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Canada's Apartheid, by John Stackhouse
Stories
Introduction
  Nov. 3

Welcome to Harlem on the Prairies
  Nov. 3 (Saskatoon, SK)

Crystal's choice: The best of both worlds
  Nov. 5 (Mississauga, ON)

How the Mi'kmaq profit from fear
  Nov. 6 (Cape Breton, NS)

The healing power of hockey
  Nov. 7 (The Pas, MB)

Norma Rae of the Okanagan
  Nov. 8 (Westbank, BC)

Comic genius or 'niggers in red face'?
  Nov. 9 (Regina, SK)

Praying for a miracle
  Nov. 10 (Lac Ste. Anne, AB)

To have and to have not
  Nov. 12 (Moosonee, ON)

Trouble in paradise
  Nov. 19 (Tofino, BC)

A cut of the action
  Nov. 26 (Wabigoon, ON)

The young and the restless
  Dec. 3 (Ashern, MB)

The wireless warrior's digital dream
  Dec. 10 (Ottawa,ON)

'Everyone thought we were stupid'
  Dec. 14 (Salluit, QC)

First step: End the segregation
  Dec. 15 (Last in the series)

 

Comic genius or 'niggers in red face'?

Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by John Lehmann.
The Globe and Mail, November 9, 2001

Part 5 of 7: Laughter "is the great leveller" in native society


Dead Dog Cafe While King dines with Flaherty and a couple of non-native technicians on the show, co-star Floyd Favel Starr is on one of those reserves, the Piapot First Nation, in a sweat lodge with some elders and local musicians.

He visits the reserve again the next morning, as part of a spiritual exercise he tries to follow every day. Like King, Starr has his contradictions.


"[Laughter] keeps you grounded. It keeps you focused, who your friends are. It makes your spirit happy. Happiness is what we strive for, to make people happy.
Floyd Favel Starr

At 36, he looks urban bohemian, dressed in jeans and a peach-coloured shirt, with narrow eyeglasses and a brush cut. But when he reaches the reserve, he strips to his underwear and slips into a tent, packed with 20 or so Piapot elders and a group of young non-native offenders brought from Regina as part of a rehabilitation program.

He presents an elder with a traditional offering of tobacco and cloth. He bought the fabric at Wal-Mart, the epitome of the corporate America that King so dislikes. The DuMauriers came from a gas station en route to the reserve. For Starr, breathing the steamy, sweet air produced by the red-hot rocks marks a return to his roots. Born and raised on the Poundmaker reserve outside North Battleford, he remains true to an upbringing that has shaped his acting and left him with a view of humour very different from that of California-born King.

In the 1970s, when Poundmaker had yet to get running water, let alone television, Starr's primary source of childhood entertainment was his mother's stories and his close-knit family's lively discussions in Cree, a language he compares to an art form. By its nature, Cree lends itself to puns and wordplay, Starr says, which may be why so many people on his reserve considered themselves to be wits.

They had to be. Laughter "is the great leveller" in native society, he says. "They also say it keeps you grounded. It keeps you focused, who your friends are. It makes your spirit happy. Happiness is what we strive for, to make people happy."

When he left the reserve for high school in North Battleford, he felt alienated, as did most Indian teens (rather than football, they were encouraged to play soccer with the immigrant kids). Dropping out in Grade 12, he moved to Saskatoon, and stumbled across a native theatre group led by director Ruth Smiley, who now runs Regina's Globe Theatre. He wanted to be a writer, and was hooked.

Then, with funds from his band and the federal government, he secured a spot in a theatre program for aboriginal people in Denmark, where he studied for two years before moving to Italy to study theatre for three more years. He thought of never coming back to "the brutalizing racism, to always feeling under attack, the constant harassment. I didn't want to feel afraid. I felt safer in Europe in the 1980s than here in Saskatchewan."

When he did move back to be near his family, he discovered a more cynical form of segregation: the view in many theatre circles that only natives should play natives. He disagreed, and still does. "A native is a role like any role. Theatre has to be universal."

For Governor of the Dew, a play he recently wrote and directed, he cast non-natives in native roles, to show that theatre can be a bridge. But he knows his view is not widely shared, especially among natives.

After the sweat, Starr returns in his compact car to Regina, listening to a hard-rock music station along the way. AC/DC seems to be a local favourite. He has to adjust his mind to the urban world as the Trans-Canada Highway is transformed into an alleyway of mass consumption, followed by the harsher reality of the native presence downtown.

As Starr sees listless aboriginal people wandering the streets, he wonders if Dead Dog's race humour should be more confrontational, like that of many black U.S. comedians. But he knows that would not sit well with white Canadians, at least not the crowd gathering at the Globe theatre. "They want the noble, tragic, spiritual Indian," he says, "or else they want vaudeville."

They want Chief Dan George or Jasper Friendly Bear. So tonight he will agree to do a bit of vaudeville, because maybe it can carry a message. But he is not always sure what that message is. When Starr turns to the chortling crowd, he will give them lessons in native grunts followed by a new line in conversational Cree.

"Moya Ekosi Jose," the crowd says enthusiastically, having just mastered a useful phrase for treaty negotiations, Jasper says. It translates roughly as, "No Way Jose."

On stage, Starr could carry the entire audience for the hour-long performance. His voice is clear, his language crisp. Even though this is for radio, his rich eyes also seem to captivate the crowd as he holds a section in his gaze and then looks on to the next.

Flaherty is among those enraptured whenever Starr speaks. But her nerves tighten a notch whenever the script turns to Gracie Heavy Hand - in rehearsals, Edna Rain has stumbled repeatedly on the word "acrimonious."

THIS STORY AT A GLANCE (Parts 1 to 7 plus a related story):


Photo Essay
Backstage pass


1. 'I think people in Canada didn't know Indians were funny'
Using humour to force the two societies to re-examine each other, and themselves

2. 'Socially relevant' humour
Using comedy to tell ironic truths, however painful

3. Appealing to the audience
The racier the humour got, the more fan mail came in

4. Forbidden zones
'As long as you don't let the lions and tigers out of the cage, it's okay.'

5. Laughter "is the great leveller" in native society
Finding his way on the stage

6. 'I was tired of being poor'
Edna Rain takes up acting after decades of abuse

7. The curtain falls
The three performers leave the way they arrived - in different directions

Related: Dead Dog Café Listeners react


 
 

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Two worlds - photo essay


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