Found My Way, That Way

by Reneltta Arluk

in Global Connections

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(This post is part of the Canadian theatre salon curated by Chantal Bilodeau for the World Theatre Day 2014/Crossing Borders salon series.)

I chose to cross borders. I had to. Borders were put on me and I didn’t want to walk in circles or squares so I crossed my first border and went outside.

I was nineteen when I met this person who would change my life. I’d just returned from Europe and was staying with my mom in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. At the time I was planning on majoring in Art History. I’d already been on my own for two years and saved up the money I needed to travel Europe. I saw originals of Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Monet, Goya, Dali, etc. Then in Amsterdam on my way to Wales, I got food poisoning and took the next flight home. By the time I got back to Canada, I was shitting blood. Seriously. Customs thought I was smuggling drugs. I may have felt better if I was. I’m sure anything would have felt better.

When I was sixteen, we lived in Great Falls, Montana for a year. It felt like something out of a strange dream. I hung out with military men and went to alternative high school. I wasn’t pregnant but all the other girls were. I got into some trouble then but nothing enduring. So when Mom wanted to go down and visit her friend Sarah and go see this Native performer, I went along for nostalgia. What I didn’t expect was meeting someone who would be so influential in my life. Writing this almost twenty years later is hilarious as I am wiser now and yet, it still remains true.

He was an Apache rock star and Sarah had arranged for him to perform at the University. I skipped the concert to hang with friends but went to the hotel to meet him and his nine-year-old daughter after. When he looked at me, I knew that this meant something. I was young and full of attention deficit disorder, he was struck and I felt it. Conversation ensued about what it was I was interested in, what I was looking to be, if I’d be interested in working for him, if I liked to travel. It all happened so fast and I felt like blood was rushing in my ears to deafness.

When we returned to Edmonton, he called later that week asking if I wanted to fly to Seattle, Washington. He was playing on a reservation near there and wanted to know if I was serious about working for him. I said I was and he booked my flight. We spent the weekend together, platonically, and it was exciting. When the time came to fly back home, I remember staring at the plane where my bags already were and feeling like it wasn’t right. It was then that he looked at me and said he didn’t want me to go. I took one deep breath, looked at him and said the same in return. I then got the airline to give me back my bags and off we went into the unknown. I’d officially crossed the border.

I traveled with this man for six months. When we talked about the first time we met, he said he was visiting with friends earlier that week and they asked him who he was looking for. He said he was looking for his Yoko Ono, then I walked in the room. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for then but it didn’t matter because it came to me anyway. That’s how life is sometimes. For those six months we traveled across the United States for ceremonies, for environmental gatherings, for work, for potential ventures. He was pitching stories in LA, meeting with record company execs in New York and performing where booked. It was an exciting life for this little Dene/Inuvialuit girl from the Northwest Territories. So far from this world, yet there was something else so familiar.

He was an Apache living in two worlds. Roots are roots and our Indigenous roots run deep. That is the gift I carry always from this experience. In between these pitches, meetings and concerts were ceremonies, gatherings and feasts. We went to South Dakota for sun dance. We went to Butte, Montana, then Yosemite National Park for Indigenous Environmental gatherings. We were part of discussions about mother earth, culture, language, dissemination, and land exploitation. We went into sweats. We were part of a peyote ceremony in New Mexico. In Washington, the youth there ran every Sunday like their ancestors used to. I witnessed first hand their pride. Native culture thrived in America and I knew nothing of mine that way.

I call it being on the mountain. I was raised with my First Nations culture through my grandparents and mother, but had never really looked at my culture from a place of awareness. When I left the Apache rock star it was because it was time. He lives a very exciting life, but it wasn’t my life and I needed to forge my own path. I knew that but didn’t know how. Then it came to me. I crossed back over the border and pondered my home of the North. What part of it could I keep alive? Stories. Our stories are our history and identity and I chose that as my life’s purpose. Or perhaps I finally heard its call.

Shortly after that I attended my first theatre school. About a year after that, I got into a prestigious acting program and became the first Indigenous woman to graduate from it. I’ve been fortunate to learn some of our Indigenous stories, to tell my own and help others tell theirs. There have been many new border crossings since then. I use them as markers now, like lights that guide. I do my best and hope that each step connects to the last one and that the next step takes me closer to where I am to be.

Reneltta Arluk is an actor, playwright, and author of Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and Chipewyan-Cree descent. She was born and raised in the Northwest Territories, but currently resides as a nomad with roots in Yellowknife, NT and Vancouver, BC. She is a graduate of the BFA Acting program from the University of Alberta and founder of Akpik Theatre, a professional Indigenous Theatre company in the NWT. Raised by her grandparents on the trap-line until school age, in a nomadic original environment, gave Reneltta the skills to become the artist she is. For over ten years Reneltta has been a part of, or initiated, the creation of Aboriginal Theatre across various parts of Canada and overseas.