Growing up in a whitewashed world, playwright, actress, and poet Yolanda Bonnell took on the task of searching for her Indigenous identity through the arts. Using the creative possibilities of theatre to navigate her way through uncharted waters, she has now emerged a successful artist that seeks to guide those on their own journey. White Girls in Moccasins is one of her works that does exactly that as it beautifully tackles an Indigenous search for identity. Drawing upon her own experiences, Bonnell finds comfort in art that tells stories that often go untold.
As a Queer Two Spirit Ojibwe and South Asian artist, Bonnell has explored and created many narratives on the stage, as well as been involved in works that call for Indigenous representation. Her acting credits include roles in The Breathing Hole by Colleen Murphy, directed by Reneltta Arluk, who I wrote about in my previous post, and presented at the Stratford Festival, and Two Indians by Falen Johnson, presented at Summerworks 2016, for which she was named one of NOW Magazine’s Theatre Discoveries and most exciting artists to watch.
Bonnell and myself, like many others, grew up experiencing stereotyped depictions of Indigenous peoples and sadly, this has resulted in a barrier between non-Indigenous people and an accurate knowledge of our people and culture. Artists like Bonnell are breaking down that barrier to communicate and teach Indigenous traditions, culture, and narratives, and to expose those stereotypes for the blatant fiction they are and always have been.
Your show White Girls in Moccasins deals with the search for identity as an Indigenous person in a whitewashed world. How has art helped you navigate finding your identity?
I think that creating and writing truly helped me work through the confusion and the “lost” feeling I had, one that I still sometimes have, about my identity. So much was kept secret or buried or hidden when I was growing up. I mostly learned about the stereotypes regarding my identities. All of the things that make up who I am were ostracized, or attacked, or made to look like something that they weren’t. Once I finally used my art to lean into mining through all of the colonial bullshit, I was able to bring all of myself forward in a positive way. Telling my stories helped me navigate through all the positive reclamation work I was doing to discover myself.
You performed in The Breathing Hole, a story that uses the medium of theatre to talk seriously about climate change, at the Stratford Festival. In your opinion, what is the importance of addressing serious topics through art, especially the topic of our climate crisis?
I think it’s incredibly important. I’ve always said that I believe art is inherently political. We’ve been able to map our true history with our stories, no matter in which medium they’re told. Often those stories carry messages or truths that push back against oppression. Even our prophecies are stories. Many Indigenous prophecies warned about climate change and environmental devastation.
As artists, we are either given or we build a platform for ourselves to engage and display great vulnerability and truth, which allows our witnesses to deeply feel something. To experience something. To watch and listen and laugh and cry and sing along. It’s an honor and a privilege to have that platform, as much as it is an honor and privilege to be a witness. For me, revolution is a duty, not a choice (I read that on a bathroom stall and have touted it ever since). As artists and storytellers, I believe it is our duty to use our gifts to bring forth truth and be political. It is our duty to remind people of what’s actually happening in this world, remind them what is happening in their “country,” and in their backyards and neighborhoods. Then, once we show you, it’s your job as a witness to go and continue to do your part in making that change. We can be political and entertaining. There are intersections that have always worked. It’s like hiding the medicine in the pudding.
The West Coast of the United States is experiencing the worst and most devastating wildfires to date. For millennia, Indigenous people used flames to protect the land, but the US government outlawed the process for over a century before recognizing its value. Yet the Indigenous knowledge of the caretakers of the land is unmatched. As the climate crisis progresses, do you think experts will look to Indigenous people for answers on how to care for the land?
I want to say yes. I want to say that they’ll read Indigenous authors or look to our histories to see how we worked in rhythm with the land. I want to say they’ll put Indigenous land defenders, scientists, botanists, knowledge keepers at the head of environmental defense, but I’m not confident in those steps ever being taken.
We’ve seen this time and time again. We are at the precipice of irreversible climate disaster, and we have watched this happen before. From first contact, Indigenous people have been attempting to teach settlers how to live with the land and how to live sustainably. Yet here we are. The systems of government on Turtle Island do not see Indigenous people as people, they see us as a nuisance and they always have. You’re not going to ask the roaches in your house to dinner to negotiate survival tactics. No. I really do hope that the experts will do what is needed, but systemic racism is a deep root and many of those people don’t want to admit that they’re wrong.
In an interview for Muskrat Magazine, you said, “We (Indigenous women) don’t experience enough of seeing ourselves. There is power in representation.” What does Indigenous representation on stage mean to you?
Indigenous representation means that I’m not alone. It means that I matter, my story matters, and that my experiences as a Queer Indigenous woman matter. It means that I am seen, beautiful, and more than just a statistic. It means that I am more than just my trauma and pain. When I see another Indigenous person on stage, especially a Kwe, I am immediately moved. I grew up, as many of us did, surrounded by whiteness. White was the standard and it was considered to be the blueprint of beauty. Life only mattered if you were white. I was a stereotype, assimilated, indoctrinated, so I grabbed on to what I could. The Pocahontas, the Tiger Lily, the Isabel Two (who wasn’t even Indigenous), every noble savage imagery, anything to find myself, I grabbed onto. Even now, I’ve only felt seen and represented on stage three times. So when I do see it, it moves me to a place deep in my core because I understand that the feeling of being seen and not being alone is like nothing else in this world.
In closing, do you have any words of wisdom for our readers?
I urge you to read more Indigenous literature and learn about systems of governance that existed long before the Eurocentric systems we have now. Learn the true histories of this land and the land you come from. Decolonize. Stay informed. Use your privilege for good.
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Here is a list of 10 Books by Indigenous Authors You Should Read, written by Emily Temple for Literary Hub, as well as a Decolonization Reading List to further educate while decolonizing your mind and bookshelf.
(Top image: Yolanda Bonnell performing in her solo show bug. Photo by Dahlia Katz.)
This article is part of the Indigenous Voices series.
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.