in Malaysian Borneo where she, alongside Pomona professors, researched the environmental crisis and how it has been affecting the Indigenous groups that live along the river. As a result of her experience researching and traveling, she student-produced the Pomona College event for Climate Change Theatre Action during the fall 2019 semester.

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